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September 11, 2017 | by  | in Features |
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Don’t Let Them Fool You

Nā Te Nia Matthews, Ngāi Tūhoe


In beginning this piece, I had two questions put forward to me. The first was whether I saw myself as Māori first or as a New Zealander. 1000 per cent I see myself as being Māori first. However, my personal view does not nullify any other Māori view on the subject, whether they don’t identify as strongly or identify as iwi first. The second question is a bit more complex: does voting principally make you complicit with and accepting of NZ democracy as it currently stands? I would be remiss to answer this question without a more in depth look at what contemporary New Zealand democracy looks like.

A few weeks ago I went to a candidates debate. Candidates from the Greens, Labour, and the Māori Party debated how they could engage potential Māori youth voters. Members from both Labour and the Māori party made damaging statements about how to get young Māori people to vote. One answer was that political parties needed more empathy from young people; the other was a suggestion to scare our rangatahi into voting. This is both concerning and offensive. For any political party to suggest to Māori students that they are not empathetic to national issues and that scare tactics need to be used in order for people to vote is misleading in a number of ways. I’m going to try and tackle a few of them here.

This article will not be a preachy piece to convince Māori between 18–24 to vote. I personally feel that’s been done over and over again and ultimately does nothing to deal with the actual problem of why Māori voter turnout is low — lower socio-economic living standards being the main contributor. Instead this article aims to debunk any misguided attitude about Māori youth not being empathetic to national issues or not caring enough to want to go out and vote.

The systematic exclusion of Māori from participation is nothing new. New Zealand’s first parliamentary election was in 1853, and those eligible to vote were individual landowners. This restriction meant that those who owned land collectively (as Māori did through iwi) were not able to participate in elections. The Māori electorates were an attempt to solve this land ownership-based marginalisation where Māori were paying taxes and living under government laws but did not have the right to vote. Parliament originally believed that the Māori electorates were a short-term measure that would only be needed until Māori assimilated and transformed Māori land to individual ownership. However, in 1876 a decision was made to keep the seats indefinitely in an acknowledgement that assimilation was not forthcoming.

When we address the Māori youth vote we have to look at the number of Māori youth actually getting out to the polls. Just over half (54.92%) of Māori youth, those between 18–24 years old, voted during the 2014 election according to the Electoral Commission. Those of non-Māori descent of the same age group, in comparison, polled at just ten per cent more. This is important, because your electoral roll choice has essential political consequences. The Electoral Act 1993 provides for proportionality between the number of Māori choosing to enrol on the Māori electoral roll and the number of Māori seats. For example, in the 2002 general election, if everyone in New Zealand of Māori descent who was eligible to vote had been enrolled on the Māori roll and voted, there would have been a total of 15 Māori seats, which would have likely increased Māori political power. (Side-note: the Māori roll is really the only legitimate way of gauging how many Māori people actually vote).  

A report conducted by Massey University in 2013 for the Electoral Commission found that there are a number of reasons for low levels of Māori participation in voting. Crown breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi, mass urbanisation, policies of assimilation, and an unclear constitutional position are all contributing factors to the lifestyles and socioeconomic status of contemporary Māori. The 2013 Report from the Social Policy Evaluation and Research Centre also found that less than four out of every ten single-parent whānau say they have enough, or more than enough, income to meet their daily needs. This is reflected in the Massey University report, which identifies living standards and age as the two most significant variables affecting participants’ propensity to vote. All of these contributing factors outline a reality for a Māori majority that disenfranchises them from any political engagement.

I am a Porirua native and I live in an area where disenfranchisement is occurring. There have been multiple articles throughout the year reporting about parents from Porirua having to work three different jobs just to make ends meet, with flow on effects for their children who are twice as likely to change schools two or more times within six months than the national average, because parents are having to move for work, or the family is relocated by Housing NZ. It is easy to see why the voter turnout for Māori is the way it is. I don’t blame any parent who says they are too busy to be politically engaged because they are either looking for work or working three different jobs to ensure some kind of stability for their whānau. This coupled with the fact that their children aren’t being offered the opportunity to an education that enables them to be politically conscious — even just to be politically engaged is a privilege that not everyone is able to access.

The fact of the matter is that we know why we have such low numbers of Māori between 18–24 voting — there is a lack of access to resources, and a high concentration of people with low socioeconomic status that limits their opportunities.

I care about Māori, and all the issues of inequality that have affected us. This could never be a pro-National piece. I’m not about to set up a punchline asking parties to get their shit together, because the chances of any politician taking advice from me is hard to imagine. However, I do want to make this point clear to you, the reader. Ultimately any and all politicians should be well aware to know exactly how the existing state of affairs is working against those people who have been disenfranchised, but it seems to be a whole lot easier to shift blame away from themselves back onto the people who are suffering. Which makes this a question of who and what rights are our politicians willing to fight tooth and nail for. I cannot stress this point enough, some of our politicians are acting more as band aids when they should be searching for a definitive cure.

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