Library of Congress, Washington D.C. / Wikimedia Commons.
The midterms were an exciting sign of change for America. Representation for women and people of colour increased to historic levels, despite widespread voter suppression. Seeing all these historic ‘firsts’ rolling across the screen was as shocking as it was exciting. First time more than a hundred women will sit in the House. First time a Native American woman has been elected.
As much as those achievements represent progress, they shouldn’t be happening for the first time in 2018. Groups of indigenous people and women are celebrating ‘firsts’ which should be a bare minimum level of representation. Iriaka Rātana, New Zealand’s first wāhine Māori MP, walked into Parliament in 1949. Why has it taken so long for America?
It’s not because Americans are all racist conservatives. It’s because the American electoral system blocks representatives from diverse groups in favour of majority interests, every time. Indigenous representation is a particularly stark example of how New Zealand succeeds where America fails at electing representatives from diverse backgrounds. I can’t imagine a world in which no Māori women have ever sat in Parliament. But that was essentially the position in America until these midterms.
In New Zealand, four Māori seats were established in 1867. The seats have a complicated history involving some dodgy voter suppression tactics, but they have guaranteed Māori representation for 151 years. Since 1871, Māori have held, at a minimum, around 5% of seats in New Zealand Parliament.
In all of Congress, since its first meeting in 1789, there have been 23 Native American representatives in total (including the two amazing women elected a few days ago). That is shocking.
It’s not just America’s weird electoral system that makes Aotearoa look good. There are currently four indigenous representatives in Australian Federal Parliament, which is an all-time high. That’s 1% of the seats in their Parliament. Based on the number of seats, that’s equivalent to Māori representation… in 1871. If you take the percentage of seats, it’s much lower than that – i.e. lower than the level of Māori representation at the peak of colonial violence in New Zealand.
Against our Parliament today, Australia looks even worse. Māori representatives in New Zealand currently have 29 seats. Proportionally, Māori have about 12 times the representation of indigenous Australians, even including all of the state legislatures.
There’s a limit to how much applause we can give ourselves. Damage from colonisation is ever present in the political arena. There are many areas that we could improve on, including LGBTI representation. But we’re doing a lot better than the rest of the world, and I’m proud of that.
Why is New Zealand doing well? Partly it’s the Māori seats; partly it’s the MMP voting system. We got rid of first-past-the-post, a system that Australia still uses and America has a warped version of, in 1993. The main reason: we wanted our representatives to actually reflect the desires of the voting population.
New Zealand reformed the electoral system to allow all groups to have a say. Electoral change in America, with the notable exception of Florida, tends to have the opposite focus. Where reform does happen, laws make it harder for oppressed groups to vote.
We have our concerns – political donations are certainly one of them – but our democracy is healthy. It’s easy to vote. There are no complicated identification requirements. We don’t (usually) have to queue for hours. MMP allows us to choose representatives who reflect with our interests, rather allowing the majority to dominate.
As long as America and Australia keep voting systems that block diverse groups from representation, change is going to be torturously slow. There will be wins to celebrate from time to time, but New Zealand’s history shows that achieving diverse representation requires systemic change. Representation should not be a battle tilted against minority groups.Support Villainesse