Ngai Tahu are given governance privileges in Canterbury and Willie Jackson gives us a rundown on “the new democracy”

Concerns about the constitutional implications of the Canterbury Regional Council (Ngāi Tahu Representation) Bill were overwhelmed by a tsunami of Labour hubris and ballyhoo in Parliament yesterday.  The weight of numbers against upholding liberal democratic values  in the governance of our local authorities resulted in the Bill being supported by 77 votes (Labour 65; Green Party 10;  Māori Party 2) to 43 (National 33; ACT 10).

And so – because a highly contentious interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi has been deemed to over-ride the notion that all citizens should have equal rights – one group of people in Canterbury will be spared the need to campaign for electoral support and can simply appoint representatives to two permanent seats on the Canterbury Regional Council.

As National’s Paul Goldsmith explained during the debate, the legislation allows for 14 councillors in Canterbury to be elected by everyone in the community, including Māori.  And then, after those 14 councillors are elected, Ngāi Tahu will appoint two more.

“So, this is not a question of Māori wards in Canterbury, proportional to the population and democratically elected. It is about the appointments of two councillors on top of what has been a one person, one vote election.”

This is contrary to two principles that have been important to our democracy:

  • Equal suffrage (or equal voting rights for all New Zealanders), enshrined in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act and in the Human Rights Act, which disallows discrimination on ethnic grounds.
  • Electoral accountability and the threat of being thrown out of office at the next election.

But “democracy” did not come into the arguments of Rino Tirikatene (Labour MP for Te Tai Tonga) when he moved that the Bill be read a third time.  Nor did he use the word at any time in his speech.  

He did describe the legislation he was championing as “an historic bill”.

It certainly is. 

So, too, was the Electoral Act 1893, which gave all adult women in New Zealand the right to vote in the general election held on 28 November that year (with some exceptions, such as ‘aliens’ and inmates of prisons and asylums). 

This introduced the admirable concept of universal suffrage, giving the right to vote to all adult citizens, regardless of wealth, income, gender, social status, race, ethnicity, political stance, or any other restriction, subject only to relatively minor exceptions.

The Bill sponsored by Tirikatane undoes that by giving special governance privileges to a community group based on their ethnicity and historical ties to the Canterbury region.

Tirikatane portended the same privileges being granted to Māori tribes elsewhere:  

“This bill is about the evolution of our Treaty partnership and representation of Māori, of iwi, at the local government level.”

He acknowledged his belief (and Labour’s) that representation on public bodies should be determined not according to democratic principles but according to the Ardern Government’s interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi:  

“Ngāi Tahu are entitled to this representation. They’re entitled to this representation because that is the promise of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and this is a modern-day expression of that promise.”

He declared he wouldn’t be listening to Opposition concerns about the undermining of our democracy because his side of the argument had the numbers to carry the day:  

“I’m not going to entertain the debates from the other side, because this is a time of celebrating the passage of this bill. I recall that in 2019, when we failed to pass an earlier iteration of this bill, I remember saying at that time that we will be back. I remember saying that our great maunga—our sacred maunga, Aoraki—is patient and is watchful.

“I’m so delighted that we waited our turn and we have come back to this House. We have come back with this legislation, and we have the numbers to pass it into law.”

Tamati Coffey,  the Labour List MP who chairs the Maori Affairs select committee which considered the Bill, avoided any mention of the word ”democracy”, too.  

He took issue with National Party MPs who have said they will repeal this legislation.

“They have drawn a line in the sand and they said that they are going to absolutely repeal this bill. They need to be held accountable for that.”


That’s a laudable idea.

They will be held accountable at the ballot box, presumably.

Coffey saw no irony in supporting legislation that will ensure Ngai Tahu appointees to the Canterbury Regional Council are cocooned from the voters who can hold all other council members to account at local body elections.

 But he did acknowledge that the Bill he supported serves as a  precedent for other tribes: 

“Ngāi Tahu have opened the door. And for that reason, all of those iwi out there that are struggling with how representation works for them in their rohe, I hope that they’re understanding that this is a potential pathway.”  

