David Seymour speaking to media after the 2018 ACT Party conference (Alex Braae)

David Seymour says he wants to abolish Māori seats. Can he?

The ACT Party wants to abolish the Māori seats, and lower the number of MPs wholesale. Do they have any chance of getting it through?

At the 2017 election, out of about 13,000 party votes the ACT Party picked up nationwide, 239 came from Māori seats. It’s fair to say from those numbers that the party doesn’t enjoy an awful lot of support among Māori.

Their big new policy pledge is called the Smaller Government Bill, and it will take the form of a member’s bill, meaning Seymour’s hopes rest on the luck of the ballot. Announced at the annual conference in Ōrakei today, it would reduce the number of MPs from 120 to 100. Constituent seats would be reduced and reformed to 54. There would be 46 list MPs, and they would be required to both stand in an electorate, and open an electorate office in the area after they were elected. Party leader David Seymour said doing constituency work would “bring them down to earth”.

The biggest constitutional change of all in the bill is the abolition of the Māori seats. Such a move would be a massive departure from how New Zealand has done elections for just over 150 years. Seymour says times have changed, and they’re no longer needed, as there are 20 MPs with Māori heritage in parliament elected outside of the Māori electorates, including himself.

It’s a bill that echoes the views of Hobson’s Pledge – Dr Don Brash’s lobby group – which has called for a referendum on Māori seats. They say the seats are passed their use-by date, a position that is widely open to debate. The question is, could the bill actually pass?

Seymour says the bill is aimed at putting a wedge between the rest of the parties in parliament, because it would involve them having to decide on whether some of their jobs would go. He reckons support from National and New Zealand First could be secured, “unless Simon [Bridges] or Winston [Peters] chicken out.” The support of those two parties would give the bill easily enough votes to pass through parliament.

Could National back the bill? Any change that involves a cull of parliamentary seats is obviously not going to go down especially well with people whose livelihoods are drawn from filling those seats. But what of the call to bin the Māori seats? On the face of it, it’s the kind of concession they might win, given that National has traditionally called for them to go. It’s been a while since they’ve done so with any real energy, however. Back in 2014, then-PM John Key said that seeking to abolish the seats would lead to “hikois from hell”. That seems an astute observation if the opposition to Labour’s foreshore and seabed bill is anything to go by. He said it would “rip the country apart”. Is Seymour concerned about the same?

Seymour thinks “most Māori understand it’s wrong to have separate seats that treat people differently based on race, and they’re probably the ones voting for the other 20 Māori MPs who got elected without Māori seats.” The response from Māori to such a statement will be interesting, to say the least.

He confirmed that the bill would result in a referendum, before it would be confirmed. And that is a direct challenge to Winston Peters, who has campaigned on delivering such a referendum in the past. It will also be a headscratcher for National, who governed alongside the Māori Party throughout their last tenure in office. If the Māori Party were to rise again, they would almost certainly do so through winning Māori electorates off Labour, who currently hold all of them. And in the current MMP environment, where Labour and National aligned blocs aren’t ever more than a couple of percentage points apart, any extra MPs National could rely on could be the difference for them.

If the bill were to go to referendum, it’s not entirely clear how that would go, either. One indication could come from five recent referendums on Māori wards for local councils – while the details differed, the pro-Māori ward option lost all of them. Those were all held in more rural areas – the only referendums held in cities were in Palmerston North and Whakatāne. It’s possible that the vote in bigger cities – particularly Auckland and Wellington, would be more in favour of keeping Māori seats. Labour and Green voters, who would almost certainly overwhelmingly back their retention, are over-represented in the cities. Both parties have given their backing to Labour MP Rino Tirikatene’s bill that would entrench the Māori seats, but it is almost certain to fall short in Parliament as National and NZ First are opposed.

Then, if the referendum passed, there would almost certainly be significant legal challenges against the result. It seems unfathomable that this wouldn’t go to court, as it could almost certainly be argued as a breach of the Treaty of Waitangi. The current system gives a guarantee of Māori representation in Parliament, and if Māori voters who chose to be on the Māori roll as it currently stands were disenfranchised, and forced to be on the general roll, it’s possible that would be considered a breach of their democratic rights.

Over time, the decision may end up being made organically. The Māori electoral option was open earlier this year, and voters could choose to switch between the two. The results haven’t been released yet, but interim reporting indicated that the number of voters switching to the Māori roll was lower than those going the other way. The number of seats could be reduced naturally as a result from seven to six, which keeps them in proportion with the wider population. One of the big misconceptions about the Māori electorates is that they give Māori a disproportionate say, or more votes than everyone else. They don’t. It’s still just one person, one electorate vote, one party vote.

But the audience for this sort of message almost certainly isn’t Māori voters, even though David Seymour insisted to media after his speech that he wasn’t “race-baiting”. It’s pitched at the tens of thousands of people who flocked to National after Don Brash’s Orewa speech in 2004, and have subsequently morphed into groups like Hobson’s Pledge. During his speech, David Seymour noted that on current polling, ACT were only a few thousand votes away from bringing in another MP on his coat-tails. Interestingly, under his bill, this provision would be one that stayed in place.


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