17 January 2012

Maori seats: Why do they exist?

Provision for originally four Māori seats was first made back in 1867. Until that time, eligibility for the male-only vote was then based exclusively upon property ownership, effectively disfranchising Māori men, as Māori land was mainly communally owned. It was pointed out in the House during the debate that Māori owned three quarters of the North Island at the time and paid a considerable sum in tax to the Crown, and yet lacked representation from among their own people. On the other hand, there was also opposition from parliamentarians due to their reservations about special measures for Māori. The initial legislation that created the four seats only extended for 5 years, however, as it was considered a temporary measure until such time as Māori lands were converted to individual titles (in itself a controversial policy) (Sorrenson 1986).

In 1876, the legislative provision for Māori seats was extended indefinitely, as MPs were afraid that amalgamation of the rolls would have an adverse effect on their electoral results. Māori voters could have swung marginal electorates. The Māori seats also survived the change to universal franchise and the removal of the property qualification in the 1890s. Later on, from the 1930s until the 1990s, they were an important part of the Labour Party’s electoral support thanks to a deal between Labour and the Ratana Church (Sorrenson 1986). As the bulk of Māori still lived rurally, the conservative National Party, on the other hand, may not have wanted to amalgamate the electoral rolls, as Māori were staunch Labour-voters in those days. Amalgamation would have cost them marginal seats.

The National Party’s submission to the Royal Commission on the Electoral System (1986) recommended abolition of the Māori seats. This was reiterated by the former leader of that party, Don Brash, in 2005. Under MMP (proportional representation, since 1996), the impact on National of amalgamation of the rolls would not now be as drastic as it would have been under the old FPP system – which relied entirely on local electoral pluralities.

The original allocation of four seats represented far less than the proportion of Māori in the population at large, and Māori would have had 14 or 15 seats on a population basis in 1867. But they remained at 4 until 1996. Under MMP their number has grown to 7. But (according to Janine Hayward) it is estimated that the present parliament has all together 20 Māori MPs.

The original allocation of four Māori representatives was under-representative numerically, and hence arguably tokenistic, if not discriminatory. Māori may have considered that they would be worse off politically with no Māori seats at all; even though one can also argue that the Māori seats effectively diluted and silenced real Māori political influence. Labour’s post-War electoral hold on them could actually have encouraged Labour to take Māori voters for granted; and anyway Labour spent most of the time from 1946 to 1996 in opposition, leaving Māori MPs with even less long-term influence on the executive.

Meanwhile, National’s weak polling in those electorates would have meant that party had even less political incentive to take heed of Māori.

We should not forget Māori efforts, especially in the nineteenth century, to create a parallel and autonomous indigenous parliament, due to long-standing grievances about colonisation and the effects of the British legal system. And so, while Māori resist the abolition of the Māori seats, we should not assume that they are entirely satisfied with their separate electoral system either. The 1986 Royal Commission reached the judgement that ‘the system of separate Māori representation has proved to be largely ineffective’ (p. 98). But, while the Commission believed that Māori representation would be better provided for under MMP, even with a common roll, it recommended retaining the Māori seats at least until after the adoption of MMP.

The present-day Māori Party (first elected to parliament in 2005) provides a strong Māori voice in parliament, and relies entirely on Māori seats (though they went from 5 seats to 3 in the 2011 election), and the recently-formed Mana Party holds one Māori seat. For such reasons alone, Māori would oppose the abolition of these seats for the time being. Māori seats may look like an unsatisfactory compromise for Māori – as well as looking like ‘special treatment’ from the point of view of many non-Māori – but New Zealand is far from giving up this unique constitutional provision at present, in spite of controversies about it. The National Party is hardly going to raise the issue of abolition again right now, as they are relying on support from the Māori Party to give them supply and confidence votes in the House.


Royal Commission on the Electoral System (1986) Report of The Royal Commission on the Electoral System 1986: Towards a Better Democracy.

Sorrenson, M.P.K. (1986) A history of Māori representation in Parliament. Appendix B. Report of The Royal Commission on the Electoral System 1986: Towards a Better Democracy.


Post a Comment

<< Home