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March 5, 2007 | by  | in Features |
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The National Race

The National Party’s Maori agenda

The National Party recently announced their policy of abolishing the seven Maori seats in Parliament. National proclaims that the continuing existence of Maori seats encourages racial division, and that our electoral system can enable sufficient Maori to be elected as list MPs. Salient feature writer Dave Crampton investigates the future of Maori interests in Parliament, and the extent to which they will be affected by National’s new policy.

Last month, National leader John Key stated that “National thinks there’s no place for ethnically-based electoral systems in twenty-first century New Zealand.” He believes that the colour or ethnic origin of an individual should not be a basis for any kind of double standard in Parliament – there should be one rule for all. The Maori seats, claims Key, are causing a dangerous drift towards racial separatism. However, abolishing the Maori seats may mean that Maori are no longer proportionally represented in Parliament.

Key points to findings from the 1986 Royal Commission on Electoral Systems (RCES). This, he maintains, recommended the unilateral removal of Maori seats upon adoption of MMP, because Maori will secure list seats. While the report advised the removal of Maori seats, it explicitly opposed the sort of one-sided abolition by a Pakeha majority advocated by John Key – and previously, Don Brash. Instead, the Commission recommended that Maori be involved in the process, stating, “Maori interests should continue to be represented in Parliament by MPs who are members of the Maori community.” That includes decisions on the Maori seats.

Maori seats were established by the 1867 Maori Representation Act, after conflict over land sales and a desire for political representation. However, only four seats were allocated for a population of 50,000, compared to 72 seats representing 250,000 non-Maori. The seats were initially intended to remain for five years, but still exist today. The number of seats was not increased until the 1990s, when they became based on the respective number of individuals on the Maori electoral roll. On a population basis, the number of Maori seats should have been increased to 15. But four was deemed sufficient.

Initially, Maori could only gain entry into Parliament through Maori seats. Only men who owned or leased property were able to vote. As most Maori owned property communally, they didn’t qualify. However, from 1867, Maori males over the age of 21 who had half European parentage were permitted to vote irrespective of whether they were land-owners. This was an unusual decision as non-Maori who did not own land were not permitted to vote until 1879.

As a result of this privilege, three Maori MPs were elected in a non-Maori seat. This was still minimally significant representation, even with the four existing Maori seats. In 1978, Winston Peters was the third Maori to enter Parliament in a non-Maori seat – beating Malcolm Douglas, the brother of ACT founder Roger Douglas. The first Maori woman to win a General electorate seat was Sandra Lee, in 1993.

MMP is a proportional electoral system. The core idea is that Parliament should be proportionally representative of the population’s political views. If half of the country supports ACT, half of Parliament should be represented by ACT. The individual has room for two votes: a vote for the party they want to see in Parliament and a vote for the candidate to represent their electorate. The party vote is arguably the more significant, as it determines the make-up of each party represented in Parliament in proportion to the vote. Parties must obtain either five per cent of the vote or one electorate MP to enter Parliament. MPs are elected by voters or chosen by Parliament from the party lists, the latter commonly known as list MPs. The party which receives the most votes will then form the new Government, usually in coalition with another party. Maori can register for the general roll or, if they want to vote for one of the seven Maori seats, for the Maori roll. Those on the Maori roll vote for parties that allow Maori in electable positions on the list, such as Labour.

There are currently 21 Maori MPs in Parliament, holding either general or Maori seats. MMP has worked to the advantage of those standing for general seats, as those MPs have all come from their party’s list. The Maori Party has benefited from the Maori seats, as all seats held by the party are Maori seats.

If MMP and the existence of Maori seats were abolished, there might be no Maori in Parliament.

NZ First, United Future and National all have similar policies on the future of the Maori seat. These parties would be quite happy if there were no Maori seats, as long as there are sufficient Maori list MPs to ensure proportionality. And how many Maori are in the top 20 on the National list? Just one. Now National wants to get rid of the Maori seats by 2014, to remove “special representation”, without Maori having a significant say in the matter.

