By Eilish Buckley
In the wake of the 2017 election and the loss of the Māori Party from our Parliament, the relationship between Māori constituents and government processes has been called into question. With a new bill set to be debated before Parliament that seeks to entrench provisions relating to Māori electoral seats, our society is starting to question: what place do the Māori seats have in New Zealand today?
What is the Māori Roll?
The Māori roll is an electoral roll for New Zealand Māori and descendants of New Zealand Māori . It is an optional roll, which means that Māori have the choice as to whether they want to be on the Māori roll and vote for an MP in a Māori electorate, or be on the general roll and vote for an MP in a general electorate . It is important to note that regardless of the roll someone is on, their party vote is not affected (as Mike Hosking learned last year) .
The window for enrolling on the Māori roll has just opened, and it will remain open until August 2nd. This period is really significant, as there will not be another chance to swap between the Māori and general rolls for the next two elections. If you are Māori and are thinking about swapping electoral rolls, you should go here for more information: https://maorioption.org.nz/
Māori seats in Parliament are allocated proportionately to the number of voters registered on the Māori roll. There are currently seven Māori seats, but if 24,000 voters switch to the Māori roll, it is estimated that another Māori electorate would be added .
Why do we have Māori Seats?
The Māori vote has had a long and troubled history in New Zealand society. In the early days of colonisation, voting was restricted to men who had an individual title to land that had been granted by the Crown. As most Māori land was held communally, this excluded the majority of Māori from participation in voting .
After the New Zealand War, the European Parliament decided to create four Māori electorates exclusively for Māori voters, in order to foster assimilation and encourage Māori landowners to register their land under the Crown system . Māori were not allowed to vote on the general roll, and this segregated system remained in place from 1867 until 1975 .
Last week, the Electoral (Entrenchment of the Māori Seats) Amendment Bill was drawn from the parliamentary ballot . The bill, put forward by Labour’s Rino Tirikatene, seeks to entrench the provisions in the Electoral Act that establish Māori electorates, meaning a 75% majority in the House of Representatives would be required to repeal them . Tirikatene claims that his bill is simply attempting to extend the protection given to general seats, which are entrenched, to Māori seats, thereby rectifying a ‘constitutional imbalance’ . He does not wish to engage with the wider issue of whether the seats should exist at all, stating that the two questions are entirely separate .
However, an entrenchment provision would make it extremely difficult for Parliament to have the numbers to repeal the provisions securing Māori seats. Therefore, many have jumped into the debate as to the validity of the Māori seats in contemporary society .
Do we need Māori Electoral Seats in 2018?
The 1986 Report of the Royal Commission on the Electoral system that recommended the change from the FPP to MMP also considered the effect on Māori voters. They concluded that the seats should be discarded, as the MMP system ensured minorities would be catered to. They felt that a common roll would strengthen Māori voices, as they would no longer be split between two rolls – there would be an amalgamation of their political power. Another finding was that a common roll would ensure that all parties and MPs would take note of Māori issues, not just those in Māori electorates . Māori strongly opposed this finding, and so the seats remained.
Some politicians today strongly support the removal of Māori seats in Parliament, citing this report as a justification. Sir John Key in the lead up to the 2008 election promised to remove the seats, but did not go through with this due to a coalition with the Māori Party . Similarly, Winston Peters claimed last year that if he got into government, he would call for a binding referendum on whether the seats should be retained or not .
In 2013, Dame Tariana Turia presented the Māori electoral seats in an entirely different light. She called on Māori to register on the Māori roll prior to the 2014 election, making the case that if all Māori were on it, there would be up to 14 Māori seats in parliament – placing Māori MPs in a strong negotiating position. In her eyes, the Māori electoral seats have an important constitutional purpose of upholding the principle of partnership as established in Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Furthermore, the seats guarantee the representation of Māori people, something that the MMP system cannot do .
Also in 2013, the Constitutional Advisory Panel released a report on the Constitution of New Zealand, in which they strongly denounced the potential removal of Māori electorates. They made the point that this issue should be entirely up to Māori to decide, noting that the system is essentially self-regulating – Māori themselves decide if they want the Māori roll system to continue when they exercise their choice to be on it. Further to this, the Panel opposed a general referendum on this issue, saying ‘it is inappropriate for the longstanding rights of a minority to be taken away because that minority is outnumbered. The existence of the Māori seats does not impede or limit the rights of other New Zealanders to exercise their vote’ .
The Future of Māori Seats
Winston Peters has made it clear that he will not be supporting the entrenchment bill, which, combined with opposition from National, means that it will not have the support in the House to become law . Neither New Zealand First nor National have any candidates standing in a Māori electorate, so it is not hard to see why they refuse to support seats that continue to be a Labour stronghold. A referendum on the removal of the seats does not look likely under a Labour government . In the meantime, political questions of the role and constitutional status of the Māori seats remain unanswered.
The Public Policy Club is a non-partisan club at the University of Auckland that aims to encourage, educate and involve students from all backgrounds in the education and development of political knowledge. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PPC.