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Should Māori wardens have special powers to remove drunk Māori from bars?

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Mäori Community Development Act 1962 gives Mäori wardens the power to tell bar staff to “abstain from selling or supplying liquor to any Mäori who in the opinion of the warden is in a state of intoxication, or is violent, quarrelsome, or disorderly, or is likely to become so, whether intoxicated or not”. It also allows them to remove the person from licensed premises and even to confiscate their car keys.

Police caused a brouhaha earlier this year when they announced they’d use Mäori wardens in Wellington during the World Cup to help keep the peace. Opponents say the Act is archaic and that it’s racist to specifically target Mäori. Supporters applaud such work by Mäori wardens and say they were established by Mäori to make a positive difference for Mäori.

In this edition of Viewpoints we provide the arguments for and against Mäori wardens’ ability to intervene in specifically Mäori cases of drunk and disorderliness.


The case against

Prime Minister John Key was right when he weighed in on the Act’s removal provisions saying they “felt racist”. At the end of the day, he pointed out, if someone is removed from a bar, it should be because they’re underage or they’re intoxicated. Ethnicity has nothing to do with it.

Nice one, John. We don’t have special ‘drunk police’ for any other ethnic group, and nor should we, because it implies the group has a worse problem with alcohol than other groups or that individuals within that group have some sort of genetic propensity towards drunkenness. This is implicitly racist and ostensibly untrue.

Secondly, these sorts of laws do nothing for New Zealand’s race relations. Employing people to act solely on the basis of race is condescending separatism. What message do we send to the world, to our children and to each other when one drunk is hauled out of a bar because of the colour of his skin while his white mate is left alone? If New Zealand has a deepening racial divide, as some people claim, then laws like this are part of the reason why.

Lastly, there’s absolutely no legal necessity to give Mäori wardens these special powers. Under the Sale of Liquor Act 1989, it is already an offence to allow any person who is intoxicated or disorderly to remain on premises or to serve them alcohol. As such, any Mäori warden carrying out these duties will be doing so in a bar that is breaching its legal obligations by not removing said drunk persons in the first place. If bar owners actually comply with current legislation, there will be no need to enforce the law using this antiquated system. We’re all for the idea of wardens patrolling to help police and head off trouble before it starts, but they should be made up of any or all races and should intervene whenever there’s trouble with alcohol – not just when it involves Mäori.


The case for

Those arguing against Mäori wardens’ special removal powers often don’t fully understand why or how they do their job. They seem to think the wardens gleefully target drunk Mäori in bars and then make a big show of hauling them out into the street while they ignore all the ‘whiteys’ making nuisances of themselves.

As Maori Party leader Pita Sharples pointed out when this made news, Mäori wardens are a symbol of peace, “like a sort of security”. They don’t act like police, they don’t make arrests, they simply are there as a mediator.

That’s important because it is their non-confrontational methods that work so well. Senior Auckland warden Junette Rielly says Mäori wardens focus on making sure young people keep safe while enjoying themselves on a night out, which could include offering rides home, assisting those in trouble and calming situations when needed. As such, they provide a reassuring public presence – and that’s often not the case with the police.

The wardens have always held significant mana among Mäori. Traditionally, they have a reputation as being ‘old school’, strong and wise, commanding deep respect. This is why Mäori wardens are often able to calm a situation or prevent one from arising where päkehä or police authorities might have just the opposite effect.

But that they’re just there for Mäori is also a fallacy. Police Superintendent Wally Haumaha, who has overseen police/warden engagement since 2007, says he’s never heard of targeted racism and that they’ll actually intervene wherever required and whoever is involved. He describes the work they’re doing as “bloody extraordinary”.

Lastly, it’s a bit rich to be slapping the old racist label on the special powers of Mäori wardens. Mäori cop a lot of flak for their higher representation in crime figures and incarcerations. Now, when they step up and do something to make a difference in a genuinely effective way, it’s called racism. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

We can all be really grateful for Mäori wardens, because we’re all better off for the terrific job they do. And if we’re going to be critical of that, then let’s at least get our facts straight first.