So how will the new arrangements deprive voters of their right to hold all councillors accountable?

Tangi Utikere  (Labour MP for Palmerston North) gave us a rundown: 

“The suggestion that these changes will introduce disproportionate representation I cannot fathom, because this leads to increased, improved, and advancement on representation within a local community context.

“The suggestion that Ngāi Tahu directors will fill up to two seats around the council table—that is a matter for Ngāi Tahu. That is a matter for them to consider who the best individuals will be to represent their communities around a local decision-making table that represents communities of interest.”

Overlooking the undermining of electoral accountability, Utikere was ebullient:  

“… this is a bill that will pass through the Parliament today. That means it is a day to rejoice and celebrate, because local democracy is being returned to the people of Canterbury, but more specifically to the people who Ngāi Tahu represent.”

Labour Cabinet Minister Willie Jackson mentioned “democracy” in his speech, too.  Many times.

He said Ngai Tahu elder Tipene O’Regan must have had a good laugh at Paul Goldsmith’s speech,

“… when we had someone talking about democracy who is a product of the new democracy with his dirty, rotten, filthy deal in Epsom. He’s forgotten about the new democracy, where his leader did a deal with the ACT Party and put him in on the list. Oh, no, democracy doesn’t count there because that’s a dirty, rotten, filthy deal between the National Party and the ACT Party. Oh, no we’ll forget about that—the rorting of democracy only applies to Māori! So, shame on you, Mr Goldsmith.”


“What makes the struggle for equality under the Treaty so much more difficult is when our colleagues on the right pull political stunts to manipulate Kiwis’ ignorance of our past by weaponising the one person, one vote principle.

“It is a disgrace that the right would use such spiteful dog-whistles—I was going to say ‘racist’ and I think I can say that with right-wingers, can’t I, Mr Speaker; I’m not talking about anyone in particular—by claiming that the honouring of the Treaty amounts to a desecration of the one person, one vote democratic value when there are multiple examples from the very democratic tradition that they pretend to care about that shows that one person, one vote is but one value within the democracy, not the only value.”

Jackson cited the House of Lords, the US Electoral College and the US Senate as examples of institutions with different voting arrangements – then  he added MMP in this country, because it provides for one person, two votes.

Conveniently overlooking the critical concept of “vote” and “votes”, he demanded:

“Why are Māori having to explain democracy to those who claim to protect it? The right would not for one moment claim that America or the UK were not democracies, yet we in New Zealand, a country that has ‘one person, two votes’ extends the universal suffrage of representation promised to us as Māori.”

Jackson brought the 2017 general election result into an argument that is not easy to grasp: 

“This Government is an example of the new democracy. We got 37 percent, they got 44 percent. We became the Government—that couldn’t have happened; under MMP, that’s the new democracy.“

More plainly, he declared that Ngai Tahu are entitled to privileged governance arrangements under the Treaty of Waitangi: 

“What does the Opposition not understand about a new democracy?

“The representation of Ngāi Tahu on the Canterbury Regional Council for some reason scares them. It scares their friend Mike Hosking on Newstalk ZB so much, but Mike doesn’t need to be frightened by Māori gaining what’s been promised to them under the Treaty.”


“This is a maturing of our democracy. We seek to frame co-governance as a positive way forward. The right frames it as a racist evil by manufacturing ‘one person, one vote’ outrage, when the very democratic system they claim to defend allows for many values that go beyond that.”

The Green Party’s Eugenie Sage mentioned democracy, too.

She said the Bill provides for representation of Ngāi Tahu as mana whenua, as a decision maker and not just an adviser at the council table,

“… and it’s critical because it strengthens democracy. It doesn’t diminish it, as the National Party is alleging. It strengthens it because it’s adding two additional representatives at the council table, ensuring that there will be a strong voice for Ngāi Tahu and active participation in decisions there.”


But if adding two additional representatives strengthens democracy, then it is reasonable to suppose that adding three representatives would strengthen it further  – and four would make it even stronger.

Why not 20 more? Or 100?

We don’t have to be too sage to recognise the absurdity of that line of reasoning – or to condemn the outcome of the vote at the end of the debate.  

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