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How Has Pro Rep Worked for New Zealand’s Māori?

And would changing BC’s electoral system do anything for Indigenous representation?

Andrew MacLeod 6 Nov

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria and the author of All Together Healthy (Douglas & McIntyre, 2018). Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

Using a proportional electoral system has increased representation for Māori people in New Zealand, but the way it’s done that has shifted dramatically over time, says University of British Columbia associate professor Sheryl Lightfoot.

“Even though in 2017 we had more Māori MPs than ever before, there is no longer a Māori Party in parliament,” Lightfoot said. “Proportional representation both enabled the birth of the Māori Party and then allowed it to at least temporarily die in parliament.”

The Indigenous studies and political science professor shared her observations of New Zealand’s system as British Columbia voters participate in their own mail-in referendum on electoral reform.

The ballot asks voters whether they want to keep B.C.’s first-past-the-post electoral system or switch to one of three proportional representation systems designed to ensure that political parties win a number of seats more closely tied to their share of the vote.

New Zealand uses a Mixed Member Proportional system like one of the three options on the B.C. ballot. The other two systems haven’t been used anywhere previously.

In B.C., Indigenous people represent roughly six per cent of the population. They are spread throughout the province and don’t form a majority in any one constituency.

How a change might affect them, and other geographically spread-out groups, is part of the discussion about electoral reform in the province.

Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs Grand Chief Stewart Phillip has argued in favour of making the change to a proportional system, as has Squamish councilor Khelsilem.

“To me, I think it would be welcome from an Indigenous perspective, simply because the power base is broken up,” said Green Party MLA Adam Olsen who represents Saanich North and the Islands and is from the Tsartlip First Nation.

“Power is more broadly spread across the political spectrum [under a proportional system], which for minority groups is more advantageous,” he said, noting that Indigenous people are currently a minority in the province.

Under first-past-the-post, it has been rare for Indigenous people to be elected in B.C. though the current parliament of 87 includes five people who self-identify as Indigenous.

“It’s taken a long time to get to where we’re at,” Olsen said. “In the past, if we look at this critically, I would say all parties have been dismal in running Indigenous candidates in ridings that are ‘safe ridings’, or ridings that they intend on winning. All are pretty good at running [Indigenous] candidates in ridings that they have no intention of winning or don’t think they can win.”

If the system is changed to one that’s proportional, parties’ entire approach to elections would shift, he said. “We could expect that parties would have Indigenous candidates in much more advantageous positions than it being an afterthought or a stat they’d like to have.”

Ellis Ross, a former Haisla chief who is now a BC Liberal MLA representing Skeena, takes the opposite view.

“The current system serves Aboriginals very well,” he said. “Not just [on] the provincial level, it serves them very well at their local level, their council level, it serves them very well in municipal elections. I don’t think that’s the issue here.”

There’s a deeper problem, he said. “The issue is Aboriginals don’t have a clue what’s going on. They have no interest. That’s part of the problem I’ve been trying to address is the apathy, not only for provincial elections but federal elections, but also their own council elections.”

Ross dismissed the idea that changing the electoral system would make a difference.

Apathy or principle?

Political scientist Lightfoot said whether or not a change of system increases Indigenous people’s participation in elections probably depends on the reasons why they aren’t voting.

In some cases, Indigenous people see themselves as part of sovereign nations. The province is a body to interact with, not participate in. “I don’t think it’s going to have any effect on those that are principled non-voters and [who] prefer a nation-to-nation relationship. I don’t see them coming off of that in any real way.”

But for people who feel apathetic, like their participation doesn’t matter or that they are unlikely to see their views reflected, it could entice them to vote if they feel their vote is less likely to be wasted on a candidate or party unlikely to get elected, she said.

Lightfoot, who is Anishinaabe from the Lake Superior Band of Ojibwe, stressed that she doesn’t speak in any way on behalf of the Māori or First Nations in B.C., but as an interested observer.

While New Zealand and B.C. are comparable in many ways, with similar histories and populations, there are some key differences, she said.

New Zealand has one treaty with Māori that has covered the entire country since 1840, while almost none of B.C. is subject to treaties and questions about Aboriginal title are still being resolved through the courts and negotiation.

Also, in B.C. there are more than 30 Indigenous language groups and some 60 dialects spoken, while in New Zealand the Māori are all part of a single language group.

There have also been different patterns of political participation.

