New Zealand’s system of government is modeled on the institutions and conventions of Westminster, but has successfully adapted to local needs and changing norms. For instance, Maori parliamentary seats were adopted in 1867, and women gained the vote in 1893. Parliament terminated its own upper House, the Legislative Council, in 1951. And we voted for MMP in 1993.
While maintaining many vestiges of English tradition, our Parliament and many top-level official functions also incorporate elements of tikanga Maori. But the new year has been kicked off with controversy about protocol at an official powhiri. The traditional seating and speaking rights that place men at the front on the paepae have clashed with the principle of equality of the genders. Should senior female politicians, whether they like it or not, be seated at the back and be barred from speaking at an official welcome to parliament, in compliance with Maori custom?
Tariana Turia says that tangata whenua won’t accept ‘artificial modifications’
to the traditional powhiri, and that Parliament and the whole country will be the better off for observing two traditions when they are ‘integrated without compromising the integrity of either.’
First, it’s odd to see Mrs Turia resurrect the ‘integration’ idea, which dates back to the early 1960s, and which I thought had been rejected by biculturalism. But, secondly, it’s hard to see how her version of ‘integration’ can happen without some compromise. Women MPs simply have to take a back seat, if we agree with Mrs Turia, and that compromises New Zealanders’ respect for gender-equality. Non-Maori women (and men) are expected to embrace Maori protocol and yet not ask to modify it. Westminster protocols can and do evolve with the times, but Maori protocols cannot be changed, in her view.
Mrs Turia, who represents a Maori electorate, occupies a seat in Parliament that exists thanks to a ‘compromise’ made to the Westminster model back in 1867. At the time, MPs were concerned about this special exception and they hoped it would be temporary. Critics today argue that it was a tokenistic compromise. For various reasons, New Zealand has retained the Maori electoral roll, despite continuing reservations. But, due to a further modification to parliamentary protocol, Mrs Turia is now welcome to address the House in either Maori or English.
She also holds her seat and speaks freely in the House, as a woman, thanks to a long-term political struggle for women’s rights and equality that began in the nineteenth century. In keeping with the principle of gender-equality, no one questions Mrs Turia’s right to stand for office and to speak in public. In today’s Parliament, women can and do sit on the front benches.
In the light of all that history of adaptation to parliamentary tradition, a little compromise on protocol from Mrs Turia and Te Atiawa would look reasonable and generous. But it's up to them.