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How do Māori seats work  – Part 2

In brief
  • There have been calls for abolishing Māori seats since soon after their founding.
  • The Royal Commission in 1986 recommending NZ switch to MMP voting also called for their abolishment.
  • Instead, they were maintained and changed from a fixed to floating number.
  • Prof Philip Joseph: they are anachronistic, separatist, discriminatory, and threaten MMP electoral outcomes.

Examining the reasons for abolishing Māori seats

Maintaining Māori seats has been the status quo since their introduction in 1867 with the Māori Representation Act, but they have nonetheless been contentious. Let’s look at some of the arguments behind calls for their abolishment.

MMP’s success providing representation for Māori

In 1986, The Royal Commission on the Electoral System recommended changing how New Zealand votes from First Past the Post (FFP) to Mixed Member Proportional (MMP). They also recommended abolishing the Māori seats in favour of a common roll. However, Māori groups pushed back over concerns MMP would not deliver promised representation. 

However, According to lawyer Jeremy Sparrow: 

“MMP has delivered what the Royal Commission predicted [greater diversity in Parliament]… Moreover, the clear disparity of Māori parliamentary representation under FPP has largely been remedied. The number of Maori MPs in Parliament has increased as Maori are reasonably represented on party lists right across the political spectrum. MMP has also seen Māori MPs hold positions of power in government including ministerial portfolios. Thus, are the dedicated seats superfluous, under MMP, as the Royal Commission argued?”

And while Māori have been overrepresented in Parliament since 2002, it should be noted that not all MPs of Māori descent necessarily represent Māori interests, as there really is no such universal agreement on what these interests are.

How do Māori seats work  - Part 2 - Centrist
Māori seats have been a controversial, yet enduring institution in NZ politics since their introduction in 1867.

Māori seats as discriminatory

Sparrow asks “(D)o the seats not then represent a form of reverse discrimination based on ethnicity?”

Professor Philip Joseph says Māori seats are a form of “discriminatory privilege” and notes: “Separate Maori representation is not a Treaty of Waitangi right.”

“Liberal democracies espouse the elemental principle of ‘one person, one vote, one value’ and rail against electoral privilege based on racial or ethnic distinction,” he says. 

Joseph argues:

“There are four reasons why the Maori seats should be abolished: they are anachronistic, they institutionalise Maori separatism, they represent a form of reverse discrimination and they threaten to manipulate MMP electoral outcomes through ‘overhang’.” 

Overhang “veto”

If a party wins more seats than their share of party votes warrant, “overhang” seats are added to Parliament. At the time of this writing, this could be the case with Te Pāti Māori in the 2023 general election.

In 1986, the Commission expressed concerns voting patterns in Māori electorates would create overhang seats, which potentially denies a party with over 50% of the party vote the right to form a government. A party could hold a “veto” over who governs by virtue of the Māori seats.

“Indeed, the overhang would ultimately trump proportionality,” says Sparrow. 

The Commission recognised many Māori viewed Māori seats as “the last vestige of a lost autonomy”, but nonetheless, it was not “appropriate that any minority group should have the power of veto in the legislature of a democratic nation. The onus falls rather on the electoral system to ensure conditions are present under which Māori might enjoy their fair share of political power”.

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