The introduction of proportional representation in the form of MMP was a good and necessary reform. Prior to 1996, First Past the Post (FPP) elections regularly produced skewed outcomes and vested way too much power in governing parties backed by little more than one-third of the electorate. In some cases, the party that won the most votes, like Labour in 1981, failed to win enough marginal seats to claim office. By the time proportional representation entered the conversation, in the midst of disorienting waves of reform by successive governments in the 80s and 90s, the typically referenda-averse New Zealand electorate was so despairing of our political system we jumped to embrace a German voting system with a clumsy acronym.
It’s a good thing we did.
Comparatively high levels of public trust in our democratic institutions, whoever is in government, is all that stands between us and a descent into the morass of grievance-fuelled populism. If the past nine elections had been held under FPP and not MMP, our politics would be as ugly and depressing today as it is in the US and the UK, where flawed electoral systems continue to produce unjust outcomes, driving turnout down and distrust up.
But, for all its flaws, I have a touch of nostalgia for the FPP era, when elections played out as hand to hand combat – fought and won street by street, door to door, in a handful of decisive electorates. It produced a subspecies of politician – the marginal seat MP, the tireless local champion – who brought a grounded, practical perspective to bear against the more technocratic impulses of their colleagues. I’m thinking of Harry Duynhoven in New Plymouth, or Judy Keall in Glenfield and, later, Horowhenua.
When it comes to the thrill of political competition at the grassroots, Māori seats are where you’ll find the best action under MMP. Not only are the elections hotly contested in many cases, MPs and wannabe MPs in Māori electorates are still judged by the old FPP metrics: deep connections, constant visibility and real results.
Based on those measures, I’m closing the year with a shout out to our Māori MPs. No group worked harder this year in the race to avert the worst of Covid. There’s a lot of justifiable criticism, including from the Waitangi Tribunal, when it comes to the failure to get enough vaccines into enough Māori arms. It’s galling to think the fear of a backlash over bad faith claims of “separatism” may have caused the Government to ignore advice in favour of targeted strategies. But I want to stress how much worse the disparities would be were it not for the efforts of Māori Members of Parliament from across the Chamber.
Often in the face of widespread disinformation, they spoke in unison and with clarity on the benefits of vaccination, and matched words with action on the ground, at the Iwi, hapu, whānau and individual level. National’s Shane Reti literally delivered vaccines himself. While rates of vaccination remain a concern, particularly among Māori youth, our koro and kuia are well protected – and their parliamentary representatives, along with Iwi leaders and frontline Māori health workers, deserve a lot of credit.
On another front in Māori wellness, Kiritapu Allan shone brightly this year. Turning her own battle with the disease into a cause, Allan has inspired countless women to get tested for cervical cancer – “your family wants you, needs you, to stay healthy for them”, she urged women earlier this month.
As I wrap up the year with some festive plaudits, another formidable wāhine of colour comes to mind: Minister for Social Development, Carmel Sepuloni. Even without the added pressures of managing her part of the Covid response, Sepuloni’s portfolio is usually a minefield. Given the added complexities and challenges of overseeing what was essentially a massive new benefits scheme cooked up overnight, the absence of serious missteps or scandal under her watch is quite remarkable. Staying out of the headlines carries a far higher degree of difficulty than dominating them for someone in Sepuloni’s job, and yet she remains a calm, quiet, competent presence.
My final shout goes to the New Zealand public service. 2021 was another thankless year, especially as the public grew increasingly agitated with lockdowns and travel restrictions. There’s a lot of anger out there, and public sector workers bear the brunt. Implementing a whole-of-government pandemic response on the fly, as the virus evolves and mutates, and doing so under the unblinking gaze of a sceptical public, is as heavy a lift as it gets in public policy. No university course prepares you for that. And yet, when the dust finally settles, the fact we’ve kept mortality to a bare minimum, vaccinated nine out of every 10 eligible citizens, all while avoiding economic catastrophe or budget blowouts, will be judged a great success. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t undertake a comprehensive and clear-eyed review of the Covid response – it’s essential that we do. But, as my whānau, and hopefully yours, enters the Christmas season healthy and happy, I don’t think it’s premature to give thanks to those who dedicated their lives to protecting ours.
Ngā manaakitanga o te wā ki a koutou me te wā kirihimete ki a koe me tō whānau.
In conclusion, I wish you all a Happy Christmas to you and your whānau.
• Shane Te Pou (Ngāi Tūhoe) is a company director at Mega Ltd, a commentator and blogger and a former Labour Party activist.
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