As New Zealand heads into a general election in two weeks, the role of its seven Māori seats is a focus of debate.
The seats are a distinctive feature of the New Zealand parliament. Every area of the country is covered by both a general and a Māori electorate, giving reserved representation to the indigenous Māori people.
Throughout the history of the Māori electorates there have been several calls to abolish them, most often when they have been integral to forming a government majority. This time is no different.
The Māori election
One of the questions in this election is whether Māori voters will opt for the Labour Party, which has significant support for its charismatic new leader, Jacinda Ardern, and deputy leader, Māori MP Kelvin Davis, and could return 12 Māori MPs, or whether they will support the independent Indigenous-led Māori Party.
A second issue concerns a renewed call for a binding referendum on the electorates from New Zealand First leader Winston Peters. Of Māori descent, Peters says a proportional electoral system has achieved “more Māori in parliament” and that it’s time for the “race-based seats” to go.
An attempt to remove the seats will likely result in significant unrest, if only because it took more than a century for the Māori seats to achieve a real voice.
Although there are more Māori in parliament, many are of Māori descent but not connected with the language or Māori communities. Those who represent the Māori seats are. Until this changes, the Māori seats will remain important. The national Māori (Tino Rangatiratanga) flag does not carry official status but symbolises the Crown-Māori relationship.
History of Māori representation
The Māori seats were inaugurated 150 years ago to quell Māori aspirations for self-governance.
By the mid-1860s, New Zealand had been beset by several wars between the government and Māori. To negate Māori aspirations for autonomy, the Māori Representation Act introduced four Māori electoral seats.
Despite granting the vote, the Māori seats were discriminatory. Māori who had fought against the government were excluded for many years. It took six decades before the secret ballot was applied and a further ten years before proper electoral rolls were maintained.
Early Māori MPs faced significant racism. In 1894, they presented a Native Rights Bill to parliament and all European MPs walked out. The reply to a request that Māori should chair Māori Land Councils was that no Englishman could ever live with such a proposal.
In 1893, when the universal franchise was introduced, no law barred Māori from standing in general European seats.
James Carroll, a “half-caste”, stood in the general seat of Waiapu and won. The idea of a part-Māori representing European voters was unpalatable, and the law was changed three years later. Half-caste Māori could choose between voting in Māori or general seats, but were barred from standing in general seats until 1967.
Despite producing some very good leaders, for example the great Apirana Ngata in the mid-20th century, Māori MPs as a minority were often ineffective. In 1867, the European population had 72 general seats (one for every 3,500 people) and Māori had just four (one for every 12,500 people).
This inequality continued into the 1990s. While the number of European electorates rose with the population to 95 seats in 1993, the number of Māori electorates languished at four until 1996, despite an eleven-fold increase in the Māori demographic.
Road to change
In 1975, the Labour government allowed all people of Māori descent to choose between general or Māori seats. Depending on their choice, the number of Māori seats could increase or decrease. However, a year later, a new National government repealed the seat increase provision, fixing the Māori seats at four again.
The 1986 Royal Commission on the Electoral System and the Electoral Act in 1993 established a 120-seat mixed-member proportional representation (MMP) parliament in 1996.
Based on the expectation that the number of Māori MPs would increase with proportional representation, the commission recommended that the Māori seats be abolished. However, after widespread Māori advocacy, the act instead retained the Māori seats and re-introduced a system to adjust their number depending on how many Māori chose to register with the Māori roll.
The number of Māori seats rose to seven as the Māori roll swelled from 40% to 55% of all Māori voters. With the Māori vote becoming more pivotal in each succeeding election, representation in general seats and on party lists also increased the number of Māori in parliament. It doubled from 6% to 12% in 1996, with a total of 14 MPs.
Labour Party vs Māori Party
During the 1930s, the religious and political Rātana Movement formed an alliance with the Labour Party. Labour dominated the Māori seats until 1996, when dissatisfaction with Labour’s performance meant the party lost all Māori seats to the New Zealand First Party.
Labour regained the seats only to lose them again in 2005 to the independent Māori Party over controversial legislation on ownership of the foreshore and seabed. The party argued the act alienated fundamental rights.
Protesters gathered outside New Zealand’s parliament building during the foreshore and seabed debate in 2004. Wikimedia, CC BY-ND
The Māori Party won five of the seven Māori seats in 2008 and entered an agreement with the National government to establish a new Whānau Ora Māori social service initiative. It persuaded National to recognise the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and cancel a proposed binding referendum on the Māori seats, which would have allowed the majority European population to expunge them.
The rise of the Māori Party and the performance of its leaders became a primary driver for other parties to recruit more Māori into their ranks. Where once Labour had the only Māori MPs, the 2014 parliament had 26 spread across five political parties. However, when the Māori Party divided and split its vote with the offshoot Mana Movement, the Labour Party regained all but one of the Māori seats.
In this year’s election, New Zealand First emerges as the largest of the likely coalition partners with either the current ruling National Party or the rapidly rising Labour Party.
National, which deferred a referendum on the Māori electorates in 2011, is hedging its coalition options and is now non-committal on this issue. Labour is adamant that the future of the seats is for Māori to decide.
National remains open to working with the Māori Party. The Māori Party is open to working with either National or Labour. Conscious of the intense competition for the Māori vote, Labour has gone mute on working with the Māori Party until after the election battle.