Whether you want them or not Māori seats are a part of Parliament but Daniela Maoate-Cox asks 'where did they come from?'
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Every student getting off the bus outside the Victoria University of Wellington gets a robotic reminder of their low-funds lifestyle as they scan their bus pass.
Overlooking the busload of students living life on the edge of bankruptcy is the office of Maria Bargh; she’s head of school and senior lecturer at Te Kawa a Māui, Māori studies at the University.
By her desk sits a shopping bag of apples and bananas that she takes to lectures for students because Dr Bargh is well aware of the student life struggle.
Today, however, her task is to make me aware of the history of Māori seats.
“It’s important to remember that the reason they were established is different from why we might want to keep them now and why people might go on the Māori electoral roll,” Bargh says.
The context of when they were set up in the 1800s and the Māori Representation Act 1867 are also important she says.
“At that time there were huge areas of the country that had just been in war between Māori and British troops and the new settler Parliament, so there was a lot of conflict around.
“You also had a whole lot of Māori iwi that were coming together as part of a kotahitanga and had been calling on the crown to adhere to the rights that Maori had seen guaranteed in Te Tiriti o Waitangi in 1840.”
There were clear Māori political institutions and movements and a voice saying to the settler Parliament that they didn’t think their side of the treaty was being upheld, Dr Bargh says.
“On the settler Parliament side they were feeling like they should be incorporating Māori views into the Parliament but at the same time there were some arguments about assimilating Māori and there were still some people who thought that Māori were going to die out.”
When the first four seats were set up in 1867 there were plenty of different opinions about them and Dr Bargh says those who sat in those seats were kept busy, including staying in touch with Māori Parliaments.
“Some of the first jobs that those four Māori members of the settler Parliament took were trying to bring bills, there was a Native Rights Bill, that they tried to introduce into that settler Parliament to get recognition that Māori still had control over Maori rights, resources and people.”
“Non-Māori had different ideas about what the purpose of those seats were,” she says.
At one point voter eligibility depended on land ownership which created problems for Māori, whose land was mostly owned collectively (not qualifying them as voters, unlike other land-owners).
Bargh says the idea that men who owned property were the most upstanding of citizens, and therefore the best people to vote, was brought from England and there was a similar aspiration for Māori.
The assumption was that the Māori Land Court would work to individualise all the land across the country and convert it into a recognisably English land title system.
It didn’t quite work.
“The idea was that the Māori seats would be temporary until such time as that land had become individual titles and until such time as Māori could be converted into individual owners,” she says, but many Māori objected to having one person named as the landowner and the process to individualise land titles was taking longer than expected.
The seats became permanent in 1876 and Māori men over the age of 21 became eligible voters.
A Royal Commission of Inquiry on the country’s electoral system in 1986 recommended a proportional system (voters chose MMP).
The change to MMP in 1993 increased the number of Māori seats from four to five in 1996 and now, there are seven.
But there was talk when the electoral system changed to MMP about whether the seats were still needed.
“There was a huge uproar from Māori,” says Bargh.
“The argument was, actually, these seats aren’t about having a proportional representation of Māori people in Parliament. What they are, is kind of a minimal level recognition of our constitutional rights as derived from Te Tiriti o Waitangi.
“I think the most common misunderstanding is the argument around ‘there are lots of Māori people in Parliament’ well actually there could be 120 Māori people in Parliament there would still only be seven Māori representatives, seven people representing Māori constituencies,” she says.
So why is it seven?
Aotearoa has a population of around 4.8 million and to represent the interests of those people there are 120 people who meet in an arch-shaped room with lots of green chairs and wood panelling.
They’re part of the House of Representatives and are elected by voters every three years either from one of 71 electorates or as part of the party vote (that’s how we get electorate MPs and List MPs respectively).
Seven of the 71 electorates are Māori seats and, in simple terms, the number changes depending on how many Māori voters are signed up to the Māori electoral roll.
“We’re required to have an electoral roll which registers all eligible voters,” says the Electoral Commissions Mandy Bohte.
“So that provides information of your name and your occupation so that people can scrutinise the roll and ensure that they believe that you are eligible to vote.”
There are two rolls that people can be on; the General Roll and the Māori Roll.
In the early days, electoral officials argued it would be too hard to register Māori voters so rolls for Māori electorates weren’t set up till the late 1940s.
Choosing which roll to go on wasn’t made possible till 1975 when the Māori Electoral Option was introduced.
“If you’re on the Māori roll you get to vote for a candidate who’s standing within Māori electorates and that leads to having specific Māori representation in Parliament,” says Bohte.
Changing rolls can’t be done at any time you want though; It’s only available during the Maori Electoral Option which is held every five years after the census and the most recent one was held this year.
But that chance closed in August so if you didn’t do it then, you’ve missed out till 2024.
“It is legislated that that’s the only time you can change unless you’re enrolling for the very first time,” says Bohte.
The number of people on the Māori roll also can have an impact on the number of Māori seats,” she says.
“So after the Option, those statistics all go to Stats New Zealand, they combine that with census information and do some quite complex calculations and they’ll be telling us in March of 2019 how many electorates we have.”
Only those of Māori descent can be on the Māori roll and being on it doesn’t have an effect on the party a person can vote for, it only changes the options for the local electoral candidate.
Being on the Māori or General Rolls has no impact on the overall party make-up of Parliament, which depends on everyone's party vote (regardless of roll). The existence of the Māori seats doesn't impact on that - which party won them is factored into the proportioning of List MPs, the same way that other electorates are.
The Electoral Commission says the following factors may influence the number of Māori electorates:
- population change since the last census
- the number of people included in the census
- how people answer the census Māori descent question
- the level of enrolment by people who have indicated they are of Māori descent on the General roll or Māori roll
- the proportion of electors of Māori descent who are on the Māori roll at the end of the Option period.
More information can be found on the Electoral Commissions website or you can call them on 0800 36 76 56.