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Anthony Willy

The Maori Seats in Parliament, an Anachronism

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“Anachronism” is its own worst enemy it has become an anachronism and fallen into disuse. It has been displaced by meaningless words such as “appropriate” and “inappropriate” but it aptly describes the  continued existence of the Maori seats. As is well known they came into being in1867 at a time when limited democracy was introduced to New Zealand by allowing those who met property ownership qualifications to vote for parliamentary candidates in their district or electorate. This followed a similar pattern to that  which occurred in England in 1832 a mere eight years before the arrival Captain Hobson to these shores and the signing of the resulting agreement between some local Maori Chiefs and the Crown. By 1853 when a Parliament was first established all Maori males of voting age were granted the right to vote because in the document they signed at Waitangi they acquired the full rights of British subjects. However, the Legislature realised that a  property qualification similar to that which existed in England was unfair because most of the indigenous land was held in incorporations sometimes involving hundreds of “owners.”  Partly the reason for this was because in Maori society there was no concept of enforceable property rights, and this meant that although Maori then comprised about 17% of the population only some 100 Chiefs met the property qualifications. In 1867 to redress this injustice Parliament enacted The Maori Representation Act which established seats in which only Maori could vote without the need for a property qualification. This privilege was not available to any other British subject whether living here or in the United Kingdom. Voting rights were further extended in 1893 granting all men and women living in New Zealand over the age of 21 tears the right to vote. This was amended again in 1896 giving “half casts” (as the Electoral Royal Commission described them) the right to vote on either the Maori roll or the general roll. All years ahead of women living in England and achieved without the need for Maori maidens  casting themselves before the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby, and going on hunger strikes in prisons. Subsequent legislation now allows voters to change from either roll as they wish.

As the population composition changed, more and more emigrants arrived and with Dame Whina Cooper’s wise words that “racial differences would be solved in the bedrooms” the pure-bred Maori population declined to the point reached today that there are very few persons of pure Maori blood living in New Zealand. There continues to be about 15% of the population who can trace back to a Maori ancestor. Until recently this was thought to be a healthy sign that New Zealand had developed its own multi racial  society similar to most places in former Commonwealth countries. All of which in the lifetime of most readers was taken for granted with a degree of complacency.

This had become the norm at least for most of the twentieth century, certainly by the time the Royal Electoral Commission on the Electoral Commission gave its report in December 1986. As is well known the Commission recommended that the first past the post system of electing Member of Parliament be abolished and instead there be a dual system which involves retaining electorate but allowing votes to register a vote for the party of their choice (Mixed Member Proportional Representation). The combination of which makes up Parliament. This radical proposal required the Commission to look at the continuing relevance of the Maori seats. After an extensive review of the history and purpose of the Maori seats the Commission concluded:

“The system has an inherent flaw one which under the conditions which have prevailed in New Zealand has had particularly adverse effects on the ability of the Maori MPs to protect the interests of their people…….the weakness lies in the fact that under the system of separate representation the representatives of each community, Maori and non Maori are ultimately responsible only to the particular community that elected them…..the system’s political separation, a condition under which a fixed majority is most likely to emerge on issues that  affect the minority community….the system’s of separate representation has served to isolate the Maori MPs”

The Commission went on to record that “many  non-Maori object to separate Maori representation because they regard it as contrary to the principle of equality.” After examining a number of other significant disadvantages, the Commission concluded: “The mixed member proportional system should be adopted as the best means of providing effective Maori representation.” Given its earlier conclusion concerning the relationship between MMP and the Maori seats the recommendation is that they be abolished. The recommendations of the Commission were implemented by referendum conducted in 1993, but the Maori seats were left in place.

Sadly the expectations of the Commission concerning Maori representation have been frustrated by the behaviour of a small number of Maori MP,” mostly belonging to the Maori Party. Beginning on the day of the opening of Parliament in 2024 this collection of nonenties set out to disrupt the proceedings of the House by dressing in garb they would not adopt in their everyday lives, turning up with sticks and meres with the result that what every parent knows with unruly children “give them an inch and they will take a mile.” So it has proved to be with the latest incident of a Maori insisting on speaking from the gallery in Maori no doubt encouraged by the fact that the Speaker’s Chair on that occasion was occupied by Maureen Pugh the Deputy and recently elected member for Westland. To outward appearances merely a young woman for whom their “tikanga” has scant regard. What a shock to be told by her to sit down and remain quiet. The ensuing cries of outrage from the Maori Party members  about the trampling of their traditions necessitated the recall of  Speaker Brownlee. He to his credit backed Maureen and quelled the childish outbursts. In seeking to design an electoral system favourable to Maori people the Royal Commission failed to take into account the calibre of candidates offering in years to come.

