The New Zealand Constitution Act 1852 established the first New Zealand Parliament. The only people eligible to vote were males who held property worth more than a certain amount – £50 for freehold land, £10 leasehold, £10 yearly urban rental or £5 yearly rural rental. This greatly limited Māori electoral participation because Māori property was mostly communally owned. Where Māori males did qualify to vote, many had their registrations discouraged, dismissed on technicalities or thrown out. Just 100 Māori voted in the first general election in 1853. Section 71 of the Constitution Act allowed for ‘Māori districts’ where Māori law and custom would be preserved under Māori authority. However, the Crown never implemented this section.
In 1852 Māori greatly outnumbered European colonists, who therefore largely welcomed Māori exclusion from the political process. This was often justified on the grounds that Māori were not yet ‘civilised’ enough to vote. MP James Richmond believed the government would face ‘grave inconveniences and probable dangers’ if the vote was given to ‘a large body of men, who are destitute of political knowledge, who are mainly ignorant of the language in which our laws were written, and amongst whom respect for the law cannot as yet be enforced’.1
Legislating Māori representation
In the early 1860s gold rushes in the South Island had led to a surge in its population, and South Island settlers gained new seats in Parliament. Northern settlers tried to maintain their political dominance by proposing four new ‘Māori’ seats elected by Māori but represented by Pākehā MPs, three in the North Island and one in the south. South Island politicians would only allow this if the new MPs were Māori. North Island politicians agreed, but on condition that the MPs be nominated by Europeans. South Island MPs agreed to this, but on condition that Māori land reserves in Dunedin would be handed to the Otago provincial government, along with accumulated rentals.
As well as restoring the balance of North and South Island Pākehā MPs, the Maori Representation Act 1867, introduced by Donald McLean, the Māori-speaking MP for Napier, aimed to assimilate Māori into mainstream political life and help ensure lasting peace between the two races. It has also been claimed that McLean hoped, through this act, to negate Māori aspirations for self-government and avoid further war after the conflicts in Waikato, Taranaki and the Bay of Plenty. The act gave the vote to all Māori males 21 and over, including half-castes (those with one Māori and one European parent), but excluded any who had been ‘convicted of any treason felony or infamous offence’. The same exclusion for all voters had appeared in the Constitution Act 1852. It had the effect of excluding rebels against the Crown, and rewarding Māori who had shown loyalty to the Crown during the wars. This provision gradually ceased to operate.
Of the first four Māori members of Parliament, Tāreha Te Moananui was the first to speak in the House. He urged the government to enact wise laws to promote good, and for Māori and Pākehā to work together. He spoke in Māori, and his words were translated by an interpreter organised at the last minute. Owing to the language barrier and being a Māori minority in Parliament, Te Moananui and other early Māori MPs struggled to make any impact.
First Māori MPs
The first Māori members of Parliament took their seats in 1868. They were Frederick Nene Russell, Mete Kīngi Te Rangi Paetahi, Tāreha Te Moananui and John Patterson.
Under the Maori Representation Act all Māori men gained the vote – 12 years before all Pākehā men. The small number of Māori who held individual freehold property titles were also allowed to vote in the European electorates. This dual vote survived until 1893.
The Māori seats were originally supposed to last only five years. European MPs argued that in due course Māori would own or rent land individually, and the seats could then be abolished. However, the experiment was extended in 1872 and in 1876 the Māori seats were established on a permanent basis.
The Electoral Act 1893 gave all New Zealand men and women the vote, including Māori.