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Dr Muriel Newman

Open Letter to the Prime Minister

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Dear Prime Minister,


There are many issues that are of crucial importance to voters in an election campaign – particularly whether political parties have the capability to manage the economy effectively. We acknowledge that.

However, there is one matter that doesn’t rank highly in the polls, but is of such deep concern that it goes to the heart of who we are as New Zealanders. It is the issue of racial privilege and the Maori seats.

Prime Minister, as you know, the Maori seats were created by Parliament in 1867 as a temporary measure to ensure Maori men who owned communal land were able to vote. When universal male suffrage was introduced in 1879, the Maori seats should have been abolished – but they were retained.

In 1986 the Royal Commission on the Electoral System closely examined the Maori seats and their impact on the country. They concluded that race-based representation was not only creating an “undesirable degree of division”, but it was also contributing to the growing problem of Maori disadvantage.

The Royal Commission recommended that if MMP was adopted, the Maori seats should be abolished. They reasoned that under MMP political parties would elect more Maori into Parliament on their own merits through the list seats. They warned that if MMP was introduced, and the Maori seats were not abolished, an undemocratic over-representation of Maori in Parliament would be the result.

The Royal Commission has been proved right on all counts.

Separatism has not led to national unity, but to increased division. Nor has it reduced disadvantage.

The over-representation of Maori in Parliament, as a result of the retention of the Maori seats, is now having a discriminatory impact. In the last Parliament 20.7 percent of MPs were of Maori descent, compared to 14.9 percent of the overall population. Abolishing the 7 Maori seats would restore proportionality to 15 percent.

In a ruling on the issue of proportionality in 2010, the Attorney General explained, “In a representative democracy, it is important to maintain approximately the same level of representation for everyone”. This means that by creating a disproportionately higher number of Maori MPs than non-Maori, the Maori seats are causing discrimination.

The Maori seats are also being radicalised. Hone Harawira has destroyed their integrity, by accepting a multi-million dollar deal to bring a separate party into Parliament on the back of his Te Tai Tokerau seat. It is a rort that cannot possibly be tolerated.

Political parties are now calling for Parliament to abolish the Maori seats.

ACT and the Conservatives want them removed.

New Zealand First is so opposed to separatism that it is refusing to engage in any post-election deals with either of the race-based Mana or Maori parties. They say the future of the Maori seats is for the people to decide once they have examined the significant increase of Maori MPs under MMP.

United Future wants to see a referendum on the future of the Maori seats held by 2017.

Prime Minister, your party is also promising to abolish the Maori seats. Your policy in 2008 and 2011 said, “At the conclusion of the settlement of historic Treaty claims, National will begin a constitutional process to abolish the Maori seats. National wishes to see all New Zealanders on the same electoral roll.”

However, in a recent interview with the Herald, you explained that while it remained National Party policy to abolish the seats, you would only do so with the agreement of Maori. You claim that abolishing the Maori seats would divide the nation: “Despite the fact that a lot of people say they don’t like it and they were there for a particular reason, actually it would be an incredibly divisive thing to do to New Zealand and New Zealanders. Do you really want to rip a country apart? I’ll tell you what would happen – hikois from hell.”

Firstly, Prime Minister, you have raised the question of who should decide on the future of the Maori seats.

As you know, Parliamentary convention requires that matters of major constitutional significance should be decided through a binding referendum of all voters. Changing the country’s voting system from separate race-based electoral rolls and electorates, to a common roll and seats, impacts on all New Zealanders. It would be unconscionable to even consider that something of such constitutional significance could possibly be decided by vested interests alone.

Secondly, the ‘hikois from hell’.

Dr Don Brash, the former leader of your party has been following the debate on the Maori seats and read the interview you gave to the Herald with concern. I invited him to share his thoughts – this is what he had to say:

“One of the most disturbing comments made by any politician in the election campaign so far was the comment by John Key when he said that, though abolition of separate Maori electorates is National Party policy, he had no plan to abolish them because such a move would provoke ‘hikois from hell’.  What he was saying was that, even though abolishing racially-based political representation is the right thing to do – a view shared by ACT, New Zealand First and the Conservatives – he was willing to be intimidated by a mob.”

“This is an extraordinary situation, and one with serious implications for New Zealand’s future.”

In his commentary, Dr Brash explains why waiting almost 140 years for the Maori seats to be abolished is absurd. But he then turns his attention to your fear of protest action.