Current events

Currently there are seven Maori electorates in Parliament. Six are held by persons claiming Maori ethnicity and who belong to the “Maori Party.” Notwithstanding widespread calls for the abolition of the Maori seats and promises made by ACT and New Zealand First during the campaigning in the run up to the last election no member of the coalition has shown any inclination to table legislation to that effect. It is against that background that the public enquiry surrounding the election of the Maori Party member for Member for Manurewa electorate is of unique importance. Voting in that constituency took place partly at the Marae situated on land controlled by the Waipareira trust. A leading figure in the management of the Trust is John Tamihere a former Labour Party Member of Parliament. The CEO was Takutai Tarsh Kemp who won the 2023 election from the Labour Party candidate (a former Labour cabinet minister) by 42 votes. The allegations are that persons employed by the Trust, some say young teenagers, were deputed to collect Census forms for the general census which was also conducted partly at the  Mare, and use them to create a computer log. Those forms will have contained details of the ethnicity of the person concerned. In this way it is alleged that persons at the Trust then contacted some, or all of those people, details of which are as yet unclear and persuaded them to cast their vote for the Maori Party candidate. It is further alleged that the trust “treated” those who responded to the call by giving them $100 food vouchers and or otherwise provided food at the Marae for those persons provided they voted for the Maori Party candidate. If proved this is known as “treating” and was first created an offence pursuant to s 61 of the Electoral Act 1893. It has remained so ever since and is now found in s. 197 of the Electoral Act 1993. This type of interference in the electoral process has a history going back to the enactment of the English Electoral Reform Act of 1832 which granted general election voting rights to a wide variety of males hitherto not entitled to vote. Prior to this it  was open season in some places whereby people who wanted to become Members of Parliament would descent on an electorate, or Boroughs as they were called and use any means possible to persuade the electors to vote for them. The most favoured method was “treating” with alcohol or food or bribing with money. The most favoured places were the Rotten Boroughs such as old Sarum where a town had largely relocated elsewhere leaving only a few inhabitants qualified to vote. Then there were the Pocket Boroughs which were literally in the pocket of the local land -owner who could strongly influence the choice of candidate for whom his tenants were expected to vote. Such matters have long since become no more than interesting historical artifacts which children used to learn about at school, but probably no longer do.

It is astonishing to see allegations of these practices emerging in New Zealand in November 2023 in a Maori Electorate and one in which a former Labour MP with a wealth of experience of Parliamentary and electoral practices has considerable influence. It is also concerning that the statistics Office and the Electoral Commission were aware of these complaints but did nothing about them. So alarming are these allegations including the failure of the two statutory bodies most closely concerned to take the matter seriously that no less than twelve government bodies are presently conducting enquires as to what went on with the polling at that electorate. It may be that the Prime Minister’s department e may become involved.   Of course, these are only allegations and hotly denied by Mr. Tamihere but one thing is clear. If he is correctly reported, he knew that voters at the Mare were being offered meal vouchers and other  refreshments. He dismisses this as “Tikanga,” the tribal tradition that visitors to a Marae must be given refreshment, and goes on to say that he is not bound by non-Maori “tikanga” even though enshrined in legislation passed by the New Zealand Parliament in which he once served as an Member. If this is his attitude to Electoral law binding on all New Zealanders, then the poison of the racial separatism promoted and pursued by the Ardern Government has now entered and corrupted our electoral processes and one wonders what electoral practices might have been adopted in other Maori seats, Mr Tamihere being the President of the Maori Party. Has the clock been turned back to Old Sarum 1832.

If Mr Tamihere is correctly reported then no doubt he is encouraged in his reliance on “tikanga” by recent decisions of our Supreme Court that “tikanga” is part of the common Law of New Zealand and should he or one of his executives be prosecuted for “treating” he, or they will simply plead “Tikanga” and in the eyes of some of our Judges no doubt entitled to an acquittal. In that event the “chickens will have come home to roost” in the precincts of the Supreme Court, and no future elections held on a Marae premises will be immune from “treating.” Let us hope for the sanctity of our electoral system that all of these allegations are either untrue or misreported but that still leaves the question of whether the Maori seats should remain.


The anachronism is alive and well and there is no better time for the Coalition to call for a public referendum on the continuation or repeal of the Maori seats.