The Future of Māori Seats

Rachel Buckman

“The fact is that Māori don’t need to be told that they’re not good enough to be equal, or that somehow they should be handicapped, or somehow they should be pigeon-holed … Māori don’t need the Māori seats – they don’t need any more tokenism.”[1]

These are the words of Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters, speaking at his 2017 New Zealand First election convention. Peters campaigned on the clear platform that the Māori seats should be abolished, but that the decision should be made through a binding referendum.[2]

Recently, a different stance has been gaining media attention. Labour MP Rino Tirikatene’s bill to entrench the Māori seats was pulled from the members’ ballot in May. Entrenchment would mean that a 75 percent majority would be needed for Parliament to make any changes to the Māori seats. At the moment, only the general electorate is entrenched. The explanatory note for Tirikatene’s Bill stated that giving the Māori electorate equal status corrected the current “constitutional imbalance” between the two electorates.[3]

NZ First has not changed their position that the seats should be abolished. However, while the Bill is supported by the Labour and Green parties, it was only able to pass the first reading in September due to the support of NZ First.[4] Darroch Ball, an MP from NZ First, stated that the party still believes in holding a binding public referendum, and they see this Bill as an opportunity to bring this about.[5] Therefore, whether it progresses any further may depend on an added clause to put the future of the Māori seats to a public vote.

The seven Māori seats have become a norm in our modern political system. Yet they were introduced over 150 years ago where both the political and social circumstances were very different to what we know today. Considering whether or not they should be abolished requires consideration of the original purpose of the seats.

The Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, but for over a decade law-making powers still rested in the hands of England. This changed in 1852 when a national House of Representatives was created.[6] As it does today, the representative parliament was formulated on the basis of New Zealanders’ votes. Yet the 1850s were not a time of universal suffrage. Not only were women excluded, but men could only vote if they owned property worth at least fifty pounds.[7] It was this property requirement that was problematic for the Māori people. Individual possession is a European concept, whereas the vast majority of Māori held land communally within their tribe. Although there was no express legislative exclusion clause, the only way for them to vote was to live up to the “assimilationist hope” of Governor George Grey and integrate with the colonisers’ culture.[8] Until they did so, Māori had no voice in the governing of New Zealand despite being the majority of the population.

Māori exclusion from national politics in the mid-1800s needs to be viewed in conjunction with the ongoing tensions of the time. Māori were unhappy with their lack of autonomy and the continued alienation of their land.[9] With no ability to act through the democratic system, the Māori people continuously demonstrated their willingness to take action through other means, with the King Movement beginning in 1958 and the New Zealand Land Wars dominating the 1960s.[10]

Māori representation in the House of Representatives would help rectify the original exclusion of the Māori vote and allows concerns to be raised within the political system. The Māori Representation Act 1867 hoped to enable this, its long title reading: “An Act to provide for the better Representation of the Native Aboriginal Inhabitants of the Colony of New Zealand.” The intention was that this structure would be temporary, yet in 1876 the Māori seats were made a permanent fixture until the General Assembly decided to remove them.[11]

While the original introduction of the seats is generally agreed to have been beneficial for 1867 New Zealand, many believe this is no longer the case in contemporary times. David Seymour, Leader of the Act Party, makes this argument. He believes “New Zealand is a modern, diverse democracy. There is simply no longer a place for a group of people to be treated differently under the law.”[12] Seymour points to the fact that we have 27 Māori MPs in parliament, 20 of whom were elected through the general electorate. His position, similar to others, is that we no longer have problems like in the 1800s to justify the Māori electorate. Therefore, its continued existence is contrary to the principles of popular democracy which implies “political representation must be won on the hustings, not gifted on grounds of ethnicity.”[13] Philip Joseph emphasises how much we value equality in a democratic nation, with statutes such as the Human Rights Act 1993 creating protections against discriminatory treatment. Joseph argues that a “discriminatory benefit stands in the same shoes as a discriminatory restriction” in terms of undermining equality.[14] In his opinion, giving Māori special representation rights conflicts with the democratic values our country revolves around.

There is also an argument that the Māori seats do not in reality benefit the Māori position in politics and society. This argument sees the distinct electorate as controlling and containing Māori, creating a “symbolically empty ritual which … diverts politicians from involvement in Māori affairs”.[15]  The Royal Commission agreed with this point, stating “separate representation has served to isolate the Māori MPs politically by encouraging the non-Māori majority to regard Māori concerns as the sole preserve of separately elected MPs”.[16] Ultimately, the Commission’s position was that the Māori seats should be removed. Having this separate category only keeps Māori issues and perspective out of the mainstream discourse, leading to no substantive long-term benefits.

