Dominic O’Sullivan: The role of Te Tiriti in boosting local government

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Tino Rangatiratanga flag
The Tino Rangatiratanga flag stands for more than partnership between races. Image: APR File

ANALYSIS: By Professor Dominic O’Sullivan

At this year’s local government elections, average voter turnout was 36 percent. This is comparable to the 2019 figure. It compares with voter turnout of 81.5 percent at the last general election.

Local Government New Zealand says that a review into why people don’t vote should be carried out before the next elections in 2025.

We need to know how many people didn’t vote because they didn’t receive their ballot papers and what practical obstacles to voting might have occurred.

We also need to know how many people just couldn’t be bothered, and if some people made a conscious choice not to vote. A conscious choice is a legitimate democratic decision.

Wayne Brown’s campaign for the Auckland mayoralty may have succeeded partly because it targeted people who traditionally vote — property owners and people over 50. People who are less likely to be Māori.

However, positioning Māori as Treaty partners to the Crown may also be a factor, because it overshadows The Māori citizenship as a share in the Crown’s authority to govern.

Participating in the affairs of government is a greater political authority than partnership. The state is a large and powerful institution and always the senior partner in the relationships it forms. Its partners may have a voice, but they don’t have the right to help make decisions. Decision-making is the task of the participant.

Democracy requires complementary participation
While there are examples of council/Māori partnerships that work well, democracy requires that they complement participation, rather than take its place.

Te Tiriti wasn’t a partnership between races. It was an agreement over the distribution of political authority. Rangatiratanga, as an independent Māori authority over Māori affairs, on the one hand, and the right of the British Crown to establish government on the other.

Fa'anānā Efeso Collins (left) and Wayne Brown
Auckland’s new mayor, Wayne Brown (right), may have succeeded at the election against Fa’anānā Efeso Collins by targeting people who own property and people over 50 – people who are less likely to be Māori. Image: RNZ News

Te Tiriti didn’t intend that the rights of government should override the rights of rangatiratanga. Indeed, it provided a check against this outcome by granting Māori the rights and privileges of British subjects.

In 1840 those rights and privileges were not extensive. But, in 2022 they have developed into the rights, privileges and political capacities of New Zealand citizenship.

Most importantly, citizenship means that everybody has the right and obligation to participate in public decision-making. They should expect that their contributions have the same likelihood of influence as anybody else’s.

Nobody should have reason to feel so alienated from the system that they can’t see the point of voting. Māori wards are supposed to guard against this possibility by supporting active participation and influence.

Influence means being able to participate with reference to culture and colonial context.

Yet, in 2019, the Iwi Chairs’ Forum commissioned a report on constitutional transformation, Matike Mai Aotearoa.

Ethnically exclusive Pakeha body
It comments on what rangatiratanga looks like, but it sees citizenship as the domain of its partner, the Crown. It sees the Crown as an ethnically exclusive Pakeha body governing only for “its people”.

In other words, government is for other people. It’s not for us because rangatiratanga is where our exclusive political authority lies. Our relationship with government is as Treaty partner.

Another view is that rangatiratanga and citizenship are different but complementary. While voting doesn’t matter if one is a partner, it’s essential if one is a participant. Participation means, as Justice Joe Williams, argued, that, there is a need for a mindset shift away from the pervasive assumption that the Crown is Pākehā [non-Māori], English-speaking, and distinct from Māori rather than representative of them.

“Increasingly, in the 21st century, the Crown is also Māori. If the nation is to move forward, this reality must be grasped.”

In 2022, I was commissioned by the Ministerial Review into the Future for Local Government to write a discussion paper on Māori and local government.

The review is required to consider Treaty partnership. But it has also decided to be “bold” in its thinking.

Boldness could mean strengthening Te Tiriti and democracy by thinking beyond partnership as a treaty principle, established by the Court of Appeal in 1987, to thinking about the real substance of rangatiratanga and citizenship.

Local government functions by iwi
Rangatiratanga could mean that not all local government functions need to be carried out by councils. There may be some that are more logically and justly carried out by iwi, hapu, marae, or other Māori political communities.

The ideal that decisions are best made at the point closest to where their effects are experienced is a well-established democratic principle.

Citizenship is different from rangatiratanga but especially important because if Māori are, like everybody else, shareholders in the Crown’s authority to govern, then they are entitled to make culturally distinctive contributions to council decisions.

They are also entitled to expect that councils’ powers and decision-making processes will work for them as well as they work for anybody else.

Increasing voter turnout depends on people believing that councils make a positive contribution to their lives.

Professor Dominic O’Sullivan (Te Rarawa, Ngāti Kahu) is adjunct professor at Auckland University of Technology’s (AUT) Taupua Waiora Centre for Māori Health Research, and professor of political science at Charles Sturt University in Australia. He is also a contributor to Asia Pacific Report. This article was first published by Stuff and is republished with the author’s permission.

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