Green Party Letter to the Speaker

13 May 2021

Tēnā koe Mr Speaker,

Recent discussions in the House have drawn attention to Standing Orders relating to conduct, language, and accusations of racism. On behalf of the Green Party, we welcome the commitment you have shown to considering this serious issue.

We are writing to set out our perspective, following your ruling of 12 May 2021.

Firstly, we appreciate your ruling that members may accuse other members’ views and policies of being racist. This will raise the standard of honest debate in Parliament.

Our perspective starts with the fact that Māori are tangata whenua, guaranteed rights under Aotearoa New Zealand’s founding document, te Tiriti o Waitangi. Successive Governments have not upheld te Tiriti o Waitangi, a fact which the Crown has accepted.

We also hold the view that systems, structures, and institutions can be racist, not just people and views. This is an essential point given current events. For example, it is different to accuse the Police of being a racist institution, than it is to accuse an individual constable.

However, systems, structures, and institutions are built and shaped by people. People can change them too. This is what Members of Parliament are elected to do.

It is a privilege to be elected to Parliament, and it comes with responsibilities which we take very seriously. The standard of conduct and debate in this House echoes far beyond its walls. To allow racism in Parliament enables it outside of Parliament.

To raise the standard of debate in the House requires members to be able to call out racism by other members. In the context of many historical and ongoing breaches of te Tiriti, it is essential that Māori voices in this House in particular are not prevented from calling out these breaches and from calling out racism.

Aotearoa New Zealand has so far not seen the kind of polarised, violent, extremist politics at a scale that we are witnessing in many other democracies. But the conditions for it may exist in Aotearoa, and we must work to prevent it taking hold. We have a responsibility as parliamentarians to maintain and improve the standard of our political conduct. This includes calling each other out when a member says something that disregards te Tiriti, marginalises any group, or is racist. To do those things is offensive, and to call them out is leadership.

Racism is offensive whether or not it is directed at us. And racism is offensive whether it comes from a person, an idea, or an institution.

Racism is offensive when it is explicit and it is offensive when it is implicit. Carefully chosen words like “separatism” and “race-based policies” are often used deliberately to incite feelings of division. Te Tiriti calls for partnership: partnership is not separatism. Te Tiriti demands justice: policies to achieve justice are not “race-based”, they are te Tiriti-based. In Parliament, members have a responsibility to debate without succumbing to implicit racism and without using language that is deliberately chosen to perpetuate racist narratives.

When we accuse a member of racism, or state that we think their views and policies are racist, it is not just because we have taken personal offence. It is because of offence to whānau and to whole communities. It is because when members make racist statements they send a message that it is ok for other people to make similar statements. They strengthen harmful narratives that exist in our country. We cannot allow those narratives to grow.

We know some members believe the institution of Parliament is racist. Your ruling that it is acceptable to call out racist views and policies in the Chamber is therefore a positive step.

Speakers Ruling 44(1), from 1998, states that there have never been “parties espousing openly racist polices in this Chamber.” The historical record shows otherwise. From the early years of Parliament in Aotearoa onwards, Governments have enacted racist policies. For example, the Native Land Act 1865 had a distinct purpose of encouraging the “extinction of proprietary customs”, and the Native Schools Act 1867 prohibited teaching in te reo Māori.

More recently, some political parties have sometimes promoted racist policies, particularly around immigration issues.

Just as you said that “matters which might have been seen as not being racist in New Zealand 20 or 40 years ago are now”, we should also consider whether rulings on how to deal with accusations of racism that were made over twenty years ago are still appropriate now.

There is racism in Parliament and there has been for a long time. We all have a responsibility to call it out when we hear it, to exercise our duty of care to the health of our people and of our Parliament.

We would welcome a meeting with you to discuss this issue further.

Ngā mihi,

Access the original letter here