Yet the RCES did not support the end of “special representation” in recognition of the special status of the Maori population, as it proposed that no threshold apply to parties such as the Maori Party, which primarily represents Maori interests. So it is misleading to say that National is merely supporting the RCES. What National, and all political parties, should be supporting is Maori proportional representation – including electorate representation in both Maori and non-Maori seats.

But let us journey back to 1975 when the ball started rolling for increased Maori representation. Significant changes occurred that year after the passage of the 1975 Electoral Amendment Act. The Maori electoral option was introduced whereby all voting-age persons of Maori descent could chose, after each census, whether to be on the Maori or general roll. Although the numbers on the Maori roll increased by 30 per cent, many went on the general roll to assist in getting additional Maori MPs in Parliament through general seats. This worked to an extent. Two Maori, Rex Austin and Ben Couch, were elected as general electorate representatives later that year. In addition, the Act specified that the number of Maori seats was to be determined by the level of the electorate population. However, this legislation was reversed by the incoming National Government. The number of Maori electorates reverted to four until 1993 when the Electoral Act was passed, again determining Maori seats by the size of the Maori roll. Because more people shifted to the Maori roll, the number of seats increased to seven in 2001, with six of those going to Labour in 2002.

Last year the Maori electoral option was heavily promoted by the Maori Party, in the hope that it would increase the number of Maori seats in 2008. The party saw that extra Maori seats would potentially increase their political influence. Although an additional 14,294 people moved from the general roll to the Maori roll, 7294 moved from the Maori roll to the general roll and the number of seats remained the same.

Electoral options may assist in increasing the Maori roll – and consequently the number of Maori seats – but the most significant factor altering the Maori membership of Parliament was the introduction of MMP in 1996. It was a system that the RCES said would be “the best means of providing Maori representation”. The Commission’s report noted that “Maori interests should continue to be represented in Parliament by MPs who are members of the Maori community.”

Since 1996, Maori have been increasingly represented in Parliament – rising from six in 1993, to twenty in 2007. In 1996, Maori occupied 13 per cent of seats in the house (16 seats, as they did in 1999) and for the first time were represented in proportion to the New Zealand population. Yet just a handful of Maori list MPs – Winston Peters, Clem Simich, Jill Pettis, and former MP Georgina Beyer – initially entered Parliament after being elected in a non-Maori seat. Therefore, now that the party vote is the more significant of the two, this will provide the means of the inclusion of most Maori. Provided, of course, that they are electable on the list.

In the past, some Labour MPs have been initially elected from the list and have subsequently successfully contested Maori seats. In 1999, Nanaia Mahuta successfully contested Tainui. In 2002, former Cabinet Minister Tariana Turia won Te Tai Hauauru – before resigning from Labour over the Foreshore and Seabed legislation. She then re-entered Parliament as co-leader of the Maori Party, after winning a by-election. For the first time since 1996, the Maori Party is the sole party in Parliament (with more than one seat) where all seats held are electoral seats.

It is clear that the positioning of Maori on party lists has been a major factor in the increasing number of Maori MPs. But the Maori Party is more effective for Maori than a list or electorate MP from Labour or any other party. They didn’t need the lowering of the five per cent MMP threshold to enter Parliament. Only one party in an MMP election has ever got over the four per cent threshold recommended by the RCES without entering Parliament – the Christian Coalition in 1996.

So, what of the future for Maori representation? It depends on several factors. Whether the Maori seats are retained, and if so, how many Maori register on the Maori roll and more importantly, how political parties treat their Maori MPs when their lists are compiled. The more Maori who register on the Maori roll, the more Maori seats there will be – with guaranteed Maori representation. However, this could be undermined if those seats are not retained in the future, or if they go to a party without Maori interests at heart. What we do know is that Maori interests should be given due consideration, and Maori should be proportionally represented in Parliament. However, separate Maori seats are only a small factor in securing a Maori constitutional position. A bigger indicator is our electoral system and the attitudes of current parties in Parliament to Maori representation. Maori should have the real opportunity of being both electorate and list MPs, which is why the Maori seats must stay.

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