Labour MP Willie Jackson is a likeable chap. But his TVNZ interview on co-governance last week was a difficult watch. Jackson was a flailing mass of contradictions, confusion, and ill-defined slogans. Interviewer Jack Tame tried to get some clarity, but was unable to penetrate the murk. Which is a problem, because on a matter of such constitutional significance, we urgently need clarity.
The question which Tame should have asked to crystalize the discussion was simple – did Jackson think changing our governing system so that 15% of the population could exercise 50% of the power was democratic? Because it is becoming increasingly apparent that 50/50 power-sharing is what the advocates of co-governance really mean. No one likes to say it, and Jackson was certainly never going to admit it. But that is clearly the implication of their oft-repeated references to the “equal partnership” between Māori and the Crown. And it is also what is now being pursued in an ever widening range of governance spheres across New Zealand.
50/50 power-sharing also appeared to be what Jackson was advocating when he spoke about the need for “equity” as promised under Article Three of the Treaty. However he also asserted that democracy was always about “one-person, one-vote”. But if the votes of individuals in one group carry significantly more weight than those in other groups, then that foundational principle is negated. It’s simple maths. And ignoring that, or pretending it’s not a problem, does not make it go away.
Jackson blustered that Māori were “invisible” and simply wanted a seat at the table. But a seat at the table is not the same thing as half the table. And the fact is, that at least in central government, Māori already have a number of highly visible seats at the table. The Māori electorate seats plus MMP have seen to that. It may be a good idea to make similar arrangements for Māori representation at local government level. But lets do it in the same way we do for Parliament – with seat numbers based on proportionality. That will provide visibility and a voice at the table without negating the “one-person, one-vote” principle.
There is no doubt that in a democracy there is a real issue with what Jackson called the “tyranny of the majority”. Which is why facilitating a voice for minorities in any democracy is an important safeguard. But the tyranny of the minority is also something that needs to be seriously considered. Indeed it must be guarded against if we are to maintain widespread public confidence in the legitimacy and fairness of our governing system. Unfortunately those advocating the simplistic equal power-sharing model of co-governance don’t seem to have grasped that. Either that or they erroneously claim it is a requirement of the Treaty – but that is a whole other story…