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Dr Muriel Newman

Maori Seats Undermine Democracy

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Internet-ManaThe main political news over the last week was the formal announcement of the marriage of convenience between Hone Harawira’s Mana Party and Kim Dotcom’s Internet Party. The merger of a party based on a reserved Maori seat, that claims to represent disadvantaged Maori, with a party founded by a foreign multi-millionaire fraudster, reeks of hypocrisy. That a political leader who derides capitalism can enter into a relationship with one of the country’s most ostentatious capitalists, and still expect to retain any element of credibility, is remarkable.

In this deal, a reserved Maori seat has been exchanged for a $3m donation to virtually guarantee the Internet Party a presence in the next Parliament in the form of Laila Harre at number 2 on the Internet-Mana list – with possibly two more seats for Mana (probably Annette Sykes and John Minto). Once elected, these radicals may well be in a position to achieve their common goal of changing the government – and, some are speculating, blocking Kim Dotcom’s extradition to the US.

What’s more astounding about this MMP rort, is that once elected, the parties may terminate their relationship within a week and go their independent ways.[1] Their Memorandum of Understanding states, “That either component party may give seven days written notice of their intention to terminate this agreement”. If early termination is not sought, a dissolution clause will end their merger six weeks after the election – unless steps are taken to extend it: “…this agreement will remain in force until at least six weeks after the 2014 General Election polling day. The component parties will meet together within five weeks of the 2014 General Election to review the agreement.”

In other words, for $3 million, the Mana Party will use a seat reserved for Maori to ‘coat-tail’ an independent party bankrolled by a German fugitive into Parliament to try to bring down the government. This calculated and mercenary move to exploit the Maori seats and the failings of MMP should not only be a nail in the coffin of our deeply flawed electoral system, but of the Maori seats as well.

But it’s not just the Mana Party that is abusing the Maori seats in a way that threatens to destabilise democracy in New Zealand – the Maori Party is planning to do so as well at local government level. They intend using their power base to exploit a loophole in the long standing law that provides that Maori representation at local government level is subject to approval by the community.

Section 19Z of the Local Electoral Act 2001 gives local authorities the right to establish Maori seats. Section 19ZB provides a democratic safeguard by enabling electors at large to challenge that decision through a binding poll. No such provisions apply when unelected Maori representatives are appointed onto councils with voting rights, despite the effects being almost the same.

The Auckland Council’s Independent Maori Statutory Board, the brainchild of the Maori Party, was established against the will of the community to give unelected iwi voting rights on council committees. Even though such boards are grossly undemocratic – forcing the council to share their power with unelected race-based representatives who are not accountable to the wider community and cannot be removed from office – MP Pita Sharples wants to establish them throughout the country: “The Maori Party will continue to push for more mechanisms like this to ensure that Maori are participating and having a say at all levels of governance.”[2]

Maori Party leader, Te Ururoa Flavell, agrees: “We’re looking at trying to have more effective Maori representation at the highest level, pretty much along the lines of the Auckland statutory board whereby there is a need that Maori have a space at that council table and all the resources that go with that.”[3]

Mr Flavell has also weighed into the debate in Rotorua, where a faction within the council are working with iwi to appoint representatives with voting rights onto council committees – without even consulting with the wider community, let alone allowing them the right to have a poll. He says that Te Arawa needs a greater say in the running of the Rotorua District Council, including having the power to authorise the flying of the tino rangatiratanga flag on Waitangi Day.

Imposing Maori boards on local councils throughout the country, by denying locals the right to a poll, is likely to be one of the coalition demands of the Maori Party should they hold the balance of power following the 20 September election. Yet, manipulating local government, to the exclusive advantage of iwi – at the cost of equal treatment of all citizens – compromises representative democracy and the principle of one-person one-vote, to such an extent that the legitimacy of government is fundamentally undermined.

The power base created by the Maori seats is also being used to fuel the notion of race-based superiority. Te Ururoa Flavell states that the needs of Maori must be put ahead of the needs of others: “Maori have a unique position in New Zealand and advancing their cultural and social needs must be put ahead of the needs of immigrants”.[4] When asked whether Maori are more important than anyone else, he said, “Possibly. I think that the most important thing is that the people of the country recognise our unique part in the fabric of this nation. As the indigenous people of New Zealand, the government should put the needs of Maori ahead of new migrants.”

According to their submission to the government’s constitutional review, the Maori Party believes their superior status springs from the Maori seats: “the Maori seats embody and enable the principle of partnership between the Treaty partners”.

Using the Maori seats to justify a “partnership”, to promote Maori privilege and undermine democracy, is a significant departure from their original purpose of enabling Maori participation in the democratic process.

