Cross-Examination: The Maori Seats Debate: Do We Still Need Them?


With the election campaign calls from Winston Peters to hold a binding referendum if NZ First gets into a coalition government, the status of the Maori seats has yet again been pushed into the spotlight.The Māori seats remain a unique feature of our governmental structure and yet remain controversial to this very day, due to the criteria that only electors with Maori descent can vote in the separate Māori electorate. This article will therefore examine the nature of the Maori seats and the prevailing arguments as to whether we should retain this unique feature or remove them from our political structure.

What are the Māori seats?

In New Zealand, the Maori seats are selected from a separate electorate where reserved positions are allocated to Maori for the New Zealand Parliament.  There are currently 7 Māori electorates (7 seats) spread around the whole of New Zealand. This allows voters of Māori descent to have the choice of either voting on the general electorate roll or for the Māori electoral roll. For example, a person of Maori-descent living in downtown Auckland has the choice in the general election to either vote for a candidate in the Auckland Central electorate or for a candidate in the Tāmaki Makaurau electorate. However, if the voter decides to vote in the Maori electorate they are precluded from voting twice in the general roll and the Maori roll.

In the 52nd Parliament, the Maori Party is no more.

Since the passage of the Electoral Act 1993, the number of Māori seats has been determined on the same basis as the general seats. These factors include, but not limited to, the population change since the census, the number of people that answered being Maori in the census question and proportion of Māori on the Māori electoral roll. Only voters who have registered on the Māori roll are eligible to vote in the Māori seats. To be on the Māori roll, a voter must be of Māori descent.

The Māori seats were originally established by the Maori Representation Act 1867, which was intended to give Māori a direct say in Parliament. At that time there were various reasons why these seats were created. Before the Māori seats were established, the 1852 New Zealand Constitution Act theoretically allowed Māori to vote. However, very few Māori men could actually qualify to vote due to the fact that there was a property ownership requirement where only men with property under individual freehold or leasehold title were allowed to vote. As most Maori owned property communally or with customary title at this time, Māori were practically disenfranchised from the right to vote. Added to the fact that there was an inherent tension between Māori and Pakeha, it was thought that most Māori were not interested in the ‘Pakeha Parliament’ and preferred to deal directly with the governor instead. Maori nationalists also called for a separate parliament which led to debates from Pakeha on how to assimilate Māori into the political mainstream to ensure peace (given the New Zealand Land Wars were still taking place) and to reward the Māori tribes that had fought alongside the Crown.

As a result, the Maori Representation Act 1867 was finally enacted as a compromise to address the growing concerns. Four seats were created across New Zealand (3 in the North Island and 1 in the South Island) which allowed all Maori men over the age of 21 to vote for. The seats was intended to be temporary and last only 5 years, yet by 1876 the Maori seats were established permanently. However various deficiencies remained as part of the system. For example;

  • Until the 1930s, Māori did not vote by secret ballot.
  • Until 1967, Māori politicians were only allowed to stand in the Maori seats.
  • Until 1975, “half caste” voters (people with one Māori and one European parent) could choose which electorates to vote in but all “full” Māori voters had to vote in the Maori seats.

Overall, the Māori seats have remained throughout New Zealand’s history but have remained controversial as the reasons for having them in the present are quite different from having them in the past.

The arguments against abolishing the Māori seats

Throughout New Zealand’s history there have been calls from a range of political perspectives for the abolition of the Maori seats. Most of these arguments certainly hold weight as the Maori seats were never intended to last permanently. However there remains skepticism about whether abolition could be achieved given that it has not succeeded in the past despite various attempts.

The foremost argument against the Māori seats (and arguably the one that holds the most weight) is that it breaches the principle of democratic equality which requires all citizens to be treated equally. As Professor Philip Joseph argues in ‘The Maori Seats in Parliament’, he says the Māori seats are fundamentally at odds with equality as the electorates only caters for a certain race whilst excluding other New Zealanders. Although Professor Joseph understands the historical disenfranchisement of Māori’s right to vote, he says that the proportional representation in our current MMP system and the effective means for Maori to run with any political party, has largely removed the barriers that once stopped Maori from participating.

Furthermore, given that the percentage of Māori MPs now tend to outweigh the percentage of Maori in New Zealand, Joseph and others feel that the Māori seats no longer serve their original purpose and that their continued existence constitutes a form of ‘discriminatory privilege’.  For example in 2014, 22% of MPs were Māori, while Māori were 15% of New Zealand’s total population. Certainly, this view is also shared by public figures such as Winston Peters and Don Brash, with the latter arguing for formal equality through the “Hobson’s Pledge” movement.

