Thursday, September 01, 2005

The future of the Maori seats

The Maori Party has released its policy for the Maori seats, calling for them to be retained until there is "a broader and more meaningful process of constitutional change" or Maori choose to abolish them through a "tangata whenua referendum". It's not a bad idea, but it ignores one important fact: we already have such a referenda on a regular basis, by way of the Maori Option. Every five years, as part of the process of redrawing electoral boundaries, Maori are given the opportunity to decide whether they want to be on the Maori or general roll. Now that the number of Maori seats has been allowed to change with the size of the Maori electorate (rather than being fixed at four in an effort to ghettoise and disenfranchise Maori), Maori have voted with their feet, and the number of Maori seats has risen with every redrawing of boundaries since. I'd call that solid evidence that Maori want to retain the seats, despite their disadvantages.

Does that mean they should be retained? I'd argue yes. They are seen as a symbol of Maori mana and participation, a sign of the Treaty partnership. And under MMP, they make no real difference. The makeup of Parliament is determined by the party vote, and electorates simply shuffle the faces. Yes, the Maori seats may allow a party to avoid the threshhold, or even lead to an overhang - but so can any other electorate or group of electorates. This is the price we pay for a mixed-member system, and preventing it would require moving to a list-only system and doing away with electorates entirely. I should also note that we have accepted threshhold-avoidance and overhangs in the past from general seats with nary a raised eyebrow. No-one responded to Winston Peters or Jim Anderton's seats to be abolished because their election brought other MPs into Parliament with them, no-one called for Ohariu-Belmont to be abolished because it produced an overhang, and no-one is calling for Epsom to be abolished because ACT may be able to escape oblivion by winning it. I guess it's different though when the voters in question are Maori.


It remains embarrassing to explain to foreigners why we have separate seats for Maori, even when trying to justify them on a historical basis. And you should see the look on some foreign people's faces when you have to explain too that eligibility for the separate roll is not based on some racial or cultural criterium, but purely on the basis of choice and "who you feel like being ethnically" when you enrol. I'm not a fan of dividing the electorate on any kind of basis - if you want that why not have separate seats for pensioners, or students, or women (at least there would be a valid eligibility criterium there)?
But my main point is that if we had a list system only, without separate or electorate seats, parties will have to appeal to a broadest electorate as possible without preventing any of them to appeal to the most pastisan electorate either. The upshot may well be that Maori representation in parliament will be larger than is the case now since there would presumably be more Maori MPs in more parties - and finally allowing Maori to vote for something else than Labour, Maori Party or NZF. Democracy would certainly be the winner on the day.

Posted by Hans Versluys : 9/01/2005 11:55:00 AM

Well, I think we want to move towards eliminating them eventually - but it must be with the consent of Maori, not a conscious effort to crush them. As many people have noted, eliminating the Maori seats with Pakeha votes is not a recipe for racial harmony in this country.

Originally, I was going to center this post around the recommendations of the 1986 Royal Commission on the Electoral System. The Royal Commission argued strongly for a common roll, on the basis that it would make all parties accountable to Maori and ensure that all parties catered to their needs. MMP's party vote does this, and it has led to far greater Maori representation than in the past - though as I note in the linked post, there are parties who are simply uninterested in representing Maori interests (and thus do not get Maori votes). They were also hoping that MMP would lead to the rise of Maori political parties, or at least the organisation of Maori voters in a similar fashion to AfroAmericans; this is only just beginning to happen. (I've also seen mention that they recommended a lower threshhold for Maori parties, but I only have a partial copy, and don't have a cite for that bit).

In the event that we decided to retain the Maori seats, they recommended that they be reviewed in two cases: if the number of seats grew too large (to > 10% of the total - indicating that Maori really didn't need them at all), or too small (less than 4, indicating that Maori overwhelmingly preferred the general roll). I generally support this - but note that we're a long way from meeting either criteria. Which brings us back to where we began: if the seats are to go, it has to be driven by Maori, not by Pakeha seeking a wedge to whip up racial prejudice.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 9/01/2005 12:52:00 PM

We actually could have a rule that if any self-defined group (students, farmers, Belgian New Zealanders, whatever) managed to get the equivalent of four electorates to sign up, then they could create a separate roll. Of course, I doubt anyone ever would, but it would remove any suggestion of racial preference.

Posted by Rich : 9/01/2005 04:37:00 PM

The idea of abolishing Epsom is an interesting one. In fact, I like it a lot. ACT could stand Rodney Hide against John Tamihere in Tamaki Makaurau :oP

In fact, why are we talking about abolishing the Maori seats at all? Let's just abolish all the General seats - that way we only have to put up with seven MPs.

I don't know why anyone hasn't thought of this before!

Posted by Blair : 9/02/2005 03:19:00 PM

In view of the election results in which the Maori party got 4 seats on the basis of 40,000 votes compared with, eg, United Future's 55,000 bringing in 3 seats we need to ask the question - is this fair representation.
Also, how is it we have invented a system in which the Maori seats seem to have a much smaller voting population than the general seats? On the numbers, shouldn't we only have 4 Maori seats not 7?

Posted by Anonymous : 9/21/2005 05:52:00 PM