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The Hikoi protest march against the Foreshore and Seabed Bill makes its way down Queen St in Auckland, New Zealand, October, 2004. (Photos: FOTOPRESS/Phil Walter).
The Hikoi protest march against the Foreshore and Seabed Bill makes its way down Queen St in Auckland, New Zealand, October, 2004. (Photos: FOTOPRESS/Phil Walter).

ĀteaJune 7, 2018

The power, importance, and future of the Māori roll

The Hikoi protest march against the Foreshore and Seabed Bill makes its way down Queen St in Auckland, New Zealand, October, 2004. (Photos: FOTOPRESS/Phil Walter).
The Hikoi protest march against the Foreshore and Seabed Bill makes its way down Queen St in Auckland, New Zealand, October, 2004. (Photos: FOTOPRESS/Phil Walter).

Māori are in the process of choosing which electoral roll to vote from. Simon Day spoke to Dr Paerau Warbrick about what that decision means. 

I grew up firmly in te ao Pākehā. I also grew up very aware of my Tainui whakapapa, and the story of grandfather’s family – his father a legendary Māori All Black whose career was cut short when he lost his arm in World War I. But it was a world we’d become detached from.

When I enrolled to vote for the first time in the 2005 election, I chose the Māori roll. It felt like my first official opportunity to express my taha Māori, and politics was a fertile forum to learn more about what my heritage meant. It was also an intensive introduction to the power of the Māori voting bloc, and the political potential of the Māori seats.

In the shadow of the Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004 the Māori party was born and took four of the seven Māori seats from Labour. Three years later, this allowed the Māori Party to become the support partner National needed to form a minority government. That same decision in 2008 to form a partnership inside the halls of power, instead of a role in opposition, eventually lead to the death of the Māori party, as Labour took back all seven electorates in last year’s election. It also meant National was left without any friends to form a government.  

In conjunction with the census, Māori are in the middle of choosing which roll they want to vote from. Reports of an exodus from the Māori roll, and fears a Māori seat might be lost by the withdrawal of voters, seem widely misplaced. At the halfway point (May 31) of the four month Māori Electoral Option period, there’s been a net decrease of 1,426 on the Māori roll. With more than 245,000 enrolled on the Māori roll at the last election Statistics New Zealand estimates it would require around 10,800 Māori voters to move to the general roll in order to lose one of the seven seats. And while voters are changing to the general roll, many new voters are signing up for the Māori roll.

This investment in the Māori electorates doesn’t surprise Dr Paerau Warbrick, lecturer at the University of Otago’s Te Tumu School of Māori, Pacific, and Indigenous Studies. He believes Māori will continue to support the existence of the seats because they give an essential platform to Māori issues.

“That’s just a lot of star gazing, but yes they will. Because the whole thing essentially works for large amounts of Māori. They vote with their feet. They turn around and remain on the roll.”

With enrollment packs sitting unopened on kitchen benches (guilty), and Electoral Commission teams popping up at Matariki events around the country over the next few weeks, The Spinoff spoke to Dr Warbrick about the history of the seats, their political significance, and their cultural permanence.

What were the reasons for the introduction of the Māori seats?

They came about through good old fashioned New Zealand tinkering with the system. It wasn’t some monumental thing that happened with huge celebration, after the politicians seriously put their minds to it. It sort of stumbled into being.

These Māori seats were created under the Māori Representation Act of 1867 and all Māori males over the age of 21 could vote as long as you weren’t mad or in jail. It was actually universal suffrage for all Māori males over 21. Technically, Māori males got universal suffrage before Pākehā males.

That seems significant, but…

What happened in practice was different.

If we go back to how our voting system came about, the English parliament passed the New Zealand Constitution Act of 1852. Britain had to pass it because we were still a colony and that set up our electoral system. They turned around and said you can have a parliament, an upper house and a lower house.

So they turned around and said males over the age of 21 you can have the vote, but as long as you own property over the sum of £50. So there were property qualifications on the official statute books.

But what happened in practice, no one questioned people’s property rights. So from 1852, in New Zealand, all white males had universal suffrage in fact. The only time any white males got challenged was when the elections were so close.

But when Māori went to go and vote that was a different story.

How did Māori get to vote, and how did that create the Māori seats?

From 1852 through to 1867 Māori were just disqualified. When Māori rocked up to the ballot box and challenged for their right to vote, they were told they can’t prove [they have property because of communal ownership]. You had massive amounts of incidences in the Wellington provincial elections where Māori would turn up to vote (before 1867) and were told, no go away. The same thing happened here in Dunedin. They would show up to vote and get told to go away.

