Equal suffrage is a fundamental principle of liberal democracy and is equally underpinned by the principles of Te Tiriti, writes Jack Vowles 

Comment: Recent discussion of voting rights in Aotearoa-New Zealand has zoomed in on the concept of ‘the tyranny of the majority’. Some go so far as to say that we have a problem of ‘white majority rule’. The argument goes that because Māori are a minority they are unable to defend and enhance their rights under Te Tiriti o Waitangi through elections, because they can always be outvoted.  

The Rotorua Lakes District Council apparently sought to address this problem by seeking to reduce the weight of votes that could be cast in its proposed General electoral roll ward to just under 40 percent of those in its Māori ward. This was ruled out of order by the Local Electoral Act and the Bill of Rights Act. It also contravened the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights.

It even contravenes Article 3 of Te Tiriti which says that in New Zealand we all have equal rights as citizens, Māori and non-Māori alike. The value of everyone’s votes should be as equal as possible. ‘Equal suffrage’ is a fundamental principle of liberal democracy and is equally underpinned by the principles of Te Tiriti.

Worry about ‘the tyranny of the majority’ is not a new concern, and ironically it comes out of the liberal tradition itself. The most famous liberal political philosopher John Stuart Mill feared the extension of voting rights to the working class and poor and actually proposed giving more weight to the voting rights of the most highly educated.

Like others at the time, he was concerned that property rights would be threatened by a majority seeking the redistribution of wealth. Even at the time, before universal suffrage, few supported this idea.

Mill was on stronger ground in his support of proportional representation as a means of making sure that governments would need more votes to secure a majority than are needed under a first past the post system. Under first past the post, governments can usually secure seat majorities without gaining a majority of the votes, and minorities often rule as a result.

The principle of equal suffrage has become strongly accepted over the past half century in tandem with the consolidation of representative democracies around the world. In Aotearoa-New Zealand the principle has only been fully applied since 1996 and it is Māori who have been among those fighting for it. When the Māori electorates were first established, their number did not reflect the relative size of Māori and Pākehā populations at the time. But Pākehā voting rights were then limited by a property qualification, and Māori rights were not, muddying the waters for a fair comparison. By the time universal adult suffrage was implemented, four Māori seats did provide for representation proportionate to the population balance between Māori and Pākehā, and probably more by accident than design this balance remained in place until the late 1940s.

After the 1946 election, the Labour Party was narrowly re-elected and the four Māori seats it had won with the support of the Rātana movement provided Labour with its parliamentary majority. As the Māori population was now growing more than that of Pākehā there was a case for more Māori electorates but the National governments that followed Labour from the 1950s onwards were not keen to increase their number. Indeed in 1975 the Muldoon National government reversed the previous Labour government’s attempt to do so.

The principle of equal suffrage was also ignored by the so-called country quota, which gave just over a quarter more voting weight to people in rural electorates. This affront to equal suffrage was only recognised in 1956 when the country quota was abolished, and total population became the basis for the setting of electorate boundaries. At the time, this marginally benefitted rural electorates, in which people tended to have larger families. Today, it probably somewhat benefits lower-income electorates with large Pasifika populations who now tend to have the larger families, and probably slightly boosts the number of Māori electorates for a similar reason. But there is an underlying principle behind total rather than adult population. The idea is that we vote on behalf of our children as well as ourselves. And under MMP’s party vote, of course, equal adult suffrage fully applies anyway.

Few people now argue some people’s votes should count for more than others, although some radical political philosophers do argue for more weight to be given to the votes of historically oppressed minorities. But even in practical terms, most political scientists would argue that this is a very bad idea, likely to provoke wide opposition among a majority of reasonable and moderate people and stimulate a nasty racist reaction among a small but intense minority on the radical right.

Fears of ‘majority tyranny’ are not entirely misplaced. In liberal thinking the primary defence of both individual and group rights against potential majority attack has been through constitutional limits on the power of governments. But these can go too far, as exemplified by the case of the United States.

As Mill argued long ago, proportional representation tends to facilitate the appropriate representation of minorities. Once given that representation, politicians representing minorities can leverage considerable influence, acting as pivots between large parties and often participating in governments. This has been the experience of Aotearoa-New Zealand under MMP, particularly after the advent of Te Pāti Māori. Moreover, democracy is not just about the elections that only happen every three years. Within government, in Parliament, the public service, lobbying, and broader debate, it is about deliberation, the making of claims, and the defence of interests, in which the weight of argument and influence often has greater effect than numbers or the counting of votes. In those forums, the voice of Māori now rings loud and clear. Democracy is not just about voting in elections. But equal voting rights still remain one of its most important foundations.

Professor Jack Vowles is in the Political Science and International Relations programme at Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington.

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