Early arguments for abolition
Since the 19th century some MPs, interest groups and commentators have argued that the Māori seats should be abolished. Opposition Pākehā MPs proposed the seats’ abolition in 1902 because an alliance between the Liberal Party and the Māori MPs had held power since 1891. The National Party called for abolition in the 1950s after Labour, with the support of its Rātana allies, held power for 14 years between 1935 and 1949.
Corruption or recognition?
When a new Electoral Act was introduced in 1902, Napier MP Frederick Pirani claimed that the lack of a secret ballot for Māori offered ‘every facility for bribery and corruption’. Pirani felt the Māori seats prevented ‘Pakeha members of this House from taking that interest in Maori matters that they ought to take’. However, one Māori MP, Wī Pere, said that it was only through the Māori seats that Māori ‘are recognised as a distinct people’. All their other rights, he believed, had ‘been filched from them by the Europeans’.1
Arguments for abolition in the 2000s
In the 21st century the abolition debate reappeared as the overall number of Māori MPs (not just those holding Māori seats) rose under MMP (mixed-member proportional representation). Abolitionists argued that under MMP Māori had become overrepresented in Parliament. In 2014, 22% of MPs were Māori, while Māori were 15% of New Zealand’s total population.
Both New Zealand First and the Māori Party, while their MPs held Māori seats, formed political alliances with National-led governments. This provoked further dissatisfaction with the Māori seat system. Other abolitionist arguments claimed that the Māori seats were racist, separatist and contrary to the concepts that New Zealanders are ‘one people’ and that ‘all New Zealanders are equal’.
Political policies for abolition
In 2008 the National Party announced that it would abolish the Māori electorates when all historic Treaty of Waitangi settlements had been resolved, which it aimed to complete by 2014. However the National-led government then made an agreement with the Māori Party to withdraw a question on the future of the Māori seats from a referendum on MMP scheduled for the 2011 election.
In 2014 the ACT Party advocated abolition of the Māori seats in its election manifesto. New Zealand First also advocated abolishing the separate electorates but said that Māori voters should make the decision.
Arguments for retention
Those in favour of retaining the Māori seats argue that the seats have directly contributed to greater participation by Māori in Parliament. There have been proportionately more indigenous politicians in New Zealand than in any of the other former British colonies where indigenous peoples are a minority. Since the advent of MMP (mixed-member proportional representation) in 1996 the proportion of MPs who identify as Māori has increased, although not all MPs of Māori descent necessarily represent Māori interests.