Are govt petitions hosting racism?

By Kelvin McDonald

A petition being hosted on a government website urging an 'end to all measures that give special treatment to Māori' is being called out by many Māori at a time when Kiwis are being urged to shun racism and hate speech. It comes as reports emerge of anti-Māori pamphlets being distributed in Auckland and questions being asked of government about what more can be done to prevent the spread of hate speech.  

The Petition of Sarah Thompson to "End special treatment for Māori" may not come as any great surprise to Māori familiar with Dr Brash's now infamous Orewa speech

However, coming as it did just 11 days after the racism-driven terror attack in Christchurch and the subsequent calls by the prime minister to rid New Zealand of racism, it sits uncomfortably in this "new" New Zealand that Kiwis are being encouraged to embrace.

At worst, it may be seen as race-baiting or deliberately attempting to inflame racial divide.

"This petition is very divisive," said one non-Māori person on social media. "Without Māori and Māori culture, New Zealand has no heart or soul."

Sarah Thompson's petition to 'End special treatment for Māori' is being labelled as racist by some Māori. (Source/Parliament.NZ)

In her petition, Thompson requests "That the House of Representatives urge the Government to end all measures that give special treatment to people based solely on their Māori ethnicity."

The reason she gives for creating the petition is that "I have had enough of Māori influence everywhere."

Thompson offers examples of situations where she says Māori are favoured.

"In school I never learned about our European heritage; it was all about Māori history," she says. "I believe that Māori should not have any special treatment such as more money on social welfare, lower standards of access to higher education, or special access to healthcare."

She says, "I feel that we are all people and everyone should be treated equally."

To date, Thompson's petition, which closes on 19 April, has received 473 signatures of support.

The reaction from Māori has been much as might be expected.

"Read the petition.....speechless...." said one wāhine on social media.

"Someone who has absolutely no idea of the racist and oppressive history of NZ," a tāne posted.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says, "We each hold the power, in our words and in our actions, in our daily acts of kindness" to reject racism. (Source/TVNZ)

The petition arrives at a time when the prime minister has challenged New Zealanders to be vigilant against racism.

Speaking at Cashmere High School in Christchurch a few days after the shootings, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said, "Let New Zealand be a place where there is no tolerance for racism."

At the subsequent National Remembrance Service, she acknowledged that racism exists in Aotearoa but said it isn't welcome here and emphasised the responsibility every New Zealander has to reject it.

"Our challenge now is to make the very best of us, a daily reality," she said. "We each hold the power, in our words and in our actions, in our daily acts of kindness."

The anti-Māori "One Treaty, One Nation" pamphlet distributed in Auckland. (Photo/Stuff)

It's against this backdrop that Māori have waited to see if much, if anything, would change or if the country would return to 'racism as usual'?

They haven't had long to wait for an answer, if Thompson's petition is anything to go by, or reports of the 'One Treaty, One Nation' pamphlet drop in Auckland's Point Chevalier stack up, including as it does the claim that "The benefits of colonisation for Maoris, lifting them out of a violent Stone Age existence, far outweighed any negative consequences." 

A Māori woman on social media says Thompson's petition is a sign 'nothing has changed' despite calls to rid NZ of racism (Source/Facebook)

On social media, one wāhine Māori singled out Thompson's petition as an example of "racism and hate speech" saying that despite the prime minister's plea "nothing has changed".  It's "#justanotherdaybeingMāori," she said.

"Don't you love it when the cost of citizenship is at the expense and mana of tangata whenua iwi Māori?" she said, "But hey it's not hate speech or racism - it's your right to petition parliament. Go figure!"

She says Māori are coming off second best to people's right to petition parliament in a racist manner.

"Those who don't get it think their rights should supersede our right not to experience racism and hatred," she says, "'This is not us' clearly doesn't apply to Māori - just everyone else."

Of course, there are those who will claim that Thompson's petition isn't racist at all, it's the 'special treatment' given to Māori that's racist.  All she is doing, they would say, is simply asking for equal treatment for all.

A person supporting Thompson's petition says the 'special treatment' of Māori is "indoctrinated political racism". (Source/Facebook)

On Facebook, one man on the NZ Frontline page, for example, says, "It is indoctrinated political racism that benefits Māori over and above all other naturalized born New Zealanders."

Another man on the page says, "Fair call but to say this for just Māori is wrong we are all humans we are all kiwis/new zealanders let's just get along. 1 law 1set of rules for everyone."

NZ Frontline shared Thompson's petition the same day it was published on the parliament website.

In the wake of the furore over the live streaming and sharing of the gunman's attack across social media, the prime minister had strong words to say on that matter.

"We cannot simply sit back and accept that these platforms just exist and that what is said on them is not the responsibility of the place where they are published," she said. "They are the publisher not just the postman."

In the environment we now find ourselves, it may be asked what responsibility the government's parliamentary website has to ensure it isn't used as a platform for spreading racism? 

(Photo/Office of the Clerk)

The Office of the Clerk is tasked with ensuring petitions satisfy parliament's rules, including that they use 'respectful and moderate language'.  However, that does not guarantee that petitions that are racist won't end up on the website.

A spokesperson for the Clerk's office says it's a matter of judgment but "swearing, racial slurs, or lots of adjectives" aren't considered respectful or moderate.

Because Thompson's petition doesn't use overtly racist slurs (and doesn't breach any other rules) it's deemed "ok".

"Petitions do not have to request a moderate action, they just have to be phrased in moderate and respectful language to be hosted on the website," the spokesperson says.

"We make no judgment about the action - that is up to MPs to decide."

Thompson's 400+ signature petition is unlikely to win MP support.  (Source/Parliament.NZ)

A petition with just 400-odd signatures isn't going to persuade any MPs to bother with it.

So, is the website serving as yet another platform to spread messages of division? 

While that isn't parliament's intent, there is a risk that the site is being used in this way. 

There are few safeguards, for example, to prevent trolls creating a false identity and spreading a divisive petition. 

The Clerk's office will check a person's email address but beyond that will primarily rely on the public to report any identity fraud.

"We validate all email addresses of petitioners but we do not do an in-depth identity check," the spokesperson says.

The exception is if the person is a public figure then extra checks are made.

"In terms of individual people, an internet search alerts staff to if this person is well known. If they are, we would ask for proof of identity."

The Clerk's office says, "In all other cases, we would be relying on people who felt their name had been used by someone else to contact us, in which case we would remove the petition."

No attempt is made to check the person's details against the electoral roll either.

"There is no requirement for a petitioner to be either a New Zealand citizen or an adult, so we do not check identity against the electoral roll (as we do for Citizens Initiated Referendums)."

The upshot is that 'Sarah Thompson' may, or may not, be a real person. But she, or he, has succeeded in spreading a divisive message on a government platform.

Justice Minister Andrew Little is overseeing a review of the country's hate speech laws.

Justice Minister Andrew Little is currently overseeing a review of the country's hate speech laws following the Christchurch shootings but it remains to be seen whether that would prevent Māori being subjected to racially motivated petition's like Thompson's.  

If New Zealanders believe the government's petition process shouldn't be used for divisive purposes, particularly by trolls, then there is the option of calling for change.

The Clerk's office says, "If people think the rules should be changed, they can write to the Standing Orders Committee, Parliament, and they will consider all suggestions when the rules of Parliament are next reviewed" in mid-2020.