Generalising Maori. Maori in general seats in the future

Colin James’s paper to the Maori in Parliament conference, 9 May 2009

I signed up to talk about the future, which officially is the next panel, and then found myself assigned to talk about “Maori in general seats”. But when you come to think of it, that invites contemplation of the future, of Maori as full citizens. So that is what I shall talk about.

I do so in the context of an assumption, or presumption, that in 2009, as in 1840, the imperative for Maori is, and was, dignity and prosperity in an internationalised world. For Maori the political imperative in 2009, as in 1840, is a place and influence in the power structure that enhances iwi and individual mana and facilitates the enhancement of life chances and thereby prosperity. For the great majority of the time since 1840 that place in the power structure has been denied to Maori. Only very recently have Maori begun truly to acquire, in limited measure, influence in the power structure, in part because they have found the means and have had the numbers to reach for it and in part because only very recently has the majority acknowledged merit in the claim.

Consequently, we are in transition. No one can know the endpoint of that transition, though many have strong prejudices, expectations or hopes. But a reasonable assumption for the backdrop of that endpoint is that Maori will not be marginal. Maori will be more “general” but what that “general” will be is also not confidently knowable.

Consider the promise of article 3 of the Treaty of Waitangi. Translated into modern language, article 3 promises “citizenship”. Maori are to be full members of this society, as they were in 1840 to be full “subjects” of the Queen. For Maori to be full members of this society requires respect for Maori heritage and culture — dignity — and a capacity for the maximum practicable proportion of Maori to do well in education, health status and economic performance — prosperity. That is no more and no less than those whose heritage is European and whose culture is descended from the European. Maori know this because they are also European.

This is easily said but not easily done. It requires the reconciliation of two different worldviews and therefore two different ways of doing things. The politics of that reconciliation are complex and sometimes fraught.

Consider this recent observation by a notable English left-leaning philosopher, Terry Eagleton, writing on civilisation and culture in a multicultural context: “No cultural belief is ever extended to sizable groups of newcomers without being transformed in the process. A common culture is not one in which everyone believes the same thing but one in which everyone has equal status in cooperatively determining a way of life in common. If this is to include those from cultural traditions that are currently marginal, then the culture we are likely to end up with will be very different from the one we have now.” (1)

In other words — that is to say, in my words — applying that analysis to New Zealand, making room for a minority culture, or way of doing things, changes the majority culture, the majority way of doing things.

Iwi found that out the hard way. Having invited the English in — or acceded to English requests to come in — iwi found their way of life changed radically and irrevocably within a quarter of a century by the newcomers.

Over the past quarter-century the descendants of the victors in that cultural takeover have been themselves learning that lesson in reverse, though in an attenuated and, I think, a benign form. It is not possible to accord due respect to a minority culture, to accord it equal respect in formal terms, as we have done here, without the minority culture changing the majority culture — again irrevocably. As I have written and spoken elsewhere at length for some years, this nation is once again of the Pacific, not just in it.

That profound change is at the heart of the Maori-in-Parliament story in the recent past and for the proximate future. It is being played out in a minor key in the argument over reserving seats on Auckland’s supercouncil for Maori. My guess on that issue is that the government will find a face-saving backdown in the select committee process.

The crucial point is that our politics operates by majorities. Parliament is a majoritarian institution. During the long darkness that descended upon iwi after Britain conferred self-government on the settlers, iwi were a minority. To defend or advance their interests, iwi depended on the goodwill of people who had conflicting interests and on a powerful institution, Parliament, which validated those conflicting interests at the expense of iwi interests. Only when iwi were able to persuade the new masters, could they advance their interests. That was not easy to do by way of the four seats out of 80 reserved for Maori from 1867 to the third quarter of the twentieth.

The settlers applied a powerful logic. Representing, as they saw it, the most advanced civilisation on earth, they assumed iwi would dissolve and Maori would become, as article 3 of the Treaty of Waitangi stated, imperial subjects — in today’s parlance, as noted above, citizens. That is, they would be individuals alongside, and intermarried with, British individuals in a single culture and one-person-one-vote would suffice to serve their interests because their interests were individual, not collective, and were assumed to be identical in cultural, spiritual and material terms to those of the British.

