King Tūheitia with leaders of Protect Ihumātao. The Kiingitanga is an enduring symbol of Māori political independence. (Photo: Leonie Hayden)

Voting isn’t everything: On Māori politics and the meaning of participation

Almost 170 years ago, Māori political processes were interrupted and displaced by a new, enforced electoral system. Researcher Jo Waitoa dispels the myth that voter turnout and political participation are the same thing. 

Read more of the The Spinoff’s Election 2020 coverage here.

Māori political participation has a long and enduring tradition that cannot be defined or confined by Pākehā political systems. To consider the whakapapa of Māori politics, it began with the separation of Ranginui and Papatūānuku. The decision by their children to separate them was a political act with significant consequences.

The history of Māori political participation is hundreds of years tikanga informing consensus decision making at whānau, hapū and iwi levels. Pākehā arrival disrupted political practices and imposed foreign structures, including decision making, education, health and religious systems. The signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi allowed for the preservation of the role of rangatira. The Treaty of Waitangi (as opposed to Te Tiriti) has instead endured as New Zealand’s founding document, which assumed sovereignty over Aotearoa was held with the British Crown.

It is the foreign system of government established with the 1852 New Zealand Constitution Act that has set the scene for the current focus on voter turnout in general elections as the dominant measure of Māori political participation. Māori educationalist and advocate Professor Graham Smith suggests that while the 1840 agreement between Māori and Pākehā was signed in the spirit of partnership, actually “it was the New Zealand Constitution Act (in its co-option of the Westminster model of democracy) that allowed for the reproduction of Pākehā social, cultural and political dominance”.

In 150 years, the complexity of Māori political activity has been reduced to an anonymous ballot to decide central government representatives on a three-year election cycle.

This view of general elections as the foremost form of political participation dominates the commentary on Māori political participation. The familiar deficit focus on Māori statistics and low voter turnout paints a picture of disengagement with democracy. Why are Māori not participating at the same rate as Pākehā in the institution that sought to disenfranchise them? Academics are mystified.

Jack Vowles and Peter Aimer observed in their book Voter’s Vengeance: “The 1980s were a time of increasing political consciousness among the Māori, and it is disturbing that this is apparently associated with decreasing rather than increasing Māori participation in democratic politics.”

What is disturbing is relegating Māori political movements such as Te Kotahitanga, the Kiingitanga, Parihaka or Ratana to the Māori history genre. This perception of Māori political disengagement persists in wider society but Māori political participation is not limited to electoral participation; and neither is Māori political participation lacking due to less engagement with electoral politics.


Read more: Aren’t Can’t Don’t: The New Zealand women still not voting, 125 years after suffrage


Voting rates have declined across most industrialised democratic nations. People are turning their back on systems they don’t feel represents their interests. It is not surprising given the interests represented are those of corporate wealth over individuals, communities and even governments.

Being ill-served by the political system (or any colonial system) is not a novel experience for Māori, so it’s patronising to assume that less Māori participation in parliamentary politics reflects a lack of Māori participation in politics altogether. Look at the behaviour of some Māori politicians during elections as well as inside parliament itself. Look at what Pākehā politics does to them. Whānau aren’t interested in that. The competition for the seven Māori seats pits whanaunga against whanaunga. Instead of working together to improve lives of whānau, hapū and iwi Māori, they are working to undermine each other in order to come out the winner. There are only losers in that situation.

I am more inspired by Māori working in diverse spaces outside of parliament who are challenging western political and economic systems and reasserting tino rangatiratanga. There are four kaupapa I was interested in exploring who achieve this in different ways.

Tikanga Marae Taiao was an environmental education programme delivered by Te Wānanga o Aotearoa in Gisborne. It emerged from the need to build capacity in environmental knowledge, particularly around waterways, within Ngāti Porou. Taught by Tina Ngata the course was delivered on marae around Te Tairāwhiti and teaches practical skills like GIS mapping and water monitoring. More importantly, however, the course offers students a chance to connect with local mātauranga and kaitiakitanga concepts and practices.

Secondly, Para Kore is a pan-Māori organisation that includes a growing network of marae cooperating with local and central government to achieve a zero waste Aotearoa. From te ao Māori perspectives, Para Kore teaches whānau how to reduce their landfill waste through growing gardens, recycling and making informed consumer choices. Para Kore started in Whaingaroa (Raglan) but over time has spread throughout the country and currently over 400 marae are involved.

The third kaupapa is Palmy Panthers. The group was started by Teanau Tuiono and Te Ao Pritchard and is focused on defending indigenous rights. Based in the Manawatū, they are an artist/activist collective whose actions have included protests against the GCSB, fracking, asset sales, the TPPA and militarism of the Pacific. They also facilitate capacity building and networking with diverse activist groups in Aotearoa. They are connected to the broader kaupapa of the Pacific Panthers which is inspired by the Polynesian Panthers movement of the 1970s and 1980s.

The rangatahi arm of the Matike Mai constitutional reform group is the fourth kaupapa. The Matike Mai initiative sought to survey Māori around Aotearoa to find out what a constitution might look like if it was informed by tikanga and kawa, He Whakaputanga, Te Tiriti and the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP). The main project was convened by Moana Jackson and Professor Margaret Mutu. The rangatahi group was facilitated by Veronica Tawhai and involved 80 young people delivering their ‘by rangatahi for rangatahi’ constitutional reform workshops to thousands of kids across Aotearoa.

All these people are taking active steps to educate others by promoting alternatives to failing institutions both economic and political. All participants in these groups are passionate about their kaupapa yet similarly dispassionate about voting. While most thought they would vote in the 2017 general election, it was more due to a sense of obligation or harm mitigation rather than any faith in achieving actual change. It is the Westminster system that is the problem, not the people who are cynical of engaging with it.

Voting is one form of political participation. It is not the most important.

I vote but I do not consider that voting is enough. Regardless of a ‘progressive’ government, if we want real change then that will not come from the Beehive. It will come from the people. It will come from people campaigning and lobbying the government. It will come from the people driving tino rangatiratanga in their own communities.

However, if you don’t vote, you can complain… and you should.

This essay first appeared in Everything’s Fucked: But The Point is To Go Beyond That



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