In strictly legal terms, the standing orders of the Kaipara District Council, as interpreted by the elected head of the council – Mayor Craig Jepson – must prevail. The order of business, and the manner in which that business is conducted, is for him – and for him alone – to determine.
Except, in the rolling maul that is New Zealand’s racial politics, the letter of the law no longer counts for very much. As events in Kaipara have proved, it’s all about who can mobilise the most outrage – especially in the news media and online. On that score, the woman at the centre of the controversy, the woman representing the Te Moananui o Kaipara Māori Ward, Pera Paniora, is well ahead on points.
Ms Paniora justified her interruption of the proceedings by claiming that the Mayor was acting in defiance of tikanga (custom and practice). Mayor Jepson responded by taking a firm stand on the secular character of political authority in New Zealand – a doctrine derived from the liberal-democratic insistence upon the separation of Church and State:
This is a council that’s full of people who are non-religious, religious, of different ethnicities and I intend to run a secular council here which respects everybody and I will not be veering from that.
Given that New Zealand is one of the most secular nations on earth, with fewer than half the population evincing religious belief, the Mayor would appear to be on solid ground. Rather than privilege one councillor’s religion over everybody else’s, his solution, to have no prayers at all, struck many New Zealanders as eminently sensible.
In the ears of many Māori, however, Mayor Jepson’s words struck an unmistakably “racist” note. In their estimation, it is not for Pakeha, no matter what political office they may hold, to prevent a young Māori woman from upholding tikanga by initiating a hui (meeting) with a karakia seeking God’s blessing upon the proceedings. Jepson’s actions kindled an angry response from Māori (and not a few Pakeha) across the country. Who did he think he was?
Well, he probably thought he was the legally recognised leader of the Kaipara community. The 4,228 votes he received from the electors of the Kaipara District, representing 50.5 percent of the 8,366 votes cast, earned him the title, status, and powers of Mayor.
Once, that title would have merited the respect of the news media, but – no more. The mainstream news media remained steadfastly silent on the subject of Mayor Jepson’s political legitimacy, and his legal authority as Chair of the Council. It similarly refused to address the question posed by the Mayor concerning the appropriateness, or otherwise, of injecting religion into what are generally understood to be secular proceedings. All that seemed to matter was that he had silenced a young Māori ward councillor at her first meeting – an action which most of the news media’s reporting strongly implied was racist in both intent and effect.
Few, if any, reporters raised the question of who carried the most democratic weight in this argument. Ms Paniora had secured 246 out of the 535 votes cast by electors on the Māori Roll in the Te Moananui o Kaipara Māori Ward. At 45.9 percent, her support was impressive, but not as impressive as Mayor Jepson’s 50.5 percent. Also unremarked upon was the fact that just 246 votes were required to make Ms Paniora a Councillor, considerably fewer than the 4,228 votes required to make Mr Jepson a Mayor. Or that the General Roll turnout in Kaipara District was 50.4 percent, compared to the Maori Roll turnout of 29.4 percent.
That none of these numbers were taken all that seriously is attributable to the widely held view among Māori, and some Pakeha, that New Zealand’s liberal-democratic system is a relic of colonisation, rendering it both oppressive and morally repugnant. Accordingly, in the mainstream news media’s reporting of the Kaipara controversy the political weight of the protagonists has been determined, almost entirely, by their ethnicity. That Māori have taken offence at the behaviour of a Pakeha politician is deemed to be resolvable only by the latter’s more-or-less total capitulation to the former.
That Mayor Jepson has announced a compromise solution to the contretemps, whereby each councillor will, in turn, be given the opportunity, before the formal opening of Council meetings, to invite his or her fellow councillors to join them in a meditation, prayer, or incantation of their own choosing, has been represented as too little, too late. In matters of this sort only the most complete abasement before the tikanga of the mana whenua (local wielders of power) will do.
It is important to acknowledge what is happening here. What the country has been witnessing in Kaipara is a struggle for political legitimacy and cultural power. Intended, or not, Ms Paniora’s bid to recite a karakia in the opening seconds of the newly-elected council’s first meeting constituted a test to see whose ways would prevail in the Kaipara District. The ways of the inheritors of the Anglosphere’s liberal-democratic system of government, with its historical suspicion of social hierarchies and religious sentiments, and its secular faith in the egalitarian rules of orderly deliberation? Or, the ways of Te Ao Māori: imbued with spirituality, guided by tikanga, and executed by those with the mana to both convince, and to command?
It is difficult not to sympathise with Mayor Jepson, to whose aid and comfort so few people have sprung. Where were the electors of Kaipara District who, just a few weeks ago, thought this man Jepson worthy of their support? Is there really no one in the North willing to stand up for liberal-democracy? Certainly, the comparison with the hundreds of local Māori who were willing to come out on to the streets of Dargaville yesterday (14/12/22) in support of their representative is a telling one.
The game is far from over, but at the moment the score is definitely: Paniora 1, Jepson Nil.
Chris Trotter is a political commentator who blogs at bowalleyroad.blogspot.co.nz.