In short, the general seats were the real seats. To make their way in majoritarian politics, Maori had to win general seats. But that required Maori to adopt, and operate by, the majority’s ethic. It was a classic catch-22.

The Young Maori party of early last century understood that logic and its majoritarian power and attempted both to join the British in their economic and civic projects and to preserve Maori legacy and custom. They joined the system but also did their best to conserve the marae.

But they remained marginal. To make a case for Maori interests, Maori had to resort to other means: the courts, which were broadly unsympathetic, advisory boards (as the government has proposed for Auckland) and lobbying sympathetic MPs. Even then it was on the majority’s terms. Politics for Maori was indeed a long darkness.

What exactly did Maori have to sign up to in order to make their way in general seats? Western post-Enlightenment civilisation and citizenship. In modern terms, Eagleton describes it thus: “Western civilisation … skates by on believing as little as it decently can … an unholy melange of practical materialism, political pragmatism, moral and cultural relativism and philosophical scepticism. … Civilisation … means the universal, autonomous, prosperous individual, rationally speculative, self-doubting and ironic.”

Another English philosopher, Roger Scruton, a conservative, contrasting citizenship and the “brotherhood” of strong religious or cultural belief, describes citizenship as a liberal concept that requires citizens’ agreement on the principles of government and participation in law-making (tacitly, at least) but leaves belief to the individual: “Citizenship,” Scruton says, “is a relation [sic] among strangers, a collective apartness, in which fulfilment and meaning are confined to the private sphere.” He draws a gloomy deduction: citizenship is “emptiness and defeat, a sense that nothing is left to believe in or endorse, save only the freedom to believe. And [that] is neither a belief nor a freedom.” (2)

That is a stark contrast with whakapapa, which I take to be connectedness to all things, to the past and the future, and especially connectedness to one’s ancestors and relatives. That binding together in the mysteries and actualities of relationships is a kind of Scrutonic “brotherhood” or, we should add, “sisterhood”. In the Eagletonian schema, it is “culture”, by which he “means the customary, collective, passionate, spontaneous, unreflective, unironic and a-rational. … Culture is a matter of affirming what you are or have been.” It is certainly not “emptiness and defeat”.

I think some iwi and Maori argument in the debate of the past 170 years and particularly the past 30 years has exhibited “culture” in this sense. But it is incomprehensible to most of those in the majority who subscribe, however unwittingly, to the “citizenship” way of life.

So if we are all to be “citizens”, how is that to be reflected in the way we organise our politics and in the way Maori are represented in Parliament and other representative institutions, now that we can no longer assume Maori will become imperial subjects?

Tariana Turia said, quoting Martin Luther King in a speech on Wednesday: “We may have all come on different ships but we’re in the same boat now.” She extended the connections inherent in whakapapa to “the peoples of the Pacific, to tauiwi, to our refugee and migrant communities”.

Set aside Martin Luther King’s failure to recognise that the first-nation peoples of America came not by ship but on foot and that he thereby overlooked indigenous rights. Forty years ago I learnt that Maori saw the United States parallel not with blacks but with what we then called Indians. Since Martin Luther King indigenous rights have gained much credence internationally, even to the extent of a United Nations declaration. In this country indigenous rights arguments have underlain many of the arguments for stronger political representation and influence. The demand for representation on the Auckland council is essentially one of indigenous rights, an issue of mana. The Maori party in Parliament sees itself as representing the Treaty of Waitangi partner, not just another party or an ethnic minority party.

But, as Tariana Turia says, “we are all in the same boat”. But what sort of boat is it and how is crewed? How are we to keep it from listing heavily or breaking up or sinking? That question goes to the heart of our politics. And it goes to the heart of the topic for this session: what will become of “general seats”?

The answer to that question is in part the obverse of what becomes of the Maori seats.

Look out 25 years. Several factors suggest the seats will still be in our political system. One driver is demographic: Maori will be a greater proportion of the population, given that around 24% of the under-18s are Maori. On the face of it, this suggests the constituency for keeping the seats might grow. A second driver is mana: iwi and activists may succeed in making abolition of the seats a fraught and divisive event, from which ultimately our changing society will draw back. A third driver is the operation of the political and electoral system. First, if the system is changed in a way that reduces the proportion of Maori in Parliament, the moral and equity case — and possibly Ann Sullivan’s and Janine Hayward’s intriguing agency argument — will carry some weight. Second, the proportion of Maori opting for the Maori roll may stall or fall — contrary to Nanaia Mahuta’s belief, young people were no more likely in 2006 to choose to enrol on the Maori roll than any other age group, there are just more of them in total — and the Maori seats may then continue to be tolerated by the majority as a non-threatening historical anachronism, a harmless and convenient gesture rather like keeping the Queen.

