Indigenous Upset in New Zealand’s Parliament

‘Necktie’ or ‘colonial noose’?

A member of the New Zealand Parliament was ejected from the lawmaking chamber this week for attempting to speak during question time while not wearing a necktie. Rawiri Waititi, co-leader of the Maori Party, was instead wearing a traditional Maori taonga ( “treasure,” in English). In removing Waititi, the Speaker of the House was closely following the Standing Orders of the House of Representatives, which require men to wear jackets and ties as part of “appropriate business attire.” Waititi described the necktie as a “colonial noose,” a symbol of colonial oppression and discrimination against the Maori. The Committee on Standing Orders subsequently met on the issue, after which the necktie requirement was removed.

Maori and New Zealand symbols and symbolism . . .

At its core, the issue of dress codes is about who gets to decide appropriate cultural expression. Waititi argues that in signing the Treaty of Waitangi with the British Crown in 1840, the Maori entered into a partnership with the British resulting in systemic oppression and discrimination against Maori. He said it is particularly egregious that Maori have been required to don Western attire while being prohibited from wearing items that express Maori identity. For many in New Zealand, symbols of Maori culture and identity have become symbols of broader New Zealand culture and identity.

Small steps towards decolonization?

While New Zealand is widely considered a progressive society, like Canada and other settler societies, its colonial experience and legacies are real and, in many ways, frame contemporary social dynamics. Maori New Zealanders rank below the New Zealand average across a range of social indicators – unemployment, income, housing, education, health, and life expectancy. And while allowing Members of Parliament not to wear symbols of colonial oppression in Parliament will not alter systemic discrimination against Maori, allowing all New Zealanders to choose forms of expression that reflect their culture and identity can function as an incremental step in reclaiming cultural agency that has been denied them.