History doesn't always go in one direction, so why rush to abolish the Maori seats?
Barry Soper reckons the Māori seats should be abolished because the "need for them has long passed". According to the long-serving Newstalk ZB Political Editor, the fact that about one-fifth of MPs claim Māori descent is proof of this.
I set out my own views on the Māori seats in the Manawatu Standard a while ago. In short:
'[T]he Māori seats symbolise the fact that, when the New Zealand state was brought into existence, it did not assume authority over uninhabited territory. There were already people living here and, prior to the Treaty, Britain had recognised their existence and authority. When assuming sovereignty or governorship over these islands, the Crown gave an undertaking to vouchsafe the interests of those people and their descendants.
We have long squabbled about the exact nature of that undertaking and will continue to do so well into the future. The debate over what that relationship means in the 21st century is also an open one. Nevertheless, there is no quibbling over the essential historical fact of its existence – and the reserved seats are a useful illustration of this.
For me, the potential for those seats to cause mild distortions in Parliament is a price worth paying for the bridge they create between our present and our past. In that way, they are a bit like the House of Lords in the United Kingdom. They confer on our government the legitimacy of tradition and remind us that, in the words of the great British politician Edmund Burke, society is a partnership between "those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born".'
But even if we accept, for the sake of argument, that the reserved seats have little practical utility today, does it follow that we ought to get rid of them?
It is real vanity to assume that the attitudes that prevail today will prevail tomorrow. Any serious examination of history soon puts paid to the presupposition that history inevitably propels us towards mass enlightenment. Things can go backwards and do.
After the Reconstruction Era in the American South, for example, racism and white supremacy became even more socially acceptable and prevalent.
Soper says the seats have become "redundant" - which is great, if true. But when there's a lot on the line, a little redundancy doesn't hurt. Indeed, it can make you feel a lot safer.
Imagine you're walking over a swing bridge suspended over a violent river. Before you venture across, somebody tells you that it was designed to hold three times the weight it would ever need to hold. Does that over-engineering annoy or reassure you?
It's true that sometimes excess redundancy can complicate things needlessly, resulting in a less reliable system. However, as I wrote in support of my earlier point, is the risk of mild distortions in Parliament really such a pressing concern? I guess it could become an issue in the future.
But right now? Not so much. So until then, I think Lucius Cary, 2nd Viscount Falkland had it right when he said: "where it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change".