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David Round

The Maori Seats in Parliament

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An old adage declares that nothing is as permanent as a temporary expedient. Four Maori seats were established within the New Zealand Parliament in 1867 as a very temporary expedient, originally for a mere five years while Maori communal title to land was converted by the Native Land Court into freehold title. (At that time, only adult males possessing sufficient landed property were entitled to vote, but legal opinion considered communally-owned property an inadequate qualification.) Those four seats remained an established part of the political landscape until the introduction of a proportional representation system (MMP) by the Electoral Act 1993. They were not abolished then, though, as the Royal Commission on the Electoral System had recommended in its 1986 report, but extended, so that the number of Maori seats reflects (by a strange and complicated formula) the Maori population, including the Maori population not even on the Maori electoral roll.

All justifications for separate Maori seats have gone. With universal adult suffrage regardless of property ownership the original justification disappeared. With the introduction of MMP and the appearance of many more Maori MPs in all political parties, the more recent argument that without the seats there would be inadequate Maori representation is no longer valid. In his report, The Maori Seats in Parliament by Professor Philip A Joseph, published by the New Zealand Business Roundtable last month, Professor Joseph notes that at the time of the 2002 general election, Maori formed 14% of the population and won 10% of Parliament’s general seats (i.e. not counting the Maori seats) and in the 2005 election Maori, still 14% of the population, won 12.4% of the general seats. At that rate, Maori will very soon occupy more than 14% of general seats.

After an historical introduction, Professor Joseph’s paper presents four central propositions. Separate seats are now unnecessary to secure effective Maori representation. The seats entrench a form of historical paternalism which removes Maori issues from the mainstream political agenda. They are, in fact, a form of racial discrimination, no less so for being ‘reverse discrimination’. Under the MMP system they invite the phenomenon of ‘overhang’, which has already appeared and seems likely to become more pronounced after this year’s election; they thus give a Maori party holding those seats an utterly disproportionate over-representation in Parliament.

Ample evidence supports these arguments. As noted above, most political parties now have Maori MPs, and Maori thereby already enjoy satisfactory representation in Parliament without the assistance of specially allocated seats. The long captivity of those seats in the Labour Party meant that other parties felt little obligation to consider Maori issues, and the Labour Party itself took the Maori vote for granted. In the absence of any compelling justification, both common justice and common law (Professor Joseph refers to opinions of the Privy Council, United States Supreme Court and High Court of Australia) consider any racial discrimination unacceptable, and the defenders of Maori seats have been unable ~ or, at the very least, so far unwilling ~ to provide justifications for what is prima facie discrimination.

Separate Maori representation is not guaranteed by the Treaty of Waitangi. In 1840 there was of course not even a New Zealand parliament, and when one was created by the 1852 Constitution Act it contained no Maori seats. They were created only in 1867. Moreover, the Treaty guaranteed to Maori ‘all the rights and privileges of British subjects’; no less than that, but no more either. Sir Tipene O’Regan has been among those emphasising that the Treaty does not endow Maori with special political privileges. When the future Electoral Act 1993 was being considered by a Parliamentary select committee, several submissions were made suggesting that the Maori seats should actually be entrenched, just as universal adult suffrage is. The entrenched sections, however, all contain entirely uncontroversial and universally accepted provisions, not highly contentious political standpoints.

Maori opposition to abolition is of course prompted by self-interest, a tendency to which no race is immune. Professor Joseph suggests that at the time MMP was introduced Maori opposition (expressed in particular at a hui at Turangawaewae Marae) was based on a misunderstanding of the proposal. (He also wonders if it was representative of Maori opinion at large.) But Maori interests are best served when the Maori voter is not taken for granted. It is not surprising that the Maori Party opposes an institution which seems inclined to give it an easy ride into Parliament, and (because of the ‘overhang’ effect under MMP) excessive influence when it gets there. No-one else, however, is under any obligation to structure our constitution so as to give special privileges to any particular political party. In any case, the Maori Party would not necessarily disappear if the Maori seats were to go. The party would merely have to seek votes just like every other party. That is not a dreadful injustice.

(Professor Joseph does not mention, however, that the 1986 Royal Commission, although it recommended the abolition of Maori seats, did suggest that the threshold party vote entitling a party to list seats (currently 5%; the Commission had recommended 4%) be waived ‘for parties primarily representing Maori interests’. If such a recommendation were enacted it would certainly dampen radical Maori objections to the change.)

Perhaps wisely, the report does not stray too far from the central question to consider wider and bigger questions. It does not touch at all on the question of who is a Maori ~ that is to say, who is entitled to register on the Maori electoral roll. At present anyone with any Maori ancestry, no matter how remote or minute, may so register. (Indeed, it is well-known that some people with no Maori blood register.) Whatever justification there may be for separate Maori representation for those wholly or largely of Maori ancestry, the case is far less convincing for someone whose ancestry is, say, only one two hundred and fifty-sixth Maori (Ngai Tahu has people with that degree of Ngai Tahu ancestry on its own roll of tribal members). We are, slowly but surely, becoming one nation as we marry and give in marriage. The phenomenon of the ‘browning of New Zealand ’ which so pleases some people could with equal truth be described as the whitening of New Zealand . White, brown or cappuccino, Maori and European are slowly becoming one.

Beyond this looms another greater question. Are we to be a nation, or merely a collection of disparate tribes and cultures all fighting for our own self-interest heedless of the greater good? Every society has different elements and interests, but for the greater good these interest groups should be encouraged to sink their differences as much as possible and join in the same great common enterprise. The unthinking celebration of diversity which has recently begun to darken our national life carries a very dangerous potential to tear our country apart. Already certain new ethnic groups are beginning to resent the ‘privileged’ position of Maori, and use it to argue, not that special Maori positions should be done away with, but that these new cultural and racial enclaves should also be somehow recognised as distinct communities. The Maori seats are being used as part of the model for a Balkanised future. For that reason, too, it is high time, then, they were done away with.

Professor Joseph’s arguments are rational, clear and absolutely convincing. Whether those qualities will suffice for them to prevail is another question. Our intellectual ascendancy, if I may use a sarcastic expression, is so intolerant, and our people so supine, that the Race Relations Commissioner has felt entitled to investigate Dr Greg Clydesdale’s paper on the developing Pacific Islander underclass without even a complaint being made. The Commissioner initially condemned it before having read it, and his final condemnation (after his ‘investigation’, which was conducted with remarkable expedition) has met with scarcely a murmur of objection. At the time of writing, even the Association of University Staff, so vigilant in defending some very strange people and ideas, does not seem to have uttered a word of protest. Professor Joseph’s paper seems likelier to be ignored rather than condemned loudly. That is a pity. It should be read and acted on.