“But what about the ‘hikois from hell’?  Yes, I can imagine that some people would resent losing their privileged electoral position – who wouldn’t? – but since when did we allow policy to be dictated by a mob?  I disagreed with many things that Helen Clark said and did, but she was right when she referred to those who led a hikoi which took place when she was Prime Minister as ‘haters and wreckers’.”

Prime Minister, Dr Brash finishes with some extremely important advice.

“John Key should make it absolutely clear that, if he is re-elected Prime Minister, he will implement National’s long-standing policy to abolish the Maori electorates, and he will not be intimidated no matter where the hikois come from.  I suspect such a clear statement would win him more votes than any other policy he could announce.  Most New Zealanders – and I suspect even most Maori New Zealanders – want an end to the pandering to the Hone Harawiras of this world.”

Prime Minister, we could not agree more. No government should be cowed by vested interest groups threatening violence. Mob rule simply cannot be tolerated in New Zealand. Those who seek to bully and intimidate to get their way must face the full force of the law.

New Zealand’s democracy is based on the rule of law. Every New Zealander must be treated equally. Protest action should be properly policed and if law breaking occurs, the perpetrators must face justice.

Prime Minister, the reality is that New Zealanders no longer want to be defined by the colour of their skin. In a modern democratic nation, race should not be used as the determinant of political, economic and social rights.

New Zealand is a society of people from all over the world, who see our country as their home. They are New Zealanders first and foremost. They love this country and want to see us going forward together as equals – irrespective of when they or their ancestors arrived.

Prime Minister, as you know, on 27 January 2004, Dr Brash, as leader of your Party, addressed these issues and presented a vision of a hope and unity to the country. His Nationhood speech at Orewa struck that chord of deep concern in the hearts of New Zealanders. It resulted in your party being catapulted from 28 percent in the polls in December, to 45 percent in February.

Dr Brash’s speech sent out the very clear message that the National Party was prepared to tackle these difficult problems in a fair and responsible way – to set the country onto the path of equal rights and one standard of citizenship.

The ideas were not radical. But they were addressed with the directness and courage we expect from our leaders.

The speech questioned the sort of nation we wanted to build: a modern democratic society, embodying the essential notion of one rule for all in a single nation state – or a racially divided nation, with two sets of laws, and two standards of citizenship?

Division or unity – that was the choice.

It is still the choice, but the need for leadership is now more imperative than it was in 2004, as the demands are becoming more radical.

Labour not only wants to retain the Maori seats, but also intends giving “legal expression” to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. which will create a litany of new claims. They intend pursuing constitutional recognition of the Treaty of Waitangi – even though New Zealanders overwhelmingly rejected the concept in last year’s constitutional review. They also want greater Maori representation on local government, even though the public is strongly opposed.

The Green Party also supports the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. They too want greater recognition of the Treaty, greater iwi participation in local government, and they want to see the Maori seats entrenched.

Prime Minister, as you know a great deal of misinformation swirls around these issues – much of it deliberate. The minor party leaders’ television debate exposed one such example – when challenged about the fact that the Maori seats had passed their used-by date by moderator Mike Hosking, Maori Party leader Te Ururoa Flavell said that the Maori seats are a ‘right’ guaranteed by the Treaty of Waitangi: “There is a right there that dates back to something called the Treaty of Waitangi that allows us to have these seats under kawanatanga.”

No, Mr Flavell – you know the history, as well as we do. The Maori seats were established through a decision by Parliament, and it is now time for that decision to be reversed.

Prime Minister, in his Nationhood speech, Dr Brash argued that the Treaty should not be used as a basis for creating greater civil, political or democratic rights for Maori than for any other New Zealander. He argued that in the 21st century, it is unconscionable for New Zealand to be taking a separatist path.

He made these final comments: “In many ways, I am deeply saddened to have to make a speech about issues of race. In this country, it should not matter what colour you are, or what your ethnic origin might be. It should not matter whether you have migrated to this country and only recently become a citizen, or whether your ancestors arrived two, five, 10 or 20 generations ago… we must build a modern, prosperous, democratic nation based on one rule for all. We cannot allow the loose threads of 19th century law and custom to unravel our attempts at nation-building in the 21st century.”

Prime Minister, we ask, that just as you have tackled some extremely tough challenges over the six years that you have been our leader, that you now commit to removing the Maori seats and introducing a common electoral roll during the next term of Parliament, should you be re-elected.

If you did this, you would win the support of most New Zealanders.

Yours sincerely,
Muriel Newman
New Zealand Centre for Political Research


Do you support the policy of Labour and the Greens to give the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples legal status? 

*All NZCPR poll results can be seen in the Archive.