On the other hand, there are numerous rationales for keeping the Māori seats, despite how different the 21st century is from the time when the seats were introduced. Andrew Geddis makes the argument that the role of the Maori seats has changed over time.[17] Initially, the role was simply to ensure the “presence in the national legislature of at least some representatives of Māori ethnicity.”[18] However, the purpose of the Māori seats has developed and modernised. He sees the seats as now serving “a broader goal of self-government among the Māori population as a discrete and distinct people.”[19]

There are two elements of Geddis’ statement. Firstly, that even if the original purpose of the seats is no longer needed, they have taken on a vital new role. The introduction of Māori seats into our main legislative organ arguably “anticipated the continued role of Māori in the running of the country.”[20] Any future-looking instrument should impliedly be capable of adapting with the times.

The Royal Commission articulated the role that the Māori seats have come to have in New Zealand. Despite their recommendation that they be abolished, the Commission acknowledged that the Māori seats are regarded by many as the “principle expression of [Māori] constitutional position in New Zealand”.[21] The Waitangi Tribunal affirmed this perspective.[22] Additionally, the Court has discussed the link between the seats and the Treaty of Waitangi, stating that while it was not the intention at the outset, the Māori seats “could and did serve Treaty principles.”[23]

The second element that can be taken away from Geddis’ argument is that Māori should be given a distinct voice in parliament akin to self-government. Giving Māori, the indigenous population of New Zealand, such power and status is consistent with our international obligations and current international opinion on what rights indigenous populations should be given. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples specifies the right to self-determination, which expressly includes the “right they freely determine their political status.” [24]

Having a mechanism to formalise and guarantee the Māori position in Parliament may be needed in order to meet these international standards. Marama Fox, former co-leader of the Māori Party, argued that anyone “who advocates openly for kaupapa Māori policies does not get voted into a general seat.”[25] In her view, New Zealand should only abolish the Māori seats “when we have equity in this nation.” What her perspective highlights is that we cannot generalise into an abstraction democratic discussion. Doing so risks ignoring the realities in New Zealand where Māori have been oppressed and continue to feel their voice is not being heard. Until this changes, the Māori seats may be a necessary part of our system.

However, this debate may hide a more important question. Not only does it matter whether or not the Māori electorate remains, but also who is given the power to decide. In 2017 Jacinda Ardern said that Labour’s “strong view was it was always going to be up to Māori to decide what happened to the future of the Māori seats.”[26] If put to a referendum, non-Māori will have equal say in the future of Māori political representation. We have spent over 150 years trying to create a meaningful voice for New Zealand’s indigenous population. If our country wants to continue our commitment to this, the views Māori should be driving this discussion.

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[1] Benedict Collins “Peters promises referendum on Māori seats” (16 July 2017) RNZ <www.radionz.co.nz>

[2] Collins, above n 1.

[3] Electoral (Entrenchment of Māori Seats) Amendment Bill 2018 (56-1).

[4] Audrey Young “Bill to Entrench the Māori seats passes first hurdle with support from opponent” New Zealand Herald (online ed, Auckland, 5 September 2018).

[5] Young, above n 4.

[6] The New Zealand Constitution Act 1952.

[7] Paul Moon “‘A Proud Thing To Have Recorded’: The Origins and Commencement of National Indigenous Political Representation in New Zealand through the 1867 Maori Representation Act” (2013) Journal of New Zealand Studies 52 at 55.

[8] At 55.

[9] Andrew Geddis “A Dual Track Democracy? The Symbolic Role of the Māori Seats in New Zealand’s Electoral System” (2006) 5 Election Law Journal 347 at 352.

[10] Augie Fleras “From Social Control towards Political Self-Determination? Maori Seats and the Politics of Separate Maori Representation in New Zealand” (1985) 18 Canadian Journal of Political Science 551 at 558.

[11] Moon, above n 7, at 61.

[12] Dan Satherly “ACT unveils plan to cut Parliament to 100 MPs” (12 August 2018) Newshub <www.newshub.co.nz>

[13] Philip Joseph “The Maori Seats in Parliament” (May 2008) New Zealand Centre for Political Research <www.nzcpr.com> at 16.

[14] At 16.

[15] Fleras, above n 10, at 566.

[16] Royal Commission on the Electoral System Towards a Better Democracy (December 1986) at 91.

[17] Geddis, above n 9.

[18] At 347.

[19] At 348.

[20] Moon, above n 7, at 62.

[21] Royal Commission on the Electoral System, above n 16, at 108.

[22] Waitangi Tribunal Maori Electoral Option Report (Wai 413, 1994) at 3.1.

[23] Taiaroa v Minister of Justice (No 1) High Court Wellington CP No 99/94, October 4 1994 at 69.

[24] Article 3.

[25] “Does New Zealand still need Māori seats?” (14 August 2018) Newshub <www.newshub.co.nz>.

[26] “No referendum on Māori seats: Ardern” (25 September 2017) RNZ <www.radionz.co.nz>