1867 is significant. There were practical issues in 1867. The politicians started to think we’ve got a few issues here. Māori had been fighting in the New Zealand wars. And politicians knew about the history of democracy and if you don’t give people the vote then they’re going to turn around and do certain actions against the government. Like what the Americans had done.

If you’re disenfranchised, people are going to take up arms. So, 1867 that was the threat of Māori using arms to get what they wanted. That was a real threat.

So they thought why don’t we give them representation? But even then politicians asked “wellll, what type of representation? How much representation?”

You have areas in places like the Bay of Plenty, these rural areas where Māori were going to swamp the local electorates. So these Europeans in these general seats were highly likely to get voted out. So they thought: “ok, let’s create some representation, and we are only going to give them four seats. Northern, southern, western and eastern Māori.”

So they created the four seats. And it doesn’t matter what the population is, you had 10,000 votes in one electorate, compared with the European electorate only having about 1000 voters. This is how Māori are going to be treated.

And that situation happened up until the 1970s.

So it stumbled into being that way. That’s the large explanation of how these seats were created – through practical pragmatic reasons.

What happened in the 1970s?

A lot of the protests over land, so Māori were starting to be given various options. This included being give then choice to go on some general rolls or stick on the Māori roll.

Essentially it was just tinkering with the system. Those four Māori electorates were only done away with in the 1996 general election [and replaced with the seven Māori electorates based on population representation- Hauraki-Waikato, Ikaroa-Rāwhiti, Tāmaki Makaurau, Te Tai Hauāuru, Te Tai Tokerau, Te Tai Tonga and Waiariki]. Right up until 1996 those original Māori seats were still in existence.

As the electoral system develops, what is the reason for Māori representation now? What does that say about New Zealand in 2018?

I put it down to New Zealand’s national character. The New Zealand way of doing things. Practically, as a country, we only change systems when things are terribly broken. We just stumble along with the systems we have until they start to get really out of whack, and only then do we change it. It’s this she’ll be right attitude that’s in the New Zealand psyche. If it’s not broken don’t fix it.

All these arguments by academics, what’s the practicalities for changing these things. One practicality is if you’re going to get rid of these seats you’re going to create a lot of anger from Māori, and these Māori people can get pretty angsty as we’ve seen. The protests from the 70s, 80s, the foreshore and seabed. Getting rid of these seats is harder from a practical point of view.

So we stumble along and keep accepting them. But we tinker with the system. As long as Māori people want to remain on the Māori roll well that’s fine. Those seats can go up and down. If more Māori move from the general roll you can get more of these seats. But the opposite can also happen: if Māori turn around and say we are no longer interested in these seats they can go down. But we haven’t seen that.

In 2011 the Maori party signed a confidence and supply agreement with the National party to help form the government (Photo: Getty Images).

Why do you think they have remained important to the Māori community? Is it the Māori roll that is responsible for the strong parliamentary representation we see for Māori?

First and foremost these Māori electorates are distinctively Māori. It is the Māori people that control these seats. And they get to ensure their representatives get into leadership roles.

If those representatives no longer give effective leadership to Māori people then they’re going to vote them out. You saw that with the foreshore and seabed. John Tamihere represented Tamaki Makaurau and he voted for the Foreshore and Seabed Act, and the Māori people voted him out. The same thing happened in regard to Waiariki, for Mita Ririnui.

Those men were in influential positions in the Clark government, but they got voted out. And it was scary for the other ones like Parekura Horomia, and Nanaia Mahuta. They all lost votes.

The Māori people themselves determine the fate of those representatives. As opposed to Māori who are on list seats, Māori view them as just party hacks that can be gotten rid of.

I have grown up and spend most of my life in te ao Pākehā, but increasingly I am learning about my place in te ao Māori. The Māori roll has become an important opportunity for me to express and engage my taha Māori.

The point with the Māori roll is there are individual Māori who have got to make their own decision as to what is going to work best for them. Do they want to be on the Māori electoral roll and have this Māori representative for their hopes, dreams and aspirations? Or are some MPs on the general roll going to represent them and their whanau needs. If we return to the concept within Māori society, every Māori person has their own tino rangatiratanga, self determination, and you have that within Māori society.

Every Māori person in New Zealand has to determine this themselves. Is this MP that is going to be elected in this Māori electorate going to speak for me? If it is yes, then you join it, if no you go somewhere else.

And the Māori seats have proved very powerful. After the Seabed and Foreshore, the formation of the Māori party became a really important part of the Key government, and then this election, with the return of the Māori seats to Labour, you saw National without any friends, allowing the coalition to be born.

