I was a little surprised when NZ First leader Winston Peters announced that a binding referendum on the abolition of the Maori seats and reducing the size of Parliament would be bottom line issues for him.
It is impossible for Labour and the Greens to agree to these terms. That means NZ First is saying that they will only form a government with National – assuming they agree. Abolition of the Maori seats is officially National’s policy but they have not moved to do so because of the fear of the huge political backlash that would be provoked from nearly all of Maoridom.
This policy, however, reduces NZ First bargaining power post-election which doesn’t make sense. Don’t be surprised if Winston finds a way to back off this policy. He has already run into opposition within his own party on the issue.
Maori seats were introduced when only male private property owners could vote and Maori generally still possessed property collectively. At the time there were only 4 Maori seats to the colonists 72 when Maori were around a quarter of the population.
Until 1975 Maori had to vote in the Maori seats if they were deemed over 50% Maori. Those with less than 50% Maori blood had to vote in the “European” electoral seats. Only those deemed exactly 50/50 could choose which roll to go on. The 1975 change gave that right to all those of Maori descent.
A law change in 1993 allowed the number of Maori seats to be determined by the number of people who enrolled as electors on the Maori roll. At the time twice as many Maori voters were enrolled per electoral seat as were in the non-Maori electorates. This number of Maori electorates increased to seven in 2002 and has remained at this number. Around 55% of Maori elect to go on the Maori roll.
The existence of the Maori seats is now seen as part of the special rights of the indigenous population. Maori have used these seats to reward and punish political parties if they felt their interests were being betrayed. Ironically NZ First was the beneficiary of a backlash against Labour in 1993 and again in 1996. The Maori Party won most seats in 2008 after Labour extinguished possible legal rights over the foreshore and seabed.
Until the 1996 election under MMP only one or two Maori were ever elected outside the Maori seats. A significant number of Maori were elected in list places in MMP elections since then but few Maori were selected by the major parties for winnable electorate seats. The 2008 election saw no Maori elected in an electorate seat other than the Maori seats.
Maori consider the Maori seats a necessary part of the protection they need against a society marked by racist discrimination. Any attempt to abolish them will be met by fierce resistance from Maori. It is possible that not even Winston Peters will want to unleash that tornado.