Explainer: The Maori seats and their uncertain future

NZ First leader Winston Peters wants to put the abolition of the Maori seats to a vote.
ROBERT STEVEN/STUFF

NZ First leader Winston Peters wants to put the abolition of the Maori seats to a vote.

ANALYSIS: NZ First leader Winston Peters wants a binding referendum on whether New Zealand should keep the seven Maori seats in Parliament.

This is hardly the first time a politician has vowed to take another look at the seats, but Peters has said that it is a bottom line for coalition talks - and polls show he is very likely to be in coalition talks with whichever party forms a government.

Peter is personally against the existence of the seats, describing them as "tokenism".  A binding referendum on the issue means that whatever the public decides would have to be implemented by whoever leads the government of the day.

RNZ

NZ First's leader, Winston Peters, says if his party is part of the next government there will be a binding referendum on whether to abolish the seven Maori electorate seats.

But that's all off in the future. If you need a little bit of a civics course refresher on what exactly the seats are - we're here to help.

What are the Maori seats?

The Maori seats come from seven electorates that draw from a separate Maori roll of voters to elect members to Parliament.

Voters of Maori descent can choose to go on this roll instead of the general electorate roll that the rest of the country uses. Their party votes don't change, but their electorate votes go to the Maori electorate contest taking place wherever they live.

An 1867 law gave individual Maori males the vote.
Papers Past

An 1867 law gave individual Maori males the vote.

So someone on the Maori roll in Wellington won't vote in the Rongotai or Wellington Central electorate, they'll vote in the Te Tai Tonga electorate, which covers all of the South Island and Wellington.

The seven electorates are roughly the same size - population wise - as the general electorates. Most of them are clustered in the top half of the North Island.

Why do they exist?

The reason the seats were created is quite different from the reason we have them today.

When the New Zealand Constitution Act passed in the British Parliament in 1852, Maori could technically vote, but were rarely allowed to, because the right to vote was restricted to adult males who owned or rented property in a freehold or leasehold arrangement. Most Maori owned property communally or with customary title, so could not vote.

This de facto disenfranchisement did not help already high tensions between coloniser and colonised. After all, Maori were still made to pay tax and were subject to the laws of Parliament - including laws that made it far easier for European settlers to buy land from them.

Former leader of the National Party, and the ACT Party, Don Brash wants the seats to go.
DAVID WHITE/FAIRFAX NZ

Former leader of the National Party, and the ACT Party, Don Brash wants the seats to go.

Maori nationalists called for a separate Maori Parliament but were instead granted the seats in 1867 - four of them, three in the North Island, and one in the South.

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Interestingly enough Maori were actually granted the individual vote before Europeans - although the 56,000 Maori were represented by just four seats while the 171,000 Europeans got 72. The preamble to the bill suggests that this setup may be temporary - i.e. until either Maori became traditional European landowners or everyone got individual votes.

Eventually it was the latter, but the Maori seats remained - just four of them, regardless of the size of the population.

Labour's Kelvin Davis says the seats can go when Maori say they are ready for them to go.
DAVID WHITE/FAIRFAX NZ

Labour's Kelvin Davis says the seats can go when Maori say they are ready for them to go.

Various deficiencies in the system remained. Until the 1930s Maori didn't vote by secret ballot. Until 1967 Maori politicians were only allowed to stand in the four Maori seats. and until 1975 only "half caste" voters could choose which electorates to vote in - all "full" Maori voters had to vote in the Maori seats. 

When we switched electoral systems in the 1990s there were renewed calls to abolish the seats - as Maori and Europeans alike would vote in the same party vote and all parties above 5 per cent would be in Parliament, proportional representation of Maori seemed inevitable. After all, it is principally the party vote that decides the makeup of Parliament.

But these calls were shot down by strong protest from Maori leaders. Instead, the number of seats was increased to better represent the population. In 2002 the number was increased to seven, where it has stayed ever since.

The Maori Party's Marama Fox says Winston Peters wants to take NZ back to the dark ages.
ROSS GIBLIN/FAIRFAX NZ

The Maori Party's Marama Fox says Winston Peters wants to take NZ back to the dark ages.

Which party has traditionally won them?

The Maori seats were established before party politics really took hold in New Zealand. But since Labour came to power in 1935 they have dominated the seats, with a few notable exceptions.

Ironically, NZ First owes a lot of its existence as a party to the seats. In 1996 the the nascent party won all five of the seats and established itself as real movement. Later in 2004 the Maori Party, formed when Labour minister Tariana Turia resigned from the party, won their first seat in Turia's Te Tai Hauauru. The Maori Party continue to owe their existence to the seats, having never secured five per cent or more of the party vote.

Currently, Labour hold six of the seven seats.

Now who wants to get rid of them?

Over the years people of all political stripes have called for the seats to be abolished - including Prime Minister Bill English when he was last leader in 2003.

Nowadays NZ First are leading the charge, but they aren't alone. Former National Party and ACT leader Don Brash is leading the "Hobson's Pledge" movement, which, among other aims, wants to abolish the seats. He has indicated an interest in possibly donating to NZ First.

Peters is calling for a referendum, of course, but it is assumed by many that the majority European general population would vote to get rid of the seats. 

Are either of the main two parties going to allow this referendum to go ahead?

Peters' two possible coalition partners have not ruled it out, but neither seem especially keen. Labour's Kelvin Davis - who holds Te Tai Tokerau - said they would only get rid of the seats if Maori indicated they didn't want them any more. National's Paula Bennett told RNZ the party did not have a position on the referendum yet, but they did generally support a move towards removing the seats - she just wasn't sure if that should happen right away.

It's worth noting that Labour have an interest in keeping the seats as they currently hold six of them and National do too given without them one of their crucial support partners would not exist.

Is it true most Maori are on the general roll?

Both Peters and Brash have mentioned that Maori are already voting with their feet and ditching the Maori roll for the general one.

There is some backing for this. Statistics New Zealand estimated the Maori voting age population in 2016 was around 444,000. The Maori roll in 2017 is made up of just 238,866 people. 

Nevertheless, any move to get rid of the seats will spark a lot of protest - John Key once dismissed the idea because of the "hikois from hell" that would result, despite supporting it while seeking election.

So while Peters will likely have a lot of power after September, being in Government has a way of softening radical ideas.

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