What now for the Māori seats?

The Māori electoral option results are in, but for now we have more questions than answers.

The results from the latest Māori electoral option process tell us something about how Māoridom views the Māori seats. Unfortunately, they don’t tell us enough about what we really need to know. And given the ongoing political debate around the Māori seats’ future, that missing information is crucial.

Just to get us all on the same page, a quick refresher on what the ‘Māori electoral option’ is and why it matters. When a voter of Māori descent first enrols to vote, she or he can choose whether to go on the Māori roll or the general roll. That decision then determines whether she or he casts an electorate vote in a Māori or general seat.

Once this decision is made, it sticks and can only be revisited every five years during a four-month long option period. At this time, all voters of Māori descent may, if they wish, change from their current roll to the other.

Those collective decisions then matter because the greater (or lesser) the proportion of voters on the Māori roll, the more (or less) Māori seats there will be. Exactly how this figure gets calculated is a bit complex, and – as we shall see – also depends on census data. But the general rule of thumb is simple: the number of Māori seats primarily depends on the size of the Māori roll compared to Māori voters on the general roll.

So, what happened at the end of this year’s option? Well, the total number of voters on the Māori roll increased by 1200. However, this rise was more than matched by a net increase of 4015 Māori voters on the general roll.

The overall proportion of Māori voters on the Māori roll consequently fell. It now stands at 52% of all voters of Māori descent, down from 55% at the end of the last option period in 2013. That decline probably won’t be large enough to lead to the loss of a Māori seat, but it could be a close-run thing.

Image: www.elections.org.nz

Because adding to the uncertainty are problems with the data collected at this year’s census. As noted by Te Mana Raraunga, the Māori data sovereignty network, the fact that less than 80% of Māori may have participated in that count could reduce the overall estimated Māori electoral population. If this is so, then the possibility of a Māori seat being lost further increases.

The meaning of all these figures will now become something of a political football. More Māori choosing the general roll over the Māori roll will be heralded as vindicating David Seymour’s decision to move ACT into the future by stealing NZ First’s abolition of the Māori seats policy from the last election.

Those parties who say that the future of the Māori seats should be for Māori to decide also may point to the declining proportion of Māori on the Māori roll as justification for advocating their end. However, a majority of Māori voters do still choose the Māori roll over the general. And those who are committed to Māori seats in parliament are committed deeply; they are not simply a sentimental keepsake for these Māori voters, who are vested in the idea of Māori representation in parliament.

Furthermore, behind the headline numbers from this year’s option period are a number of questions that we don’t really have proper answers to.

The first of these is just why a greater number of Māori chose to go from the Māori roll to the general roll during this year’s option. A little over 10,000 did so, compared to the nearly 8000 who chose to go from the general roll to the Māori roll. This is the first option at which more Māori have moved from, rather than to, the Māori roll.

One answer might be that the information provided to Māori was insufficient in quality and quantity or tried too hard to be neutral and therefore inadvertently supported the general roll. With a number of vocal groups opposing Māori representation at local and national levels the Electoral Commission and others may have been wary of appearing to support the Māori roll by providing affirmative reasons for Māori representation.

Also, anecdotal evidence suggests that some Māori voters felt there was too limited a range of candidates to select from. In both the Hauraki-Waikato and Waiariki electorates, for example, only two candidates ran in 2018. No Māori electorate had more than four candidates contesting it. This is a problem caused by parties such as ACT, NZ First and National refusing to stand candidates in the Māori seats, leaving them largely two-horse races between the Labour and Māori parties.

Another unclear question is why there were fewer new Māori enrolments than during previous options. The number of new enrolments during this option period totalled 5,215, while in the 2013 option it reached 9,175 and in 2006 10,280. This matters because new enrolees during the option period choose the Māori roll over the general roll by a 2:1 margin.

It may be that the Electoral Commission has been more successful enrolling young Māori since 2013 and therefore there aren’t as many to enrol during the option period. Or, it may be that the methods used to encourage new enrolments at this option were less successful than previously.

The final question is whether more new Māori enrolments between option periods are choosing the general roll, as would seem to be the case given the decreasing proportion of Māori voters on the Māori roll. As noted above, this has fallen from 55% of all Māori voters in 2013 to 52% today. The numbers changing rolls during the option period are not enough to account for this decline.

If this is happening, why would it be so when during the option period itself new enrolments show a preference for the Māori roll. Is there any bias in the information provided to people, as a number of complaints during the 2017 election campaign suggested?

These are matters that are important when assessing how New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements are functioning. The fact that there is very little serious consideration and funding committed to researching these matters is a reminder of the need for New Zealand history to be taught not just in schools but everywhere. That way calm and careful conversations can occur about what works in our constitutional arrangements to protect Māori rights, and what doesn’t.

The future of the Māori seats matters a lot for our country, Pākehā and Māori alike. But if we are going to debate that future, we need to do so with a clear understanding of how Māori really view these seats and what else Māori might want from political representation. Without that understanding, we risk turning them into a convenient tool for whipping up racial anxieties for political advantage.

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