MAX HAYTON. Democracies work despite flaws.

Oct 23, 2018

The electoral laws in New Zealand and Australia differ in significant ways. There are claims New Zealand may have the more democratic system.

The democracies in Australia and New Zealand produce governments with credible and legitimate mandates, but look hard enough and flaws can be found.

An example is the exclusion of a substantial minority of Australian residents from taking part in elections. This is discussed in a recent article by Joo-Cheong Tham a professor at the Melbourne Law School. 

He said that at the last count two years ago about 1.5 million people or about six percent of the Australian population were non-tourist temporary visa holders. They lived in Australia, sometimes for years, in most respects participating in Australian society and life, but were not citizens so could not vote.

These include people working on temporary work visas, international students or those who are entitled to remain in Australia because they are New Zealanders. If they are not citizens they cannot vote.

To defend this situation could lead to the exclusion of other minorities from the political process. 

How long a person should reside in Australia before being granted the right to vote is a matter for debate. 

Joo-Cheong Tham proposes one year of living continuously with the intent of remaining in Australia is long enough for immigrants to be “considered members of this country and entitled to a say in its political processes”.

That is how it works in New Zealand. In 1975 Parliament extended the right to vote to all permanent residents of New Zealand regardless of whether they were citizens. The move was part of a comprehensive revision of New Zealand’s electoral laws by the then Labour government.

Currently voters must be aged 18 or over, be a New Zealand citizen, permanent resident, resident visa holder, an Australian citizen or other person entitled to reside in New Zealand indefinitely, and have lived in New Zealand for one year or more continuously at some point.

It is compulsory to enrol as an elector in New Zealand but not compulsory to vote in elections. Even so the average turnout in recent decades has been between 77 percent and 93 percent of enrolled electors, which is high by international standards. This compares with 91-96 percent in Australia where voting is compulsory.

New Zealand is unusual for granting voting rights to non-citizens. As those on the political right muster arguments against immigration they have previously but without success argued that immigrants should first become citizens before they can vote.

The extension of the franchise in 1975 appears not to have had a major impact on election outcomes. The General Election in November that year was the first general election when 18 to 20-year-olds and permanent residents of New Zealand were eligible to vote. 

In that election the Government changed from Labour to National (conservative), not because of the changes in election laws. The victory by National, led by Robert Muldoon is attributed to racist and misleading TV advertisements made in California. The Muldoon government survived for nine years to be replaced by Labour in 1984.

New Zealand’s experience has been of reasonable political stability. Further study would be needed to determine whether Australia could expect a similar result if non-citizen residents were to be enfranchised.

Voting rights for non-citizens is not a matter for current public debate in New Zealand at present, but discussion on another aspect of voting law is heating up. It came about almost by chance.

Members of New Zealand’s Parliament interested in raising particular matters for debate may put forward a Private Member’s Bill. Not all can be debated so a lottery is run to decide which bills go on the Order Paper. 

In September a Labour MP Rino Tirikatene won the ballot with a bill that touches on deep constitutional and race issues in New Zealand, and which might be illuminating for those interested in the political representation of Aboriginals in Australia.

There’s much history involved. In 1867 New Zealand introduced Maori Electorates to allow Maori men to take part in the political process. This was because Maori communal ownership of land meant they could not easily qualify under the land ownership provisions that governed European voters who vote in General Electorates.

This need became redundant when universal suffrage was introduced ending the land ownership qualification. However the Maori seats survived, and at last year’s election there were seven Maori seats. They all voted for Labour Party candidates.

There have been several attempts to abolish the Maori Electorates. In 1986 the Royal Commission on the Electoral System made recommendations that included abolition of the Maori seats if Mixed Member Proportional voting was introduced.

The reasoning was that MMP would increase the representation of minority parties and could lead to an over-representation of Maori in Parliament.

MMP was adopted, the Maori Seats were retained and the Commission’s prediction proved correct.

All seven Maori Seats and several other General Seats are occupied by MPs of Maori descent. A recent count by Maori Television News found 29 MPs are of Maori descent. This is just under a quarter of all 120 MPs, including the leaders or deputy leaders of all the political parties (at the time of writing).

In the 2013 census about 600,000 New Zealanders identified as Maori, about fifteen percent of the population. 

However despite their strong representation in Parliament the general Maori population continues to suffer from poor social and economic statistics and high incarceration rates.

In Australia the Lower House is made up of 150 politicians while the Senate has 76. Assuming that Aboriginal people constitute 3% of the population, Australia should have at least 6 Aboriginal federal parliamentarians. There are five.

There have been renewed arguments for abolition of the Maori seats in New Zealand. The New Zealand First Party led by the prominent Maori politician who became the deputy Prime Minister, Winston Peters, campaigned last year for a binding referendum on whether to abolish the Maori seats.

Rino Tirikatene’s bill attempts to head off abolition of the Maori seats. It seeks to entrench the provisions of the electoral law (1993) so that the Maori seats cannot be removed without a 75 percent majority of Parliament or a majority in a national referendum.

Tirikatene is an example of part of the argument put forward by the bill’s opponents. He is elite Maori, part of a Maori political dynasty. His aunt was Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan, a Labour Government Cabinet Minister in the 1970s, and his grandfather was Sir Eruera Tirikatene. Between them they held the Southern Maori seat for 64 years from 1932-1996.

The Labour led coalition supported the bill. It will be considered by a Select Committee. The National Party Opposition opposed the bill. 

New Zealand First has modified its position. Peters now wants a referendum in two parts, on whether the Maori seats should be abolished or retained, and if retained should they be entrenched?

While Australians may look over the Tasman and believe that New Zealand is more successful in integrating its indigenous peoples into the political arena, the Tirikatene Bill has the potential to raise a serious and possibly acrimonious debate about race and politics in New Zealand. 

Max Hayton is a former political journalist and foreign editor in New Zealand.

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