Editorial: Sharples is wrong

Last updated 05:00 23/03/2010

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OPINION: At regular intervals the Maori Party co-leader, Pita Sharples, makes statements guaranteed to raise the hackles of many New Zealanders.

His latest offering was to describe the principles of "one vote for one person" and "democratic elections" as artificial political concoctions.

This comment was made in a speech delivered in Auckland on Sunday to mark Race Relations Day. Sharples' complaint was that a proposal from the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance to have three designated Maori members on the new super-city council had not been implemented.

In the commission's view there should have been two members elected by voters on the Maori electoral rolls and one appointed by a Mana Whenua Forum. Separate representation, according to Sharples, was justified by the historic role played by local iwi, notably Ngati Whatua in the development of Auckland.

But he claimed that the artificial political concoctions which he cited had been used to block Maori seats on the new council.

Sharples would have been on safer ground had he stuck to the desirability of separate representation on the super-city council for which there is a case, as it would reflect the significant proportion of Maori in Auckland and the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.

But to criticise cornerstones of our democratic system of governance does a disservice to the pioneers of electoral reform in Britain and New Zealand, especially as Sharples was speaking as Maori Affairs Minister and not as his party's co-leader. Over centuries the franchise was widened until the present position was reached in which, with very few exceptions, all those 18 years and older have one vote, or two under MMP.

The advent of proportional representation in New Zealand ensured that elections were more democratic than under the preceding first-past-the-post system.

The present system is not perfect. At the last election, for example, ACT New Zealand won 3.65 per cent of the party vote, which was beneath the 5 per cent threshold yet qualified for four list seats because of the victory of its leader, Rodney Hide, in the Epsom electorate.

But despite New Zealand First gaining just over four per cent of the party vote, its failure to win an electorate saw it locked out of Parliament. It might also be noted that the Maori Party itself gained just 2.39 per cent of the party vote, with its five electorate seats creating an overhang of two MPs.

Maori have been major winners out of the recent move to more democratic elections. A generation ago it was unusual to have Maori MPs in Parliament, outside of the Maori seats, of which there were then four, with politicians such as Winston Peters in general seats the exception rather than the rule. And because the Maori seats had been regarded as rock solid Labour seats since the 1930s, the MPs elected were largely taken for granted.

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Today, there are seven Maori seats and Sharples' party has been a major beneficiary of this increase, and the two mainstream parties, National and Labour, now routinely select Maori candidates for safe electorates or give them winnable list positions.

Sharples also spoke in his speech about his party's difficult and stressful support arrangement with National. It is true that on some issues, including Maori representation on the super-city council, his party has been rebuffed by National.

But this is in the nature of MMP politics. Support parties cannot expect to achieve all policies on their wish-lists and, as New Zealand First discovered a decade ago, the perception that the tail of a small party was wagging the dog can be counter-productive.

Yet the Maori Party has gained policy concessions from National. The foreshore and seabed legislation, which was the catalyst for the party's formation, will be repealed, Whanau Ora is being developed, the Cabinet has agreed to recognise a Maori flag, Maori Television will broadcast Rugby World Cup games next year and Treaty claims continue to be settled.

Maori still languish behind much of the rest of the country in most socio-economic statistics as well as being over-represented in prison musters. The Maori Party has a key role to play in improving this position and persuading National that failing to do so will be costly for New Zealand society.

This sort of dialogue, as well as the policy wins gained, are very much part of a political process triggered by democratic elections under the one person, one vote system which, Sharples' view notwithstanding, are certainly not artificial concoctions.

- The Press

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