Maria Bargh is a professor of politics and Māori studies who’s been involved in dozens of kaupapa to examine and uphold Māori rights to tino rangatiratanga.
One of her current roles is deputy chair of the Independent Electoral Review Panel, which is charged with reviewing our general election laws and procedures.
Here she’s explaining to Connie Buchanan why she decided to take part in a process that promises incremental rather than immediate, transformational change for Māori.
I’ve spent many years researching Māori politics and watching what happens in our Māori political world, among our hapū and iwi, to get an understanding of where people are putting their participation energy.
I’ve also spent a lot of time watching general elections and observing what happens in our parliament.
What I’ve seen is that there are so many areas where Māori are extremely active in politics, but voting in general elections is not always one of them.
I’ve heard all the kōrero about why Māori are put off. Sometimes it’s the nature of the campaigning leading up to the vote, or sometimes it’s things that happen in the polling booth itself. For example, many Māori have been frustrated to find they’re stuck on one electoral roll, and they want to swap but they can’t do that on election day. Even though, from 2020, we saw the rules change so that you can enrol as a new voter on the same day as you go to vote, you still can’t switch between the general and the Māori roll on election day.
These are the sorts of things that point to the different treatment that has been baked into the system for a long time.
It goes right back to the creation of the Māori electorates by the settler government in 1867. The Māori seats were capped by the settlers at four and then prevented from increasing as the population grew. Whereas the general electorate seats expanded as the numbers of non-Māori grew.
And in 1867, those four seats were already too few if you were basing your calculations purely on population, let alone on the guarantees made to Māori in Te Tiriti. And as the population dynamic changed dramatically, it increasingly weakened the power of the Māori vote in those four seats. That didn’t change until we shifted our electoral system to MMP.
So you can see why Māori view the electoral system as having inequities baked into it. That’s just one example of the things which have put people off trusting the electoral process and which have affected Māori voting rates.
So, to me, having a comprehensive review of the electoral system seemed a good place to put my own energies, particularly given that, within the terms of reference, one of the objectives was to look at ways for the Crown to uphold its Te Tiriti obligations in electoral law. I wanted to be part of trying to make that happen.
Still, when we talked to Māori groups in the first round of consultation, one of the real frustrations that we heard was: “Why aren’t you looking at constitutional change? Why are you tinkering with the electoral system and the Act when there’s constitutional transformation that needs to happen?”
Their view was, if we focused on transformation, there’d be a flow-on effect to everything else.
We’ve heard those frustrations, and in our report, we encourage Māori and the Crown to continue to work together in partnership to have that larger conversation.
For me, I think it’s still quite important to look at what’s happening now, and to think about the changes we could make right now, as that kind of broader constitutional transformation may take some time.
It’s good to take steps that improve things even if it might be slow. Changes that might be seen as tinkering can lead to building momentum, especially with things like greater recognition of tino rangatiratanga. While we mustn’t lose sight of the big vision for structural change, I think smaller changes influence society and we should carry on working together on those.
Our panel has made a lot of recommendations about how to make the electoral system fairer and better uphold Te Tiriti.
Some of these changes are about who gets to administer our electoral system, and how. One example is a requirement that everybody who’s performing functions under the Electoral Act needs to be giving effect to Te Tiriti. We’re also recommending the skill mix on the Electoral Commission Board be updated to reflect knowledge of te ao Māori, Te Tiriti and so forth.
We’re recommending that Māori be able to change electoral roll at any time, and that they can be on a different roll for general and local government elections.
The other change we’re suggesting is allocating funding for Māori-led engagement and participation activities, which comes out of what we learned during the Covid vaccine rollout. So many Māori and community organisations really stepped up and took on board a whole lot of responsibilities. They knew how to get to people and talk to them. And, in turn, the community knew who was knocking on their door and was more likely to open it. We’re recommending funding be set aside for Māori-led initiatives so there are more people within communities who are trusted to talk about elections and voting and getting enrolled.
We also think there should be a Tiriti Facilitation Fund to encourage parties and candidates to engage with Māori communities in ways that work for them. This is especially the case for rural or remote communities who often feel left out when candidates don’t come and visit them because they’re too far away. If we can provide some funding to support parties in their efforts, then those communities can in turn tell those political parties and candidates what their aspirations are and what they’d like to see.
A number of our other recommendations will also have an impact on Māori — for example, that the voting age be lowered to 16 and all prisoners be able to vote.
There are so many reasons for that. For example, we know that Māori and non-Māori are likely to receive different sentences for the same crime. And so, if you’re restricting the fundamental right to vote based on sentencing time, which is what we currently do, then the person who gets the longer sentence is going to have their vote taken away. The Waitangi Tribunal and other research tell us that because of systemic bias in the justice system, that person is more likely to be Māori.
And then what demographers tell us about the shape of our populations is important too. The non-Māori population is aging, and the Māori demographic is relatively young, which reduces the relative eligible pool to vote. And given that Māori life expectancy is shorter, we see Māori as a whole voting in fewer elections over their lifetime. These are the sorts of things which accumulate and play out unfairly.
And these are the sorts of things which, as an independent panel, we can examine in detail. We’re looking at the evidence, at the research, previous reports, and what New Zealanders have told us, and we’re thinking hard about how it all fits together, and what the big picture looks like.
There are a whole lot of other areas where we’re making recommendations, too — around restricting political donations, managing disinformation and foreign interference, which are all aimed at trying to future-proof our system and make it more transparent and fair.
Some of these things might appear to pale in importance when we have people struggling with a cost-of-living crisis, and we see climate change impacts happening right on our doorstep, and those sorts of things.
But I think that making our system fairer and more accessible is a key part of helping people have their say in the way the country is run, how our laws are made, who gets what, and how power plays out day-to-day.
So my hope is to re-energise interest in political participation and representation, and to translate that interest and participation into a fairer system.
Our closing date for submissions on our recommendations is July 17. And then after that, we’ll go away and have a look at what everybody said and prepare our final report, which will go to the government after the election.
The reason I’m doing this work is that I do believe that our combined powers as Māori can make a difference, even if ultimately broader constitutional transformation is still needed. And this is a chance to take part and do that.
We should take those opportunities where we have them.
Maria Bargh (Te Arawa and Ngāti Awa) is Professor of Politics and Māori Studies and the deputy chair of the Independent Electoral Review Panel.
More information about the review, including the panel’s interim report and details on how you can have your say, can be found at https://electoralreview.govt.nz. The panel’s final report will be published in November 2023.
As told to Connie Buchanan, and made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
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