“Māori, from a much earlier stage in the settler-colonial relationship, engaged in electoral politics much more extensively,” Lightfoot said, noting that starting in 1867 there were four seats reserved for Māori in New Zealand’s parliament, a number raised to seven in 2002.

“The [dedicated Māori] seats were definitely viewed as a temporary solution,” she said. “While they were a forced assimilation tool initially, they became quite important to Māori.”

Māori Party rise and fall

In 1996, New Zealand’s first election that used the Mixed Member Proportional system, 13 people of Māori descent were elected to the 120-seat parliament.

“At that point, the Māori reps in parliament were proportional to their population, for the first time in history,” Lightfoot said, noting Māori comprise between 15 and 20 per cent of the population. “Mixed Member Proportional did bring that in.”

Initially, most Māori were elected as members of the centre-left Labour Party, but there was a seismic shift in 2004. “Under the Labour government there was a decision made to essentially, in one move, remove all Māori rights to foreshore and seabed of the entire country, which did not play well in the Māori community as you can imagine.”

Several of the Labour MPs formed a new Māori Party that competed in the next general election and won enough seats to hold the balance of power. With continued anger at Labour over the foreshore and seabed issue, they ended up helping the centre-right National Party form government.

The coalition held together for several years, but as issues came up around offshore oil and gas exploration, Māori water rights and spending cuts, the support eroded. “It operated as a centre-right party does in all places,” Lightfoot said. “There was a gradual backlash.”

In 2017, New Zealand’s most recent election, the Māori Party failed to win a single seat. But a record 29 Māori were elected representing five different parties. “There are high-level Māoris in every political party now,” she said.

Over 20 years, the electoral system in New Zealand has enabled dramatic shifts.

“I think the system’s probably much more responsive to the Māori political moods than a first-past-the-post system would be,” Lightfoot said. “It’s dynamic. It responds to current political events and shifts, in a pretty quick manner.”

More representation, unpredictable form

If B.C. voters were to choose a Mixed Member Proportional system like New Zealand’s, Lightfoot said, “I think what we could expect would be an increase in Indigenous representation, but the form that would take is unpredictable.”

She said there are trade-offs regardless of which system is chosen, and more discussion is needed than has been possible under the government’s timeline for the referendum.

Nor did she think the discussion about electoral reform should distract from the larger discussion about Aboriginal rights and title in the province.

Green MLA Olsen said it’s not enough to rely on the courts to recognize rights and title. “If we’re just going to continue to look to the courts to make the decisions, then we are going to be creeping along at a painfully slow pace, and Indigenous people are going to be taken advantage of in that scenario.”

He said there are diverse opinions among Indigenous people and that it makes sense to be part of decision-making processes that affect them. “Those that don’t participate, it’s to their own peril,” he said.

“It is really beneficial for Indigenous voices to be in [government]. It benefits the political parties, but it also benefits ministers and deputy ministers if their advisors have an experience of growing up on a reserve, growing up in Indigenous communities.”

Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister Scott Fraser said the consultation process on electoral reform heard from more than 3,000 Indigenous people.

“The vast majority expressed that they didn’t feel they were being reflected in the legislature, that their voices aren’t being heard. I think that’s part of the disenfranchisement with the current process,” he said. “One of the selling features with proportional is it’s a much better form of representation. It’s much more representative.”

There’s also been discussion around dedicating a certain number of seats in the legislature to Indigenous people, similar to what New Zealand does, and the government plans to look at the possibility regardless of the referendum’s outcome, Fraser said. “There’s a commitment we’ve made to investigate that.”

Fraser said he wishes the referendum debate were focused more on the merits of the four systems and less on scare tactics by some campaigners. “That’s just disappointing.”

UBC’s Lightfoot also said there’s need for a more in-depth discussion. “I wish there were more time for Indigenous voters to discuss it,” she said. “I wish there were more time for the chiefs to discuss.”

The timeline the government set has been too short, she said. “It feels very rushed, and I think some of these issues, particularly for communities that are strongly concerned about their Aboriginal rights and title, there are some concerns they would like to digest a little more, and I think they are feeling pushed to get this out onto the referendum just a little faster than they are comfortable with.”

Many people don’t feel well enough informed, she added. “I wish we had another year to have a deeper conversation, but the referendum is here and now, so here we go.”

Ballots were mailed out to voters across the province in the past two weeks. To be counted, Elections BC needs to receive the ballots back by 4:30 p.m. on Nov. 30.  [Tyee]

Read more: Indigenous, Politics

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