Writing in a notebook with the words 'ordinary citizen' (pākehā) written in the middle.
Notes on a Citizen’s Assembly. Photo: Nadine Hura

ĀteaNovember 23, 2019

Who gets to be an ‘ordinary New Zealander’? On Citizens’ Assemblies, climate change and tangata whenua

Writing in a notebook with the words 'ordinary citizen' (pākehā) written in the middle.
Notes on a Citizen’s Assembly. Photo: Nadine Hura

At a recent Aotearoa Climate Emergency meeting in Wellington, the topic under discussion was a Citizens’ Assembly to work towards cross-party agreement on climate action. Nadine Hura went along to ask what a citizen looks like and who gets to decide.

I went to listen. I wasn’t planning to speak. I arrived late and sat at the back and felt like an infiltrator. A few weeks earlier I’d interviewed Haylee Koroi from Te Ara Whatu and came away with a deep scepticism of global climate movements. A conference to discuss the creation of the latest fad from the UK, a ‘Citizens’ Assembly,’ at the James Cook Hotel no less, felt like the very embodiment of neo-colonialism.

Mike Joy was there. He’s the author of a book about New Zealand’s freshwater crisis that’s been sitting on my bed along with about half a dozen other books on climate change, including Rebecca Priestley’s Antarctica memoir and David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth. I knew Mike by his name tag and immediately wished I’d read his book, but every time I crawl into bed after midnight I hear books toppling to the floor making intermittent plopping sounds, like my best intentions. Doing something about climate change is only part of the struggle; wading through the information to make sense of it is a much darker, much more private challenge.

I arrived to hear Chlöe Swarbrick sharing an anecdote about a conversation with her father in which he admitted he didn’t understand the science of climate change but he trusted the scientists, and most of all he trusted her. Everyone laughed because it was a sweet admission, and it made me think of my own dad, still getting up before dawn at the age of 70, putting on his high-vis jacket and driving across Auckland in the dark to whichever site he’s shifting dirt on. It occurred to me I’d never had a conversation with him about climate change. When would I bring it up? Before or after his shifts? It’s more urgent I talk to him about retiring and quitting smoking. Besides, in a way I can’t quite articulate yet, climate change feels like a problem he shouldn’t have to worry about.

The MPs on stage were debating whether parliamentary democracy is adequate to address the challenges of climate change. Nicola Willis was sitting on Chlöe’s left and Duncan Webb was on her right, but at least the Greens were in the middle. Someone in the audience put up their hand and made a statement about the “logical fallacy of pragmatism,” which sounded like a riddle. Chlöe responded that people shouldn’t underestimate the transformative effects of deliberation and I agreed with her not just because I’m jaded by government rhetoric whenever a political party decides that unilateral and urgent action is justified on the basis of “national interest,” but because I’m a writer and I have to believe that the right words inside the right story have the power to change.

Chlöe Swarbrick at the Auckland climate strike. Photo: Julie Zhu

After the panel was morning tea, which is often the best thing about these conferences, and once I had my coffee and vegan chocolate muffin I tried to hide behind a pole at the far end of the room. I was spotted by a woman whose name tag I didn’t catch. She’d taken the overnight bus from Auckland to Wellington and was clearly still running on adrenaline. The implementation of a Citizen’s Assembly was so exciting, didn’t I think so? I said I didn’t know because I hadn’t read the programme and had arrived late.

She was shocked by this admission but nonetheless filled me in. ‘A Citizen’s Assembly is a group of people who get together to discuss an important issue, such as climate change, and make recommendations about what action should be taken.’

‘Kind of like parliament?’ I said, sipping my coffee.

She shook her head and explained that the problem with parliament is that politicians are elected. A Citizens’ Assembly is a group of unelected people selected at random.

It sounded like a punchline.

‘It’s about restoring faith in democracy by getting ordinary citizens involved in politics,’ she said, deadly serious.

