On the same day the unapologetic Māori voice in New Zealand’s parliament grew, Australians voted down their ‘Voice’ referendum.
Australia and New Zealand have plenty in common: both love watching grown men in short shorts wrestle over a ball and will happily eat a Bunnings snag (Australian invention) for lunch and pavlova (New Zealand invention) for dessert. But close neighbours can also have stark differences, highlighted on October 14 when voters in both nations headed to the polls – Australians for a referendum and New Zealanders for a general election.
Australia’s “Voice” referendum decided whether or not to constitutionally recognise the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. (Māori have had constitutional recognition forever because our oldest constitutional documents are He Whakaputanga and Te Tiriti o Waitangi.) Part of the proposal was an indigenous body – the “Voice” – to advise the government on matters concerning their peoples. “The referendum became by proxy a vote on Indigenous peoples’ right to exist in our own land,” wrote the Guardian’s indigenous editor Lorena Allam.
While Australia’s referendum happened, New Zealanders voted on who would run the country until 2026. The outcomes of these two votes put the Indigenous peoples of both nations on two very different paths.
What is constitutional recognition of Indigenous peoples?
Essentially, it means protecting the rights of an indigenous population inside a country’s political system – like its constitution or parliament. It’s crucial for empowering Indigenous peoples during the reality of modern-day colonisation.
What was the outcome of October 14 in Australia?
Sixty percent of Australians voted against recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ rights within the foreign political system that rules their homeland. Although not all indigenous Australians supported it – some thought it didn’t go far enough, for example – many are disappointed with the referendum result.
Indigenous leaders have called for a week of reflection and silence, and their flags are being flown at half-mast – a sign of mourning. In a written statement, the leaders noted how ironic it was that the “people who have only been on this continent for 235 years would refuse to recognise those whose home this land has been for 60,000 and more years”.
What was the outcome of October 14 in New Zealand?
Despite New Zealand electing a National government – a party that many consider less likely to empower Māori than Labour – the unbridled tāngata whenua voice in parliament got louder. Te Pāti Māori, parliament’s self-described unapologetic indigenous voice, increased its power by winning four Māori electorates, three of which were taken off Labour. (There is a possibility Te Pāti Māori could win two more after special votes are counted.)
Labour’s Māori caucus – which achieved some 2017-2023 wins such as repealing the poll provision for Māori wards and establishing Te Aka Whai Ora (both of which are under threat under National) – could be considered restricted by representing a Pākehā party. Te Pāti Māori doesn’t have the same limitations. Sure, they still participate in Pākehā parliamentary politics, but they accept that fighting for mana motuhake and tino rangatiratanga requires bringing tauiwi along for the ride.
Although Te Pāti Māori is in opposition again, they proved from 2004-2008 and 2020-2023 that they can gain votes while in opposition. Since 2020, they earned supporters by exercising what my colleague Charlotte Muru-Lanning called “an outsized presence in the country’s political landscape”. By doubling their number of MPs on October 14, the unapologetic Māori voice in New Zealand’s parliament will be able to exercise an even larger presence for the next three years.
What can Australia learn from New Zealand?
One reason why the political power of Te Pāti Māori grew this election is because the rights of tāngata whenua are constitutionally enshrined. An example is the Māori seats, of which Te Pāti Māori won a majority. Australia’s referendum voted down constitutionally enshrining the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders people.
Without Māori seats, Te Pāti Māori may not be in parliament at all (they’ve never won a general electorate). Although New Zealand is not perfect at respecting tāngata whenua, we have a better foundation than Australia because He Whakaputanga, Te Tiriti o Waitangi and the Māori seats are – for the most part – accepted parts of our political system.
On the other hand, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights aren’t acknowledged in Australian politics, and they only gained universal voting rights in 1962 (compared to 1893 for Māori). To reckon with its troubled history of colonisation, Australia must enshrine and respect the political rights of its First Nations people – but the referendum’s result perhaps highlights the country’s continuing refusal to redress the evils of its past.
Allam from The Guardian thinks so. She argued that the referendum allows Australia to deny its history – writing that the country is “a place where the voices of First Nations people are drowned out, talked over and misrepresented in a national conversation that is forever about us, without us”. Allam added, “The big winners of this campaign are racism and misinformation.”
What can New Zealand learn from Australia?
Many New Zealanders have scolded our cousins across the ditch over the referendum, saying, “Look at how racist Australia is. This would never happen in New Zealand!” On that point, I call bullshit.
Even though New Zealand has a better foundation than Australia, similar thinking to the Voice referendum “no” campaign persists here. The Disinformation Project found similarities between anti-Māori rhetoric in New Zealand and the Voice referendum “No” campaign. The Act Party campaigned this election on a referendum to redefine the Treaty’s principles – which included radical misinterpretations of the meaning of Te Tiriti o Waitangi and the Treaty of Waitangi. Experts said Act’s referendum proves the party has minimal understanding of the Treaty debate.
It wasn’t so long ago (2021) that low-turnout citizen-initiated referendums could scrap local government Māori seats. Former New Plymouth mayor Andrew Judd didn’t stand for reelection after Māori wards he championed were voted down by a local referendum. Those referendums are now gone but evidently, when left to a public vote, Māori interests are not at the forefront. As former race relations commissioner and Gisborne mayor Meng Foon put it, “the tyranny of the majority will rule” if Act’s referendum happens.
He has not ruled it out, but surely Luxon is politically astute enough to identify that Act’s referendum would mire his government with – as John Key put it – “hikois from hell”. Earlier in the week, the presumptive prime minister said he rejected Act’s referendum policy, which he believed would be “divisive”. Nonetheless, David Seymour said the referendum would be one of Act’s bottom lines for forming a government – so it’s still on the table.
Returning to Allam, who wrote that her adult child asked with sadness, “Why are all these people deciding whether we belong or not?” Many Māori feel the same way about Act’s referendum. Allam’s description of the no campaign is eerily similar to the anti-Māori rhetoric of Act and New Zealand First and to an even greater extent, Hobson’s Pledge and Julian Batchelor’s Stop Co-Governance tour. “It was vitriolic, mean-spirited, full of misinformation, driven by racism, petty grievances and conspiracy theories based on fear and ignorance,” she wrote.
Tākuta Ferris, a rising star of Te Pāti Māori, summed up how many tāngata whenua feel about Act’s referendum. “The fact that we’re talking about referendums on the Treaty just demonstrates how much more we have to learn as a country. You can’t referendum a Treaty away. It’s a permanent fixture of the constitution of our country, and it is not going anywhere.”
New Zealand’s better foundation than Australia for respecting indigenous rights empowers Māori to fight for mana motuhake and tino rangatiratanga. If Luxon grants Act’s referendum wish – which I fear might have a similar outcome to Australia’s – tāngata whenua are ready to fight this modern act of colonisation. If you don’t believe me, look at what happened with localised issues like Ihumaatao. After nearly 200 years of oppression, Māori are effective and seasoned protesters.
Tautoko mai to all Indigenous Peoples around the world fighting for their own and their ancestors plus descendants’ inextinguishable birthright of self-determination.
This is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.