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Why my vote may not be that important after all. (Gulp)

Like a lot of bloggers at the moment I have been toying with the notion of writing a piece encouraging my Dear Readers to get out and vote. Indeed, I found myself starting to get all worked up about how IMPORTANT OUR VOTE IS. And how I OWE IT TO MYSELF AND MY WHANAU to use my  little vote wisely. Then I had to check myself, and tell myself to ‘settle, petal!’ Cos actually, it’s easy to get sentimental about voting; as if it is our one big ritual by which we discharge our duty of civic citizenship. Actually, that’s kind of rubbish, really. That kind of thinking might even verge on fetishisation of voting, potentially at the cost of all the other things we can do to keep democracy alive in this country. Plus, it invalidates the conscious decision made by some to not vote at all, and yes, that too can be a civic and political choice, even if not one I favour. And for so many Maori who are or consider themselves, disenfranchised from national politics, what…are we condemning them to a kind of democratic purgatory when they don’t vote in national elections? In the immortal words of the Black Eyed Peas: Is that all there is [to democracy]? In short, no, it’s not. In my view it’s civic decision making that characterises democratic behaviour: participating in decision making that affects not just me, my whanau and my immediate kin-network, but the whole of my local community, and beyond. I don’t just mean generating a whole lot of heat and light about issues that affect those communities such as we have seen at public fora in this election campaign. Protest alone, or ecstatic hollering at Moments of Truth meetings don’t comprise civic decision-making, for example.  Of course that kind of engagement can often be critically important precursors to people then carrying out democratic actions. Would, for example, thousands of people have joined up to the Maori Party and later, the Mana Movement, were it not for the foreshore and seabed hikoi in 2004? The hikoi alone was not democracy in action, no matter how fondly we might imagine that it was. It was the other stuff, such as the birth of new political parties, the creation of fresh avenues for civic decision making, among other things, that comprised democratic action. Turning up to vote at settlement ratification hui, at local body elections, making submissions to commissions of inquiry, or to Parliamentary select committees, or to local iwi authorities, or other local bodies, giving evidence before the Tribunal, any, all, or other such actions affect what decisions can be made that have an impact on our communities more broadly. And Māori have such an extraordinarily rich, complex and fascinating history of civic engagement throughout New Zealand history. Our focus on the Big Election Every Three Years allows some commentators to bemoan the lack of Māori engagement in some aspects of national politics (re Māori voter apathy, for example), while completely ignoring Māori civic engagement and decision making where it does occur. There are numerous observations from the early and middle decades of the 19th century referring to a specifically Maori democratic practice. As used elsewhere on this blog site, here’s a quote from Francis Dart Fenton from 1857 (when he was a resident magistrate) talking about Maori runanga making decisions:

No system of government that the world ever saw can be more democratic than that of the Maoris. The chief alone has no power. The whole tribe deliberate[s] on every subject, not only politically on such as are of public interest, but even judicially they hold their “komitis” [committees] on every private quarrel. […] In case of a war the old chief would be a paramount dictator: in times of peace he is an ordinary citizen. “Ma te runanga e whakatu i a au, ka tu ahau.” “If the assembly constitutes me, I shall be established,” is an expression I heard used by a chief of rank, and perfectly represents the public sentiment on the question.

Maori civic decision-making processes led to the establishment of Kotahitanga parliaments, the Kingitanga, the Maori War Effort Organisation during and post-World War II. And today, within parliamentary representation, the operation of Maori land law, the Waitangi Tribunal hearing process and the Treaty settlement process we can still identify a large contingent of Maori individuals, tribal groupings and other polities that are deeply invested in using whatever power may be available to them to effect legal and political transformation of the New Zealand civic and political landscape. This, among other things, is the Māori exercise of democracy. Yes, I’ll be voting tomorrow. I’ll be taking my kids down to Newlands School, and kinda chuffed, as I usually am at election-time. But instead of merely asking ‘who I am going to vote for?’ on this last day before the nation goes to the polls, I’m also going to ask myself: what am I going to do after this election? What am I going to do, in the wake of all the sheer volume of information that we ordinary voters have been subjected to, to just….participate in civic decision making? Or will I slip back into my three-year slumber? Mind you..with the way my head is hurting from information overload from the past few weeks, it’s tempting!

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About Sparrowhawk/Kārearea

Legal academic and writer, Wellington. (Te Rarawa, Ngāti Pākeha. Nō te Hāhi Mihinare hoki)

7 responses »

  1. Got a source reference for the Fenton quote? I want to use it in a submission along with this one from another resident magistrate on the East Coast at the same time:

    …Every day affairs on the coast at this time were said to be arranged by runanga. [Resident Magistrate] Baker reported that “Almost every village has its own, in which everything, from far country news to domestic life, is freely discussed.”
    Based at Rangitukia, Baker defined existing runanga as a community, consisting of any number of persons exceeding one family:
    “Thus, within a few hundred yards of my present residence, there is a collection of some three or four huts, the inhabitants of which style themselves “Te Runanga o Pahairomiromi;” the latter being the name of the village. These, and many other similar Runangas, assume all the powers and privileges of the largest Runanga (as at present constituted), and claim to be independent… of any control by the general Runanga, if such a term may be applied to the voice of the mass of the people.”

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  2. And my musings last year on the Constitutional changes that might help ‘the country’ (whatever happened to that process?!): http://manu.org.nz/2013/07/31/constitutional-conversation-submission/

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