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Graham Adams: A bill to give some voters more power than others in Rotorua’s council elections makes the government’s disregard for democracy clear.
Graham Adams
Contributing Writer
April 20th, 2022

OPINION: It is hardly surprising that the question of equal political rights for all New Zealanders is becoming a very touchy subject for Jacinda Ardern. Mid-way through her second term, that question is becoming every bit as sensitive for the Prime Minister as mention of KiwiBuild or a capital gains tax was in her first.

A major difference, of course, is that KiwiBuild and a CGT were policies she openly promoted and campaigned on in 2017. However, a comprehensive and far-reaching co-governance project to give more political rights to unelected iwi members and Māori voters never featured in her campaign for 2020’s “Covid” election.

Unfortunately, the very first clause of the Labour Party constitution inconveniently speaks against such manoeuvres:

All political authority comes from the people by democratic means including universal suffrage, regular and free elections with a secret ballot.

The principle of equal voting power is also enshrined in the NZ Bill of Rights Act 1990. Section 12 provides that:

Every New Zealand citizen who is of or over the age of 18 years has the right to vote in genuine periodic elections of members of the House of Representatives, which elections shall be by equal suffrage and by secret ballot…

It was hardly a surprise then that Ardern couldn’t sit down quickly enough in her prime ministerial seat in Parliament on March 29 after David Seymour asked: 

Does she stand by her statement at Waitangi in 2019 that ‘Equality is our foundation’, and, if so, does she believe that our constitutional foundation should be equal political rights for all New Zealanders?

Ardern quickly got to her feet and replied:

In answer to the first part of the question, yes.

She sat down just as quickly, obviously rattled. 

It is true that standing orders allow the minister to address only one part of a two-legged question but why wouldn’t the Prime Minister jump at the chance to say: "Yes, equal rights for all has been the animating dream of New Zealand, from the Treaty to Kate Sheppard to the Marriage Equality Act?"

March 29, of course, clearly wasn’t the most propitious day to mount such a principled defence. That day the Government introduced a bill to Parliament that would skew the principle of “one person, one vote, where all votes are equal” in favour of voters on the Māori roll in Rotorua council elections.

The Rotorua District Council (Representation Arrangements) Bill has failed to sound alarm bills in the mainstream media but it should. It’s not as if the Government is hiding its intentions. Tamati Coffey — the Labour list MP driving the law change — admitted in Parliament he is looking to “tweak democracy”.

Alongside four 'at large' seats, the bill will allow 22,000 voters on the Māori roll to elect three ward councillors while 56,000 voters on the general roll will also elect three ward councillors.

Therefore, people in a general ward will have only 39 per cent of the voting power of those in a Māori ward. Or, to put it another way, each voter on the Māori roll will have roughly 2.5 times the voting power of someone on the general roll.

The bill passed its first reading 77-43. Labour, the Greens and the Māori Party voted in favour while National and Act voted against. 

Public submissions, which close at 11.59pm on April 20, have been shoehorned into two weeks. And they will be considered by the Māori Affairs select committee, which looks at matters related to Māori affairs and Treaty of Waitangi negotiations, rather than the Governance and Administration committee, which looks at matters related to local government. 

Coffey chairs the Māori Affairs Committee.

The bill is before Parliament because the model proposed by the Rotorua council for electing councillors is illegal under existing electoral law. The Local Electoral Act requires wards to be approximately the same size, in order to maintain the democratic principle of equal voting power for each voter, or as near as is possible. 

Coffey doesn’t appear to understand why there might be a fuss over his bill even though it will subvert equal suffrage in Rotorua — and one that, some critics fear, will provide a precedent for other council elections throughout New Zealand. And perhaps ultimately for Parliament as well.

Coffey’s view of democracy is idiosyncratic, to say the least. He made an impassioned — if confused — speech to Parliament on April 6 on the occasion of the bill’s first reading that traversed more than 2500 years of history in a few sentences: 

There’s lots of kōrero and lots of calls for democracy, because, actually, people across New Zealand have become really wedded to this idea of democracy being one way. Can I say to the people of New Zealand and all of those people that are listening to this that are thinking about putting in submissions: democracy, at its very fundamental, is Greek. The parliamentary process that we partake in right here, that we've cut and pasted for our Chamber, right here, is actually English; this is from a Westminster system. There is nothing to preclude us being able to tweak democracy to make it work for us here in Aotearoa.

It is surprising that someone who has an honours degree in political science from the University of Auckland thinks giving Māori substantially more voting power than non-Māori in council elections is a mere “tweak”.

But to Coffey — the amiable former TV personality who starred in New Zealand’s Got Talent, Intrepid Journeys, and kids’ staple What Now? — the idea of equal voting rights no matter your race, colour, sex or position in society is apparently an antique notion and unnecessary in modern New Zealand.

Democracy is evidently a tweakable feast for his leader too. In the exchange in the House on March 29, Seymour put another question to the Prime Minister: “Does she agree with this statement:

All political authority comes from the people by democratic means including universal suffrage, regular and free elections with a secret ballot’, and, if so, how is that consistent with more and more governance roles being appointed along ethnic lines instead of elected?

This time, Ardern asserted:

Of course, I support the longstanding principles of democracy in this nation, but the idea that that cannot sit alongside Te Tiriti o Waitangi, I take issue with that. We are more sophisticated than that, surely, than to take such a simplistic view.

Like Coffey, democracy for Jacinda Ardern also appears to mean something other than “equal political rights for all New Zealanders”. In fact, in her mind, it appears that believing in such a quaint notion lacks sophistication and is “simplistic”.

The Rotorua representation bill fully exposes Ardern’s rejection of the principle of “one person, one vote, of equal weight” that was sealed by the introduction of women’s suffrage in 1893 and that has been a fundamental feature of New Zealand’s democratic electoral systems throughout the 20th century and into the early 21st.

When it suits her, Ardern presents herself as a pious and loyal defender of democracy, even as she is simultaneously subverting it with a pervasive push towards co-governance with unelected iwi.

She certainly made a show of her loyalty to democratic ideals at a press conference at Parliament on March 2. As police were battling anti-mandate protesters outside, Ardern repeatedly used the word “desecrated” to describe their occupation of Parliament’s lawn.

She made much of Parliament belonging to all of us:

I was both angry and also saddened to see the Parliament… your Parliament… our Parliament… desecrated in that way.

She also said the protest had:

culminated in the desecration of this Parliament’s grounds… the people’s Parliament… our democracy.

Historians will barely remember the protest outside Parliament but Ardern’s sustained attempt at the “desecration” of “our democracy” within Parliament will be long remembered as a critical juncture in our history — no matter whether her anti-democratic plans for implementing co-governance remain embedded or are ultimately overturned.

Unfortunately, the woman who promised after her landslide win in 2020 to “govern for all New Zealanders” will be remembered not as the champion of democracy and equal suffrage but as its determined foe.

Submissions on the Rotorua District Council (Representation Arrangements) Bill close at 11.59pm on April 20.

Graham Adams is a freelance editor, journalist and columnist. He lives on Auckland’s North Shore.