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March 22, 2010 | by  | in Features | [ssba]


I know what you’re all thinking, “these all sound so fun, as I love hearing about the nuances of the electoral system and really want to have YET ANOTHER debate about it”. Your sarcastic tone isn’t going to you get a real job, and besides, this seemingly pointless tinkering with political minutia can, and will, have a drastic effect on how (and who) represents you in government/steals your money.

The groups greatest effected by any changes with an electoral system are those already on the fringes of power. While proportionally over-represented within parliament (Maori make up a slightly higher percentage of parliament than the rest of the population), backlash over any changes unpopular within Maoridom may result in greatly reduced turnout and a broad sense of disillusionment.

As Linda Tuhiwai Smith articulated in The State of the Maori Nation:

“For Maori people as iwi or tribal nations, social inclusion means the acceptance by society, or more precisely, by the social partner as defined by the Treaty of Waitangi, of some key aspirations and values held by Maori people and the expression of these through public policy and through social institutions”.

However, far from being a deal breaker for all, some within Maoridom see the Maori seats as arcane. National List MP and former Maori seat holder Tau Henare has spoken out against the seats, questioning their relevance in modern New Zealand and lamenting their restrictive nature.

“As an ex-holder of a (Maori) seat, both under first past the post and MMP, I think they’re past their use-by date. It’s not because of the mediocre lot that we’ve got now, it’s because my experience as being a Maori seat holder is being marginalised, you can only speak on these (Maori) issues.”

A chequered history

The most notable, and controversial, aspect of Maori politics is the existence of the Maori roll and Maori seats. The inclusion of exclusively Maori constituencies in government had its beginnings with the introduction of the now-defunct legislative council in 1854. Though no Maori were appointed until 1872, its mere formation sparked debate about the potential for some form of Maori representation both on the council, and in the lower house.

Watered down proposals for direct representation in the house were rejected in both 1862 and 63, but in 1867 the Maori Representation Bill was enacted—which created three Maori seats for northern iwi and one seat for southern iwi. Almost as debated as the validity of the seats themselves are the motives of the man responsible for the bill.

Sir Donald McLean was the MP for Napier and former Land Purchase Commissioner, roles that didn’t exactly engender great relations with ‘the natives’ (though he was incapacitated during the ‘Waitara purchase’—which most historians blame for beginning the First Taranaki War).

McLean’s reputation among Maori before the bill was that of a man who openly sided with settlers in land disputes, but prominent Maori academic (and fellow knight) Sir Mason Durie says his promotion of the bill had little to do with belief in equality, and more to do with quieting Maori until assimilation took its natural course:

“McLean described (the bill) as a peace measure, which would divert Maori discontent away from warfare and into parliament. There was some opposition to the philosophy of special representation but that was not large, possibly because most saw the measure as temporary until assimilation had become a reality.”

While Maori now had a voice within parliament, it was a weak and oft ignored one. With only four seats to cover roughly 50000 constituents (as of 1868), Maori seat MPs were dealing electorates with (on average) three and a half times more constituents than non-Maori seat MPs. This not only stretched their resources and severely reduced the level of accountability, but it also failed to become politically advantageous—in spite of the sheer number of voters they represented—due to the widely held belief that Maori vote along ‘whanau lines’ and in blocs (a belief still widely held by some in politics today).

Dominance by Labour of the Maori seats (partly due to the 1935 agreement between T.W. Ratana and Michael Savage) gave little incentive for Labour to demand greater accountability or risk alienating non-Maori voters by raising the number of Maori seats. This trend also gave National little reason to risk their political capital by attempting to challenge the seats or trying to court Maori voters.

Faced with hubris on one side, and apathy on the other, numbers on the Maori roll slowly declined until 1993, when less than 50 per cent of Maori on the Maori roll had not made the switch to the general roll.

“That hopey, changey stuff”

1993 saw the introduction of Mixed Member Proportional representation, and with it, an overhaul of the Maori seats.

Members on both sides of the aisle (as well as the Royal Commission’s report) argued that, thanks to MMP, Maori seats were no longer needed. This did not go down with those actually on the Maori roll, and the decision to remove them was overturned.

The arrival of MMP also led to resurgence in interest in the Maori roll (both from potential Maori voters, and those who believed they were no longer necessary) and an unheard of number of Maori voter—the number on no electoral rolls dropped from 59,000 to 30,000.

Since the full instatement of MMP the amount of Maori faces in the house has risen to previously unfathomable highs. Whether this is good for the country is subjective, but what is not is the newfound power of smaller parties to play king maker, and twice since 1995, the king maker has been predominantly Maori.

A convenient marriage?

Due to the Maori Party’s confidence and supply agreement with National, National can’t make any ruling either way on the Maori seats until after the next election.

The supply and confidence agreement states:

“The National Party agrees it will not seek to remove the Maori seats without the consent of the Maori people. Accordingly, the Maori Party and the National Party will not be pursuing the entrenchment of the Maori seats in the current parliamentary term.

“Both parties agree that there will not be a question about the future of the Maori seats in the referendum on MMP planned by the National Party.”

In spite of this, National have stated a willingness to abolish the seats after all historical treaty settlements have been resolved. Presently the government have placed a 2014 deadline for this to happen.

As to whether this partnership will last after the next election depends on the results of both the referendum and general election, and also depends greatly on the internal politics of the Maori party itself.

Rahui Katene’s “withdrawing from the agreement with National would be a possibility” gaff was quickly dismissed by co-leaders Tariana Turia and Dr Pita Sharples, it potentially hints at dissatisfaction within the party (or was a less than quiet reminder to National not to take their support for granted).

The future?

Whatever the future of the Maori seats, they have ensured that passionate and intelligent discourse around Maori issues from Maori MPs will be here for as long as people don’t just vote for Bill & Ben or RAM, then there may be hope.

I’ll leave you with this:

Professors Roger Maaka and Augie Fleras describe the MMP parliamentary system as an ‘integrationist’ or ‘institutional’ model of Tino Rangatiratanga.

However, Durie believes instead that “Maori have often concluded that, in the search for Tino Rangatiratanga, there is an irony in Maori becoming part of an institution which has used, at least in the past, to exploit Maori rather than empower them.” This being said, Maori have been voting with their… votes, with more and more joining the Maori roll, and therefore strengthening the legitimacy of the seats.

Mulholland, M. (Ed.). (2006). State of the Maori Nation. Reed Publishing.

O’Sullivan, D. (2007). Beyond Biculturalism: The Politics of an Indigenous Minority. Huia Publishers.

Durie, M. (2006). Te Mana, Te Kawanatanga: The Politics of Maori Self-Determination. Oxford Press.

Maaka, R. and Fleras, A. (2005) The Politics of Indigeneity: Challenging the State in Canada and New Zealand. Otago University Press.


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