It all hinged on Waiariki. You saw that these Māori seats have been a key to affecting government. The last time something like this happened was the 1946 election – the Labour government was propped up by the Māori MPs who were aligned with Rātana.

I think they were effective in the Nash government of 1957 as well. They effectively determined that Labour was going to govern.

This election you saw it really play out: whoever can win these Māori seats, can determine governments, or give the governments comfortable margins to govern, or razor thin margins to govern.

Marama Fox said until the areas where Māori aren’t succeeding are fixed then we deserve specific representation. How relevant should things like the over-representation of Māori in prison statistics, the poor health and education outcomes for Māori be, as we consider the future of the Māori roll?

They are linked. Because those Māori electorates essentially represent areas of interest like that. Here we have an electorate of like minded people together and we are going to call it Tamaki Makaurau, or we are going to call it Te Tai Tonga. We are going to create this community of interest. And then Māori have this common understanding. They are voting for it.

Because of that those Māori MPs can talk about real Māori issues. Māori health, Māori prison statistics, Māori education, all these things about Māori. And that’s the value of them, they can speak about Māori things, because this their people. Māori have been able to form a community of interest, so it will be maintained.

If they are going to do away with it, you are going to create racial tensions. Sure you have all these constitutional theories that everyone should be on the same electorate like everyone else, but we are dealing with a uniquely New Zealand situation. If right from the beginning we didn’t have them, we would be having a different conversation now. But we’ve got them. And to do away with them, that is going to cause racial tensions, and you don’t want to cause racial tensions in this country, because it has torn this country apart before.

What is the future of the Māori electoral roll?

There is going to be a question when this Queen dies. We are going to revisit the roll seriously because we are going to start to talk about a republic when this Queen dies over the next five to 10 years. So the Māori people are going to have to put their thinking caps on to decide if they want to keep the roll in a republic and whatever that looks like.

Over a longer period it depends if the Māori people continue to see it of value. And I think they will, because the representatives will be representing their interests.

The only time it will actually disappear is if we have massive immigration, and I am talking massive, from wherever, and completely swamps the Māori population. And then the question will be what is the relevance because these people are really a minority, and it’s unfair that they have these seats when it is out of whack with the population.

Speakers korero at the hikoi for the foreshore and seabed in the grounds at Parliament in 2004. (Photo: FOTOPRESS/Ross Setford).

Are you enrolled on the Māori roll?

Yes, I am.


It’s because our MPs, no matter what party they belong to, they have spoken on our behalf about lots of things. They alert the New Zealand public, they alert the parliament to Māori things. All these Māori MPs who have been voted into these Māori electorates, there’s no doubt they’ve spoke on behalf of Māori on Māori things.

Whether they were effective or not, or whether you agree with their position or not. Take Te Ururoa Flavell for example, he believed he was getting a better deal for Māori by going with National – but a lot of other people believed he was wrong.

And that’s what a lot of Māori have found. If these MPs don’t speak for them then they’re down the road. But they’re still Māori and they talk about Māori things, and they’re responsible to the Māori people too. They haven’t got these other Pākehā considerations. They’ve got to actually speak to the Māori people themselves.

In the Wairarapa electorate, Georgina Beyer was elected there and she was extremely torn over the foreshore and seabed issue, and she wanted to vote with her conscience because she was Māori. But she voted for it because she represented the Wairarapa people, and the Wairarapa people wanted the foreshore and seabed owned by the Crown.

But these other MPs, like Tariana Turia, said no I can’t, I can’t vote for this. And when other Māori MPs said they could vote for it, you saw over time five electorates fall to the Māori Party.

Then that issue went into the background. And the Māori people asked, what else can you MPs do for us.

It’s really interesting that we are working within a distinctly Pākehā system, the Westminster parliamentary system, but we have found a distinctly Māori way to do it.

If anything it is also a New Zealand way. A lot of people forget this. The system we have here is a uniquely New Zealand system. We don’t need to follow these other models around the world. We do it in our New Zealand way. We got rid of the upper chamber, the legislative council, and said we don’t need that.

It was built through practical considerations. The academic considerations came later. And that is why we have retained the Māori seats. In 1986 the commission of inquiry into the electoral system recommended we get rid of the Māori seats, but the politicians knew damn well we would create mayhem if they did that. Māori people wouldn’t be happy, so we maintained it.

That is a uniquely New Zealand situation. We have a large Māori population, and in a New Zealand context you have these Māori seats which are a fact of life in the New Zealand political system.

This content is brought to you by the University of Otago – a vibrant contributor to Māori development and the realisation of Māori aspirations, through our Māori Strategic Framework and world-class researchers and teachers.

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