Their submission also makes it clear that they want local government to become a “Treaty partner” – no doubt to gain access to the considerable resources held by local authorities, as well as to legitimise their demand for race-based representation on councils: “The Maori Party considers that the constitutional arrangements for local government should recognise that local government is a Treaty partner”, and “Maori representation should be guaranteed on local government bodies”.

These Maori supremacist views were echoed in many other submissions to the constitutional review. In the interest of open democracy (and thanks to the sterling effort of Denis McCarthy of the NZCPR Working Group Project) a summary of the 5,259 submissions published on the Constitutional Advisory Panel’s website is now available. The report on the Analysis of Submissions to the Constitutional Advisory Panel is this week’s NZCPR Guest Commentary – see HERE. It should be read in conjunction with the Official Information Act submission breakdown provided by the Ministry of Justice, which NZCPR Research Associate Mike Butler summarised HERE.

This Working Group Project report outlines the arguments promoted in both group and individual submissions. Many group submissions were the result of hui organised by the Constitutional Advisory Panel – including the Rotorua Regional hui, which recommended: “Local councils have designated Maori seats and councillors should consult with iwi on a regular basis on the marae; compulsory enrolment of Maori on the Maori Electoral Roll; Treaty principles and articles to be protected and entrenched; a written constitution to be based on Treaty principles; education on the Treaty of Waitangi to be compulsory in schools; Bill of Rights Act to include the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

Many groups wanted the Maori seats entrenched, the Maori language to be compulsory in schools, and the courts to have power over Parliament. Some of the more radical ideas included the right to bear arms against the government, Maori to have equal representation in Parliament and local government, and the Governor General to be replaced by a College of Hapu.

The majority of individual submissions sought the removal of race-based rights, rejected proposals to give the Treaty of Waitangi legislative authority, and called for the abolition of the Maori seats (our earlier research showed 79 percent of submitters opposed Maori seats in Parliament, and 71 percent opposed Maori representation in local government[5]).

In reality, the Maori seats should have been abolished years ago. Set up as a temporary measure in 1867, they gave Maori men, who didn’t qualify to vote under the private property requirements of the day, voting rights – 12 years ahead of non-Maori men, who didn’t gain voting rights until the adoption of male suffrage in 1879. The Maori seats should have been abolished at that time – or in 1893, when universal suffrage was introduced.

The 1986 Royal Commission on the Electoral System recommended the Maori seats should be abolished if MMP was introduced – to avoid a disproportionate representation of Maori in Parliament. When the MMP legislation was tabled, there were no provisions for Maori seats, but as a result of strong advocacy and weak politicians, the Maori seats were reintroduced – this time, tied to the Maori electoral option, which resulted in the number of seats increasing from four to 7, leading to the predicted over-representation of Maori in Parliament.

With every public opinion poll showing voters want an end to race-based representation, there is an expectation that when the Treaty settlements are completed, the Maori seats will go. Since South Island settlements have now been completed, with the balance expected to be finalised over the next three years, Election 2017 should be the first election in almost 150 years where all New Zealanders are on the same electoral roll.

With the Maori seats now being used to blatantly manipulate democracy, pressure needs to be brought to bear on politicians and parties in the run up to the election to support their abolition.

And before you think that contacting politicians is a pointless exercise, you should reflect on a recent comment by MP Jamie Lee Ross, who described how the National Party had put in a submission on Auckland’s Proposed Unitary Plan opposing iwi consultation because “more than two dozen Botany residents have approached him concerned about the issue and ‘any more than about 10 people who contact me on a particular issue is quite a number’.”[6]

In other words, the advocacy of concerned citizens had an effect. Elected representatives do listen – and more attentively in election year.

If you agree the Maori seats are being abused and should be abolished, there are a number of things you can do. Contact MPs – in person, if possible – and ask for their support. Have clear reasons why the Maori seats should be abolished at your fingertips and ask the MP to put pressure on their party to adopt this as a policy. Ask candidates standing for Parliament for their support. Contact your local body councillors and point out the threat to democracy of having race-based representation forced on them. Talk to friends and colleagues and ask them to join the campaign. Spread the message – write letters to the Editor, call talkback radio, engage in social media. Show your support for the campaign by signing the petition on our website HERE.


Do you agree that the Mana and Maori parties are using their privileged status to manipulate democracy to their advantage? 

Click HERE to see all NZCPR poll results



1. Mana & Internet Party, Memorandum of Understanding
2. Maori Party, Independent Maori Statutory Board backed by Maori Party
3. Waatea News, Te Arawa debates council structure
4. Stuff, Maori more important?
5. Mike Butler, Submissions reveal constitution panel’s trickery
6. Stuff, MP slates plan’s iwi consultation rules