Kaipara Mayor Craig Jepson’s refusal to allow a karakia to be said at the beginning of his first council meeting is not the great “struggle for political legitimacy and cultural power” that Chris Trotter suggests.
It is a simple story of lack of cultural respect, and possibly ignorance, by the mayor. Most of the criticism he has received is well deserved and to suggest the disapproval heaped on him is a challenge to the mayor’s political legitimacy is just plain silly.
The mayor has a right to his opinions, but it is quite wrong for Chris Trotter to suggest he has some kind of democratic mandate to deny a karakia at the start of a council meeting. Had the mayor raised this as an issue during the election campaign he’d be on stronger ground but as far as I’m aware his decision to refuse what is a widespread, respectful, cultural practice in meetings across our public services and public institutions came out of the blue to Kaipara voters.
If Craig Jepson thought democracy was the issue he could have put his decision to the vote around the council table but chose not to do that either – he doesn’t have a claim of political legitimacy for his decision or a democratic leg to stand on.
Mayors are not elected to dictate and their most important role is to provide positive leadership in bringing their diverse councillors and communities together to work on the full range of local body issues. What is astonishing is that he seemed unaware that refusing karakia at the start of the meeting, something which is becoming a well-established kiwi cultural practice, would cause controversy and more. Where has he been the last 40 years?
I may be wrong but I suspect his denial of Māori cultural input at the meeting is rooted in deeper antipathies which will be shared by others in the area, hopefully a minority. But it is not his role to parade his prejudices after the election and leave voters, in particular mana whenua, angry and bewildered.
The best one could say about Mayor Jepson is that he was misguided and clumsy – but like all of us he can learn and change.
It’s important to say here (to the atheists at least, of which I am one) that karakia may involve a Christian prayer, such as has been used to open parliament each sitting day, but in my experience are more often than not a simple, non-religious, expression of Māori cultural values. (To learn the difference, learn Te Reo) Either way their expression adds richness and depth to our public life in Aotearoa New Zealand and values the heritage of mana whenua. Karakia before meetings are a simple expression of cultural respect.
It’s disturbing that Chris Trotter finds the heavy criticism of the mayor’s decision an expression of Māori “cultural power” as though this is a worrying, negative development. Enhancing our democracy means respecting all cultures and in particular finding and opening up ways big and small for expressions of Māori self-assertion after the dominant European “cultural power”, through its long history of delegitimising, denigrating and attempting to erase Māori culture altogether (destruction of a language is destruction of a culture), has done so much devastation which continues to resonate for Māori today.
I don’t want to get on a high horse but it needs to be said that Europeans are still largely ignorant of the colonial history of Aotearoa and the impact on Māori. There are a lot of good books available at local libraries and I’d recommend “The Great War for New Zealand” by Vincent O’Malley if you want a good place to start.