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Racism and democracy: why claims of ‘division by race’ in the NZ election and Voice referendum need challenging

It’s a coincidence that New Zealand elects a new parliament on October 14, the same day Australians decide whether (at the request of Indigenous people) they will entrench in the constitution an Aboriginal and Torres Islander Voice to Parliament. But there is one striking parallel between the two campaigns.

On both sides of the Tasman, some people are claiming Indigenous policies risk their nation being divided along racial lines.

In Australia, opposition leader Peter Dutton argues the Voice “will permanently divide us by race” and “re-racialise” the constitution. He doesn’t mention that the constitution has always allowed governments to discriminate against people of some races.

In New Zealand, the libertarian ACT (Association of Consumers and Taxpayers) party – which according to the polls is likely to be needed by the National Party to form a government – is campaigning with the slogan “End division by race”.

ACT particularly opposes a distinctive Māori voice in public decision making through the co-governance of natural resources and the Māori Health Authority, established this year to allow Māori health experts to make decisions about the funding of Māori primary health services.

The party is calling for a referendum to redefine the Treaty of Waitangi and reduce its influence.

But the treaty itself doesn’t mention race. It was an agreement about how British government could be established without compromising Māori authority over their own people and resources. Importantly, it protected cultural equality – which is what co-governance and the Maori Health Authority try to achieve.

Cultural equality

In my book, Indigeneity, Culture and the UN Sustainable Development Goals, I examine how bringing culture and the experience of colonisation into policy discussions makes a big contribution to what works.

But arguments against these distinctive ways of including Indigenous cultural perspectives and experiences in public policy have often been couched in prejudice, in New Zealand and Australia.

When Labour MP Willow-Jean Prime used the occasional Māori word at a recent campaign debate, for example, there were angry shouts from some in the crowd.


Read more: Colonial ideas have kept NZ and Australia in a rut of policy failure. We need policy by Indigenous people, for the people


The implicit message was not simply that some might prefer to exercise their democratic right to vote for somebody else. It was that Prime was not accepted there as a Māori person using her own language.

Elsewhere, billboards for te Pāti Māori (the Māori Party) have been vandalised in what the party said “feels like a targeted campaign”.

And ACT leader David Seymour joked in a radio interview about his pledge to abolish the Ministry for Pacific Peoples: “In my fantasy, we’d send a guy called Guy Fawkes in there and it’d be all over, but we’ll probably have to have a more formal approach than that.”

Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni said his “remarks are in line with his history of race-baiting and creating divisions, particularly concerning Pasifika and Māori communities”.


Read more: The Voice to Parliament explained


Democracy and racism

Sepuloni’s response didn’t excite much backlash. But in Australia recently, Indigenous academic Marcia Langton was harshly criticised by Dutton and some news media for suggesting racism was influencing the campaign against the Voice to Parliament. At a community meeting in Western Australia, Langton said:

Every time the No cases raise their arguments, if you start pulling it apart you get down to base racism, I’m sorry to say that’s where it lands, or sheer stupidity.

If you look at any reputable fact-checker, every one of them says the No case is substantially false, they are lying to you.

The comments were misreported by some to suggest she was saying “no” voters were always and everywhere motivated by racism, rather than that some of the No side’s arguments were inherently racist.

The implication is that racism can’t be discussed, let alone called out, and even that racist arguments can be a fair and reasonable contribution to public debate. In turn, this makes it harder to discuss its impact at a structural level.

And we know from opinion polls some people have reasons for voting “no” to the Voice that can’t be called racist. Some think it won’t make a big enough difference for Indigenous people, or that it doesn’t challenge the colonial power of the state sufficiently.


Read more: No, the Voice to Parliament would not force people to give up their private land


Democratically, it’s fair to argue about whether the Voice to Parliament is a good response to policy problems. Just as it’s fair to say that a Ministry for Pacific Peoples isn’t the best way to ensure government policies work equitably for Pacific people.

But all people still have a right to influence policy making in ways that work. We all think in ways that reflect our culture and experience. Saying that’s fair for some but not others is to say that Indigenous perspectives and experiences shouldn’t be allowed to contribute to policy decisions.

Interestingly, former Australian prime minister Scott Morrison, who opposes the Voice, still recognised the importance of meaningful Indigenous perspectives when he spoke about the National Agreement on Closing the Gap in 2020:

We perpetuated an ingrained way of thinking, passed down over two centuries and more, and it was the belief that we knew better than our Indigenous peoples. We don’t.

Giving everyone a ‘fair go’

In New Zealand, the Māori Health Authority, which the National party also says it will abolish, was established precisely to counter health policies that didn’t work because Māori people weren’t sufficiently involved in making them.

It followed a Waitangi Tribunal report that found poor Māori health outcomes could be partly explained by the system not allowing Māori knowledge of what works and why to properly influence decision making.

As one of the authority’s advocates explained it, “We would prefer to be the designers of our own destiny.”


Read more: 7 rules for a respectful and worthwhile Voice referendum


The broader policy implication is that inclusion matters. Liberal democracy exists because we all think differently. We bring different experiences, values and aspirations to our ideas about what governments should and shouldn’t do.

There is no objective truth in the business of government. Democracy developed to manage these differences. Sometimes, however, dominant populations use the democratic system to protect their self-interest rather than accommodate the rights and interests of others.

But democracy can also manage differences through what’s known as “participatory parity”. According to the political theorist Nancy Fraser, citizenship means all citizens are entitled to “parity of esteem”. In other words, a “fair go”, which Fraser says requires two conditions:

First, the distribution of material resources must be such as to ensure participants’ independence and “voice” [and] the second condition requires that institutional patterns of cultural value express equal respect for all participants and ensure equal opportunity for achieving social parity.

Participatory parity means everybody should be able to participate in public decisions knowing they have the same chance of influencing the decision as anybody else.

Thinking about what politics should achieve from an Indigenous cultural perspective or through an Indigenous language shouldn’t be a disadvantage. Otherwise, Indigenous people lose independence, voice and equal respect.

Racism – which is to discriminate on the basis of culture, racial or ethnic origin – means democracy can’t give everybody a fair go. So when people like Marcia Langton point out its influence, they contribute to a fairer and more democratic society.

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