A great truism which has come down the age can now be applied to the recent Government announcement that local government representation will consist of Maori wards.
Fast forward 163 years later.
There has never previously been this proposed form of overt and legalized segregation in NZ yet the co leader of the Maori party Debbie Ngarewa-Packer says the Government was getting rid of racist provisions in our electoral laws. Ms Ngarewa - Packer does not explain how applying a new and obvious racial preference in electoral law does not qualify as having more than just racist overtones. It is unclear whether the Maori ward representatives will even be required to take the oath of office which require all elected candidates in Otago to, quote “faithfully and impartially and according to my skill and judgment, execute and perform in the best interests of the region”. That oath of office is now likely to pass into its own form of political backsliding as the decaying institution of Local Government fails to uphold the principle of genuine representative democracy. Every local authority is the servant of the people. The powers given to Local Government are to increase the local authority’s ability to serve all the people and to increase its capacity for such service. It is not, nor should it ever be about named selective service.
Perhaps it is just a coincidence that Ngai Tahu have quite recently filed proceedings in the High Court to claim ownership of most if not all fresh water in the South Island. It follows that the North Island tribes will follow suit should the Ngai Tahu case be successful. It should never be possible for anyone; even for preselected Maori ward representatives placed on the Otago Regional Council (for example) to speak, let alone vote in their own interests. Two duly elected rural ORC councillors were recently prohibited from representing their constituents on Plan Change 7 (water) as they were deemed to have a vested interest in this plan change. It therefore is not possible under any test of reasonableness, for Ngai Tahu to also sit around the council table on this most important issue. The issue of management of fresh and coastal waters is said to be of real importance to Maori, just as it is to rural folk whose cultural attachment to a local river is undeniable. This is where the rural /urban divide was shaped and amplified. There is always a number of elected, yet unprofitable councillors, sometimes known as eggshell politicians who will fail to understand the consequences of this particular Government action and the importance of their compliant reaction to it. If a ward is to be based on ethnicity why not have all wards employing the same principle to place youth, elderly, Pacifica, rural, sexual orientation, immigrants etc so as to have even more diversity on councils? Councils are now so dysfunctional that barely a week goes by without another report of further upheaval within the current system of Local Government.
This particular issue will undoubtably cause great disharmony within our society, but it need not if we are prepared to remember the greatest of all speeches on the issue of representation. It is an object lesson for us all. It occurred one August day in 1963 in front of 250,000 people. It was a speech that will also pass down the age. This extract is especially relevant.
“I have dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will be judged -not by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character”. Martin Luther King.
Here in New Zealand some 57 years later our Government legislates that people are indeed to be judged but only by the colour of their skin.
Sometimes we really do need to protect our country from our Government.
Gerry Eckhoff is a former councillor on the Otago Regional Council and MP.