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Representation in a democracy is a basic human right

Representation in a democracy is a basic human right says Sharples -
Crown Entities Debate. Parliament, Wellington

Mr Speaker, I stand to take a call on the Electoral Commission, including the functions of the Chief Electoral Officer.

If one was to look at the 2012/13 financial review that was presented to the Justice and Electoral Committee it would be pretty underwhelming. Two sentences in fact, the emphasis being that there were “no matters to bring to the attention of the House”.

Run that past me again?

I would have thought that the fact that only 58% of the indigenous peoples of this land turned up to vote in the last general election might have been a matter of some concern to the Crown Entity charged with promoting public awareness of electoral matters as part of their responsibility for preparing and conducting general elections.

In stark number terms, while there are 462,000 Māori who are of voting age and eligible to vote, less than 270,000 proceeded to take up that voting opportunity at the ballot box.

Forty thousand Māori disappeared at the first hurdle – that is the enrolment table.

But when we get to turnout of the vote, the statistics are deplorable.

Mr Speaker, the Electoral Commission is an independent Crown entity – they should operate strategies to increase democratic participation without being accused of a bias towards any political party.

In 2012/13 its total revenue was $27 million – but here’s the irony.

In the 2012/13 financial review the Electoral Commission only spent $22 million, returning a surplus of close to five million dollars.

Five million dollars that could usefully have been spent in investing in the challenge of how to increase Māori electoral turnout – and in doing so how to improve the effectiveness of our democracy.

I would hasten to say that the issue of low turnout is not only a feature of Māori voting preferences. In a paper by Jack Vowels, Down, Down, Down: Turnout in New Zealand from 1946 to the 2011 Election, Mr Vowels reported the views of one commentator, who declared the relative absence of voters in the polling booths in 2011, as ‘the saddest day for democracy in New Zealand’.

In fact, Mr Vowels concludes that to find a New Zealand election with lower official turnout than 2011, one must go back to 1887, well before when women attained voting rights.

So I’m sorry, but I cannot fathom how the Justice and Electoral Commission found nothing to report on when looking at the financial review of the Electoral Commission.

Voting is of paramount importance to the running of a healthy democracy. It is about the people being empowered to take action to cast a vote and make their voice heard.

We need to be out and proud – casting a vote is our right, it is our duty, it is our responsibility. The power of voting is the power of change, it's the power of voicing views and making a mark in history.

The Māori Party has a couple of ideas about how we could make the change our nation needs so clearly in terms of voting participation.

We have drafted legislation to enable all Māori to be automatically entered on to the Māori roll with an option to transfer to the general roll. This would take the complexity out of the Māori electoral option campaign – given that the majority of Māori are enrolled on the Māori roll, it would make sense to make that roll the default roll, and provide individuals with the choice to opt on to the general roll if they see fit.

Another key campaign the Māori Party recommends is encouraging a focus on education for engaged and active citizenship. We need to increase the ease of voting; make voting more exciting and increase its relevance and make it easier to register to vote.

Mr Speaker, last week I introduced a new curriculum priority in ensuring Māori history is known and taught and promoted in our schools. I am hopeful with that new emphasis on knowing our stories, it may well encourage a far stronger reason why all New Zealanders understand the value of the vote – the significance of having a say.

Representation in a democracy is not only a basic human right, but it is also necessary if we want to make sure our nation moves forward together.

I would hope that next time the Electoral Commission comes up for debate before the House, there will indeed be something to talk about – a new energy and commitment to making our votes count.

ENDS

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