I wondered to myself who would be considered an ordinary citizen, and how such an assembly would be selected, and which overarching group or constitutional body would get to decide what issues the assembly would deliberate on. I made eye contact with Max Rashbrooke, another author whose book I haven’t read, and excused myself.

Max explained that, far from a weakness, random selection is one of CA’s main claims to legitimacy. ‘The whole point is that the assembly is perfectly representative of the wider country. So the decisions it comes to are those that everyone in the country would come to if they could discuss the issue under such ideal conditions. It can profoundly change the balance of power between citizens and representatives.’

The words ‘representation’ and ‘power’ triggered alarm bells. I wanted to know what this means for minorities, let alone tangata whenua. In the UK, 33,000 people have been randomly selected to take part in a Climate Assembly next year. Of that number, only 110 will be invited. In order for such a tiny sample to be representative, some fiddling of the demographic data is inevitable. How convenient, I thought, for the Citizens’ Assembly to use a numerical system of representation in a land where the indigenous population has already been decimated by colonisation.

I took my note book and went to listen to the keynote address from an Irish academic, Diarmuid Torney, whose face beamed into the room via video link from Dublin. Over there, a Citizen’s Assembly has been credited for helping push through reforms to abortion laws. Over a series of weekends, a group of ordinary people met with a range of experts and contributors, asked questions and deliberated, and made recommendations to the government that went on to inform a national referendum. In academic-speak, this kind of process is called a ‘deliberative democracy’.

So how does it work? Or perhaps, more curiously, why are people so convinced it works?

Listening to Diarmuid, and reading quotes from people who’ve participated in one, I gather one reason is that assembly members are given the space, time and access to reliable information from experts and other people they trust, in order to unpack complex issues.

But just because a model works overseas does not automatically mean it will work here. I was thinking of Hank Dunn, the koroua that I met from Pawarenga a few months ago. He doesn’t have any degrees or initials in front of his name but you can’t tell me there’s a scientist who knows more about the rising seas along his stretch of coast than him. Would he be invited to present evidence? More to the point, would he even want to?

While Diarmuid was talking, I drew a picture of a stick figure without a face and wrote the words ‘ordinary citizen’ underneath. Then I drew an upwards arrow and wrote ‘Pākehā.’ Because it seems to me that a massive blind spot of the Citizens’ Assembly is that it assumes that, once formed, members will implicitly trust the process. This is either blatantly ignorant of our history or persistent colonial arrogance. Māori have never benefited from the tools of colonialism. Ever since first contact, tangata whenua have been disregarded, tricked, undermined, and marginalised by colonial systems. When rangatira signed Te Tiriti o Waitangi in 1840, they did not concede authority (ie their own forms of governance) to the Westminster constitutional system. So why, in 2019, would iwi want to be involved in a process to improve a system they never agreed to in the first place?

Members of Te Ara Whatu, a youth indigenous climate action group, with Pania Newton (left) at Ihumātao. Te Ara Whatu are attending the UN Climate Change Summit COP25 in December thanks to funds raised on Givealittle.

In the UK, the Climate Assembly has budgeted £520,000, a fair chunk of which will be met by the government. So then the next thing I want to know is why we wouldn’t invest our resources in iwi-led climate change movements? If the current political system doesn’t adequately allow us to address climate change because it’s too slow and elected representatives are perversely motivated, why don’t we look at genuine transformation of our constitution?

Much of the hard work and deliberation on this subject has already been done. Between 2012 and 2015, under the auspices of the National Iwi Chairs Forum, Moana Jackson and a team of researchers travelled the length and breadth of the country talking to whānau, hapū and iwi about their aspirations for constitutional transformation. The terms of reference of the working group Matike Mai Aotearoa were not about incorporating Te Tiriti into our current system, but about reimagining the constitution so that it recognises the integrity and independence of both rangatiratanga and kāwantanga. A total of 252 hui were held across the motu. They were attended by thousands, involved key experts and contributors, and resulted in a comprehensive report and set of recommendations for the government. You could say that Māori already came up with the idea for a Citizens’ Assembly, nearly a decade ago, and successfully carried it out.

