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DON BRASH: WHY THE MAORI ELECTORATES MUST GO

One of the strange omissions from the coalition agreements which marked the establishment of the new Government was any reference to the Maori electorates.

 

Perhaps in one sense the omission was not strange: there had been little or no discussion about those electorates during the election campaign, either by those parties which might have supported their abolition or by parties which presumably support their retention.

 

As most people probably know, the Maori electorates were first established for a period of just five years in 1867.  There was some logic in their creation.  At that time, only men who owned some level of private property were entitled to vote and, because most land owned by Maori was communally owned, very few Maori men were able to vote.  Ironically, all Maori men were able to vote in the new Maori electorates, even though only a small proportion of European men were able to vote at that time.  On the other hand, of course, Maori men were restricted to voting for only four Members of Parliament.

 

Over the years, the franchise was steadily widened until all adults, of whatever gender and whatever ethnicity, could vote.

 

In 1985, the Fourth Labour Government established the Royal Commission on the Electoral System and when it reported in 1986 it recommended that New Zealand move away from the First Past the Post system to a system which more accurately reflected the wishes of the people.  It recommended that, if New Zealand adopted the MMP system, Maori electorates should be abolished since MMP would make it much more likely that Maori New Zealanders would be elected to Parliament.

 

Well of course we adopted MMP in 1996 but the Maori electorates remain.  But the Royal Commission was surely right that with MMP virtually guaranteeing that more Maori would be elected to Parliament, there was no longer any logic in separate Maori electorates.

 

In May 2003, Bill English as Leader of the National Party promised that the next National Government would move to abolish separate Maori electorates.  When I became Leader of the National Party, I repeated that promise in the context of the 2005 election campaign.  John Key made the same promise in the 2008 election campaign.

 

To the best of my knowledge the National Party has made no mention of the issue since that time.  And nor has any other political party.

 

But they are an anachronism, as the Royal Commission concluded almost 40 years ago.

 

Just four years ago, when Simon Bridges was Leader of the National Party, the Leader and Deputy Leader of National, the Deputy Leader of Labour, the Leader and Deputy Leader of New Zealand First, the Co-Leader of the Greens and the Leader of ACT were all Maori – with one of that number being Deputy Prime Minister.  Only one of those seven depended on a Maori electorate to be in Parliament.

 

At present, there is similarly strong Maori representation in Parliament, with no fewer than seven Maori (including the Deputy Prime Minister) in a Cabinet of 20.   None of those seven were elected in a Maori electorate.

 

Having electorates where the qualification for being on the electoral roll is an ethnic one fosters a situation where candidates for office in those electorates emphasize ethnic differences.  That was dramatically illustrated in the 2023 election: six of the seven MPs elected in the Maori electorates are members of the Maori Party, a party which seems hellbent on pretending that Maori have different political rights from those enjoyed by all other New Zealanders, and who seem to think that they can enter Parliament without swearing allegiance to our Head of State.  This kind of nonsense is surely the last thing New Zealand needs if we are to have an harmonious future.

 

I’ve sometimes been told that the National Party has decided that Maori electorates work to the party’s advantage.  Were the Maori electorates to be abolished, and all those now registered on the Maori roll moved to the general roll, Maori voters who on average tend to vote Labour rather than National would be added to the general electorates and cost some National MPs their seats.  But of course in an MMP environment this makes no sense: yes, some individual National MPs voted in in general electorates might lose their positions as more Labour-leaning voters are added to their electorates, but the overall number of National MPs in Parliament would not be affected at all.  The number of National MPs in Parliament is determined by National’s share of the party vote, not by how many electorates National wins.

 

Almost 40 years since the Royal Commission recommended that Maori electorates be abolished if we adopted MMP, almost 30 years after we did adopt MMP, and more than 150 years since Maori electorates were created for just five years, it’s time they were scrapped.  This is not a decision which Maori voters alone should decide.  This is a decision for all voters: do we want to continue as a country where some voters have a different status based on who their ancestors were, or do we want to be a country where every citizen, no matter their ancestry, votes on the general roll?  The answer to that question will tell us a lot about the future of our country.

 

Don Brash

14 January 2024

 

 

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