The image is split into two distinct halves. The left side features a richly decorated Māori meeting house, with intricate carvings and woven panels, highlighted in a red tint. The right side shows a formal parliamentary setting in black and white, with members seated and engaged in a session.
Image: Tina Tiller

PoliticsJune 6, 2024

For and against a Māori parliament

The image is split into two distinct halves. The left side features a richly decorated Māori meeting house, with intricate carvings and woven panels, highlighted in a red tint. The right side shows a formal parliamentary setting in black and white, with members seated and engaged in a session.
Image: Tina Tiller

With Te Pāti Māori renewing calls for the establishment of a Māori parliament, Liam Rātana explores how it might work, and the potential benefits and pitfalls.

Coinciding with nationwide protests last week, Te Pāti Māori issued a petition calling for the establishment of a Māori parliament. It’s not a new idea: despite Te Pāti Māori co-leader Rawiri Waititi saying that last Thursday was the day the revolution began, in terms of establishing a Māori parliament, many would argue the revolution began a long time ago.

“We signed Te Tiriti o Waitangi but we continually allow this house to assume that it has sovereignty and absolute superiority over Māori,” Waititi said in parliament last Thursday.

“Today we made a declaration – in the name of our mokopuna – that we would no longer allow the assumption of this parliament to have superiority or sovereignty over te iwi Māori.”

It’s not just Te Pāti Māori in favour of the idea. The day following the protests, a national hui-ā-motu at Ōmahu Marae in Hastings, Heretaunga, saw several iwi and other Māori leaders further discuss the idea of a Māori parliament. While Kīngi Tūheitia said the idea “frightens” him, many others were supportive of the kaupapa. Further plans to establish a Māori parliament were expected to be discussed at the next hui in Te Waka-a-Māui.

This purpose-built wharenui in Pāpāwai hosted the sixth and seventh Kotahitanga hui in 1897 and 1898. (Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library /records/22533910)

The idea of a Māori parliament in Aotearoa, reflecting calls for indigenous self-governance, dates back to the signing of He Whakaputanga in 1835. Historical attempts, such as the Kotahitanga movement (1892-1902) and various government-initiated Māori councils, highlight a long-standing struggle for recognition and autonomy.

More recently, Waititi’s predecessor and current president of Te Pāti Māori, John Tamihere, promised to establish a Māori parliament in September 2020. Other supporters of the kaupapa, including respected former High Court judge and chair of the Waitangi Tribunal Tā Edward Taihakurei Durie, who has long advocated for an Upper Treaty House in parliament, have emphasised a need for a political assembly that honours Te Tiriti o Waitangi, fostering coexistence with the Crown parliament. The report of Matike Mai Aotearoa, the Independent Working Group on Constitutional Transformation, as well as the He Puapua report, evaluated different options for a Māori parliament. 

Internationally, indigenous parliaments like the Sámi assemblies in Nordic countries provide consultative roles, while Australia’s rejected Voice referendum, which proposed creating a body of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that would provide advice and make representations to parliament and the government, highlighted the challenges faced by some indigenous groups around the world.

Establishing a Māori parliament in Aotearoa has a range of potential benefits, but would not be without challenges. On the pro side, better representation for Māori would ensure our specific needs, rights and perspectives were more effectively voiced and addressed in the legislative process. Such a parliament would help preserve and promote Māori culture, language and traditions, fostering a greater sense of pride and identity within the community.

A Māori parliament might also enable greater self-determination and autonomy, allowing Māori to manage our affairs and resources according to our values and priorities. Policies and laws could be more tailored to the unique circumstances and challenges faced by Māori communities, potentially leading to more effective and equitable outcomes. The initiative is widely seen as a step towards rectifying historical injustices and honouring Te Tiriti o Waitangi, acknowledging Māori as equal partners in governance.

Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images

The concept of proportional representation would aim to ensure diverse iwi and hapū are fairly represented, reflecting the varied interests within te ao Māori. A Māori parliament could potentially have jurisdiction over important areas such as land rights, education, health and cultural affairs, allowing for more specialised and focused governance. If integrated as an upper house or parallel legislative body, a bicameral system could contribute to a more thorough review and debate of laws. The idea of a Māori parliament provides a platform to address inequality within the Māori community, promoting more equitable support for all iwi and hapū.

On the other side, there is a potential for further division, as establishing a separate parliament might lead to a more divided society, fostering a sense of segregation rather than unity among citizens of Aotearoa. The existence of two legislative bodies could also complicate the governance process, leading to potential conflicts and inefficiencies in decision-making and policy implementation. Establishing and maintaining a separate parliament would likely require significant financial and administrative resources too, which could be contentious in terms of public funding and prioritisation.

The creation of a Māori parliament would need substantial constitutional changes, which could be difficult to achieve and may face resistance from various political and social groups. Some might argue that establishing a separate parliament could lead to perceptions of preferential treatment, potentially creating tensions among different ethnic and cultural groups in Aotearoa.

“We have not heard from the Māori Party, we’ve heard from a party of radical extremists,” said deputy prime minister Winston Peters in parliament last Thursday in response to Waititi’s speech. “They don’t want democracy, they want anarchy… Make no mistake, racial division is what they want, not unity.”

Determining voter eligibility could also be difficult and would need a fair and transparent process to verify Māori descent and ensure inclusivity. Managing potential conflicts of interest and interactions between Māori MPs serving in both the Māori parliament and the general parliament could also be challenging. 

Defining the legislative powers and whether the Māori parliament would have the authority to pass laws or serve in an advisory capacity would be a crucial part of avoiding overlap and confusion. 

“I think a Māori parliament is a backwards idea,” Holly Bennett, kaiwhakahaere of lobbying firm Awhi, said on LinkedIn.

“I don’t see the need for a separate system when iwi and hapū Māori governors could make a decision to arm themselves and their kaimahi with the tools utilised by other legacy interests for over one hundred years,” Bennett said.

Establishing clear mechanisms for resolving conflicts between the Māori parliament and the general parliament would also be necessary to maintain functional governance. 

Ensuring adequate and sustainable funding for the Māori parliament, balancing public funding priorities, and coordinating with existing institutions in health, education, legal and judicial systems to ensure consistency and fairness in service delivery and law application are also significant considerations.

There are several potential models for a Māori parliament, detailed in the Matike Mai report, that offer unique features. The tricameral model includes an iwi and hapū group, parliament, and a joint group for collaboration, ensuring strong Māori representation but with potential complexity and costs. The three-sphere model adds urban Māori groups, while a variation with regional assemblies localises decision-making but increases administrative complexity. The multi-sphere model integrates direct relationships and annual assemblies, promoting comprehensive representation but risking confusion. The unicameral model simplifies governance with a single assembly for joint decisions, though it may not fully capture diverse Māori interests. The bicameral model separates an iwi and hapū assembly from parliament, supporting traditional governance but potentially limiting collaboration. Other options include a federal Māori government, a consultative assembly, and a cultural council, each with its own governance and representation challenges.

The establishment of a Māori parliament involves complex considerations around representation, jurisdiction, governance, funding, and integration with existing institutions. While it offers significant potential benefits for Māori representation, cultural preservation and self-determination, it also presents challenges that would require careful planning, extensive dialogue and collaboration among all involved to create a structure that honours Te Tiriti o Waitangi, promotes equity, and ensures effective governance for all New Zealanders.

This is Public Interest Journalism funded by NZ On Air.

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