I could feel the urge to speak bubbling up inside me but I forced it back down with an egg and lettuce sandwich and a spoonful of potato salad. People weren’t focused on history, they were focused on right now and the apocalypse. Every time complex questions were raised during our small group discussion they were parked, as though the “how” and the “who” were minor details that were getting in the way of the need to just get started.

Participation wasn’t raised as a concern, even though participation by Māori in any form of bureaucracy is notoriously difficult to attract. As a sole parent, I know I wouldn’t be able to attend a Citizens’ Assembly and it’s not just a question of paying for childcare. I have commitments to my whānau and my community. The word ‘citizen’ comes from the Latin ‘civis’ meaning ‘of the city.’ Already, the name centres European knowledge and devalues, if not completely ignores, the significance of collective notions of identity vested in whānau, hapū and iwi.

I tried to imagine my brother, who has never voted in his life, giving up an entire weekend to sit around with a group of strangers talking about a subject that’s peripheral to his life. Then again, people like my brother wouldn’t even make it into the ballot because he’s not on the electoral roll. He lost faith in the system a long time ago, if he ever had it.

How can the views be said to be representative if a significant, already disenfranchised minority, are not in the room?

By the final plenary of the day I was tired, but there were jellybeans at the table so I stuck it out. We were asked to vote on the conference resolution: ‘Should we work towards a Citizens’ Assembly in 2020 to gain cross party consensus on a national plan of action to address climate change?” Translation: “Are we creating a Citizens’ Assembly or not?’.

I got the sense that some people thought this would be a simple and quick formality – after all, why else would 80 odd people pay $160 to be at the conference if they didn’t support the proposal? That wasn’t what happened. While there may have been overwhelming support for some kind of deliberative democracy, a few key voices expressed discomfort with the phrasing, and in particular the absence of any recognition of Te Tiriti o Waitangi and what that means for a Citizens’ Assembly in Aotearoa. A young man who’d been in my group looked worn out and frustrated and waved his hand across his shoulder. Another man stood up and started talking passionately and alarmingly about the need to centre population control in any discussions about climate action.

Click here to read more of our coverage on Māori, Pacific and indigenous climate action.

That was probably the point at which I knew I was going to speak. I’d gone to listen and to learn but not even all the jellybeans in the bowl could stop me from standing. I pushed back my chair and took the mic. In my mind, I could see my father, getting up in the dark and stepping barefoot around the kitchen quietly so as not to wake his whāngai great-grand moko sleeping in the cot down the hallway. Every morning he lets himself out the front door and lights a smoke on the porch and slips into his boots before puffing his way down to the truck. He’s worked his entire life in jobs that census data would define as ‘unskilled’. He lost his hearing to heavy machinery and his native language to shame. He wasn’t rewarded in wealth or status by the forces that drove him from his papakāinga in Waiomio to help build Auckland’s motorways and bridges and tunnels. I cleared my throat and took a deep breath. “Not all of us are equally responsible for climate change,” I said. “And certainly not all of us are affected in the same way. For Māori, this is not a new crisis but a continuation of a long struggle. The forces that have led to urgent calls for action on climate change in 2019 are the very same ones Māori have been protesting and resisting for generations.”

I could hear and feel the impatience of the Pākehā environmental activists in the room who had come to pass resolutions and make decisions. In the end it was agreed that the best way forward was to establish a working group. I didn’t volunteer to join but other Māori who were present did. Kei te pai. He waka eke noa. Like a lot of global movements, I suspect the idea of a Citizens’ Assembly will find the political momentum and financial backing it needs to go ahead with or without us. And who knows, maybe the working group will recommend the government engage seriously with Matike Mai, or even better, with iwi-led climate change groups.

For me though, it’s back to the books. My private challenge with climate change to read, to listen, to keep an open mind, and ultimately, to put the right words inside the right story, continues.

Keep going!