Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A dangerous anomoly?

Chris Trotter returned to crude race-baiting in his weekly column on Friday, with an attack on the Māori seats. Now that they are no longer a guaranteed Labour fiefdom, Trotter wants to get rid of them. His chief ammunition? That in the 2008 election,

it took 35,446 votes to elect a General MP, [but] only 20,476 votes were needed to elect a Maori MP.
On this basis, Trotter does a Brash and concludes that Māori are being accorded a greater right to electoral representation than Pakeha - something he labels unfair and aristocratic. But while the discrepancy is real, his conclusion is simply bullshit. The Electoral Act is very clear: Maori electorates are the same size as general ones, their size set by the same method used for North Island electorates (divide the relevant population by the South Island quota - the population of the South Island over 16 - round up or down accordingly to get the number of seats, then ensure that the electorates are all evenly sized to within 5%). So, formally at least, Māori have the same damn electoral representation as anyone else.

So, why the difference? One factor is turnout. Those same statistics Trotter used to get his figures would have shown him clearly that while the turnout in general seats is 80.9%, the turnout in Māori seats is only 62.4%. So, part of the reason is that fewer Māori vote. But its fairly obvious even without a calculator that that's not the full explanation - equal turnout would still mean 26,000 voters vs 35,000. So what's going on here?

The answer is demographics. For reasons of administrative simplicity, electoral boundaries are determined by the total population, not just those on the electoral roll. Which means that children and teenagers - people ineligible to vote - count towards the quota. Which means in turn that electorates with a younger demographic, and a lot of children and teenagers, will have fewer actual voters in them.

Take a browse through Parliament's electorate profiles, and look at the information on "Age Groups of the Usually Resident Population". The average age in a Pakeha electorate is the mid 30's or so, and the average proportion of residents eligible to vote is about 75%. The average age in Māori electorates (technically, of the Māori Descent Population, because the census does not gather data on who is on what roll) is 23, and the average percentage of eligible voters is around 60%. And that's the reason for the difference right there: fewer Māori are of voting age.

This doesn't just effect the Māori seats. Electorates in South Auckland, such as Māngere, Manukau East and Manurewa, also have a lower average age and a lower proportion of eligible voters (and yes, fewer people voting on polling day - only around 27,000 people in each).

So, the upshot: this isn't a case of "racial privilege", as alleged by Trotter, but an unintended consequence of demographics and basing electorates on total population. And the conclusion it supports is not abolition of the Māori seats, but reform of the way we set electorate boundaries (though such reform, to use the eligible or actually enrolled population, may have serious problems of its own). But somehow, I suspect that Trotter is as interested in that as he is in the actual differences between SM and MMP, or the real causes of overhangs (to pick up on two more of his rhetorical points). He'd rather engage in dishonest race-baiting instead.