Several other factors suggest the Maori seats will be gone in 25 years. Demographic change and the exercise of the Maori option may drive up the proportion of seats in Parliament to the point where the majority sees them as inappropriate or as a reverse discrimination, unbalancing Tariana Turia’s boat. The high likelihood that Asians will form a significantly greater proportion of our population — maybe exceeding the proportion of Maori over a 25-year timeframe — may add weight to the majority’s perturbation. The mana of the seats may become less critical to iwi as they become a growing weight in the economy, society and politics as a result of asset transfers under the Treaty of Waitangi reparations process and the rise of an educated, able middle class and, as a consequence, the influence iwi and Maori seek may be sufficiently achievable through informal and non-parliamentary political channels. And as to the political drivers, if the proportion of Maori seats does rise significantly and MPs in those seats become critical to the formation of governments and, too often for the majority’s liking, extract concessions that have the appearance of appeasing special interests, the pressure for abolition will grow. That will be all the more so if the proportion of MPs who are Maori persistently exceeds the proportion of Maori in the population.

My guess is that sometime over the next 25 years the drivers for abolition will outweigh the drivers for retention. Part of my reason for making that guess is that it is becoming unremarkable that there are MPs in general seats who are Maori — I include list seats as general seats because there is no separate roll for the party vote. I think MPs who are Maori in general seats will become even less remarkable as the Maori middle class increasingly occupies positions of influence and power in the economy and society. And I think that will be the case even if the electoral system is changed in such a way that the list is a smaller element of Parliament because Maori will be a larger proportion of all significant parties.

Note that I have said “MPs who are Maori”. A fair proportion of all MPs who are Maori will not be Maori MPs but general MPs (at least in all but their whakapapa) — that is, they will not see themselves first as Maori, the Treaty of Waitangi partner, but first as MPs. This is the case with a number of MPs-who-are-Maori now and if anything it is likely to be more the case in 25 years than now.

I don’t mean by that that this society will be a blancmange of homogeneity. We are long past that mistake. Maori culture and custom are distinct, assured and now being modernised in the arts and in practice. There is also, among the ex-British, an increasingly assured and distinct culture and custom that is indigenous to this place. Each culture and custom is modifying the other. The “mainstream” is increasing infused by Maori culture and custom. The haka in due course will have English words. So, while the crewmembers of Tariana Turia’s boat that we are all in wear a variety of uniforms and have different duties, they — and we — are all in the boat.

In other words, to come back to my assigned topic, what constitutes a “general” seat is changing. A general seat is no longer a “not-Maori” seat. Exactly how “general” will look in 25 years is not confidently predictable. For example, the State Sector Act and the Public Finance Act are likely to need some adjustment to better accommodate Maori custom as some of the services deemed necessary to ensure full citizenship under article 3 are delivered under mechanisms consonant with article 2. Some of the practices and forms of political and electoral organisation are also likely to change as we adjust both culture and citizenship to keep Tariana Turia’s boat shipshape.

That directs us to a point both Shane Jones and Nanaia Mahuta made yesterday: that at some time our politics will evolve beyond the bicultural. If it does, and I think it will, it will be “general”, based on some new form of “citizenship”, which will necessarily be in some way reconciled with “culture”, no longer Scruton’s and Eagleton’s “emptiness” but nevertheless preserving the Enlightenment’s important freedoms. So “general” in 25 years will not be what “general” was 25 years ago. Too much has changed. Too much will change.


1. Eagleton, Terry, Culture & Barbarism. Metaphysics in a Time of Terrorism, Commonweal, 27 March 2009 volCXXXVI, No 5

2. Scruton, Roger, Forgiveness and Irony. What makes the West strong, City Journal, winter 2009

3. Turia, Hon Tariana, Recession in the Midst, speech to Te Wai Pounamu Alcohol and Drug, Mental Health, Gambling and other Addictions Connections Hui, 7 May 2009