However, a contrary view expressed by law professor Andrew Geddis states that the Maori electorates do not actually breach the principle of equality. He argues that maintaining the Māori electorate does not result in any difference between individual rights of electors because they still each have a single vote. Given that the number of Maori seats are determined based on an ethnic proportional basis, he suggests democratic equality is not breached but rather the real issue is whether we should have electorates based on race alone.

Another significant argument for the abolishment of the Maori seats is the idea that they are, as Winston Peters puts it, a sign of ‘tokenism’ towards Māori. A 1986 report conducted by the Royal Commission on the Electoral System supported this view as they found that separate seats had in fact not helped Māori and that MMP would achieve better representation. Given that a large proportion of eligible Maori voters currently vote on the General electorate instead (Statistics New Zealand estimated the Maori voting age population in 2016 was around 444,000 whilst the Maori roll in 2017 is made up of just 238,866 people) there is certainly a strong argument to be made that potential Maori voters don’t see the Maori seats as necessary to their representative views.

The Maori voting age population in 2016 was around 444,000 whilst the Maori roll in 2017 is made up of just 238,866 people

Finally, there is also an argument made that the existence of Maori seats does not necessarily equate to better representation for Maori. Political commentator Willie Jackson has stated that the Māori seats mean very little unless those Maori MPs fought for Maori interests. This problem was also expressed by the Royal Commission and by Philip Joseph who observed the Labour Party’s monopoly over the Maori seats has further eroded their utility over the years because they have weakened the influence of Maori MPs as a whole. In Jeremy Sparrow’s thesis ‘The Truth About The Maori Seats’ (student of University of Otago), he suggests the main problem with the Maori seats was whether they actually provided Maori with effective representation. He concludes that this is not the case and that abolishing the Maori seats would improve Maori representation at both the electorate and national level.

The arguments for retaining the Maori Seats

Those in favour of retaining the Māori seats have argued that the seats have directly contributed to greater participation by Māori in Parliament. The alternative argument in favour for the status quo has suggested that the Māori seats at least provide Maori with a minimum level of representation at the national level. Given that at the present moment Maori are still underrepresented across various public and private sectors including companies boards, universities, public service etc. (but are conversely overrepresented in detrimental statistics such as socioeconomics and health inequalities), reserving a proportion of seats is the least effort required by the Crown.

The Maori Party co-leaders during the 2017 General Election: Te Ururoa Flavell (left) and Marama Fox (right).

With the existence of the Māori Party hinging on the existence of the Maori seats (unless they manage to muster 5% of the vote – neither of which they achieved in the 2017 general election), one argument holds that this adds diversity in our MMP system which has resulted in better policies overall for Maori. In fact, there have been more indigenous-race politicians in New Zealand per capita than in any of the other former British colonies where indigenous peoples are a minority. Since the advent of MMP (mixed-member proportional representation) in 1996 the proportion of MPs who identify as Māori has also increased.

Perhaps the most important principle at stake with the Māori seats is that they offer protection of Maori as a minority race in New Zealand given that a special relationship exists between the Crown and Maori. A referendum to abolish the seats would therefore be an inappropriate way to deal with any issue affecting a minority because the rights or interests of that minority will be too easily swamped in a democratic vote through the tyranny of the majority. There are fears of renewal of racism and a perception of destabilizing of Maori rights through the abolishment of the Maori seats. As previous Prime Minister John Key noted in 2014 when asked about the abolishment of Maori seats, he says removing the seats would be practically divisive to the nation and attract “hikois from hell” which was something any sound-minded party would want to avoid.

Although the arguments for abolishing the seats might seem to outweigh the arguments for retaining the seats, this is not the case. Certainly the existence for the Māori seats for such a long period of time regardless of the arguments in favour or not means it has worked to a certain extent. Mr Peter’s call to hold a binding referendum for the Māori seats does have merit, given that there are various arguments that make strong points against an antiquated feature that is prima facie against the principle of equality. Whilst others such as Jeremy Sparrow have suggested a binding referendum as the legitimate means, one cannot ignore the practical reality that such a divisive move would have on the country and the ramifications of the removal of basic representation afforded to Māori. Overall the best hope for the Maori seats is that more discussions are needed and that a compromise can be struck in the near future.

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