A proposal was floated at the First Nations gathering in Ottawa last month to establish separate aboriginal-based seats in the House of Commons.
A Winnipeg Free Press article made reference to the example of New Zealand and the seven reserved seats for its native Maori people. As a New Zealander, it caught my eye. I am glad we gained a mention, as the New Zealand model is a cautionary tale well worth studying.
First, a quick history lesson. The Maori seats “stumbled into being” (as academic Alan Ward eloquently put it) in 1867. Concerned at the lack of Maori representation in a parliament elected by white male landowners, the idea was to have such seats until 1872 while a commission worked out how to convert communally owned Maori land to individual titles. Such a task was never going to be completed in five years, so the seats were extended out until 1876, then indefinitely.
For the next 100 years these seats — and those who sat in them — received little notice. With the Labour Party holding a monopoly over the Maori seats from the 1930s through to the mid-1990s, Labour took Maori support for granted and was thus largely ignored by everyone else.
There is another, more fundamental, reason for the seats’ failings. The 1986 Royal Commission on the Electoral System made the point that separate, race-based seats had isolated and marginalized Maori views, weakened Maori influence, and “reinforced the political dependency of the Maori people… to non-Maori control over their destiny and future.”
The commission recommended, should New Zealand change its voting system to Mixed Member Proportional (MMP), the Maori seats be abolished on account that it would be easier for smaller (including Maori-oriented) parties to enter Parliament. Additionally, and more importantly, there would be incentives for pre-existing parties to become more diverse via their list MPs — those elected via a party list rather than through geographical districts.
When MMP became a reality 10 years later, these findings were ignored. In fact, the number of Maori seats has increased to seven as their numbers were pegged to the number of people on the Maori electoral roll.
Has the extra number of race-based seats benefited Maori? Labour’s firm grip on the Maori electorates has long been broken, and the Maori Party, which holds three of these seats, is a part of the National Party-led government. And yet, it has still been much too easy to pigeon-hole the views of MPs elected in Maori-only electorates and to treat their concerns as if they were solely problems for Maori.
Now, 145 years after the Maori seats were established, the statistics paint a bleak picture for those of Maori descent. Maori make up 14 per cent of the population and 50 per cent of those in prison. Their average life expectancy is eight years shorter than non-Maori and 13.4 per cent of Maori are unemployed, compared to the national rate of 6.6 per cent. These are not ‘Maori problems’ — they are issues of national importance.
A century and a half of marginalizing Maori has clearly failed. Elsewhere in the system, however, there are some encouraging signs. The number of MPs of Maori descent elected via party lists and general electorates has grown substantially, and several of these MPs hold senior positions in their parties and in cabinet. For those seeking to engage in the political process it is here, and not in the Maori seats, where Maori can do the most good for their constituents.
Canadians would do better to learn from New Zealand’s mistakes than to replicate them.
Chief Stan Beardy, a supporter of the separate seats idea, was quoted in the Winnipeg Free Press as saying when the First Nations made treaties, it was with the expectation “that we’d be allowed to have a say in what happens in the country on the whole.”
A very reasonable expectation, and one that clearly will not materialize if race-based seats are established. The main lesson you can learn from us is that a nation cannot improve its total well-being by marginalizing any group — no matter how noble the intention.
Clearly, there is much to be done to address the issues facing Canada’s First Nations peoples. Consolidating any people into a separate voting bloc, to be isolated and sidelined whenever dispensable, is the entirely wrong way to go about it.
Mike Heine is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (www.fcpp.org)