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
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.
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.
The Māori parliamentary seats were thought to improve political power-sharing between Māori and Europeans. However, Māori remained an outvoted minority within the political system. In 1867 the European population of 250,000 had 72 seats – about one for every 3,500 people. The Māori population of around 50,000 had four seats – one for every 12,500 people. To achieve the same level of representation as Europeans, Māori would have required 14–16 Māori seats. The number of Māori electorates remained fixed at four for 129 years.
The Māori electorates suffered from official neglect. The secret ballot was introduced for European seats in 1870, but until 1938 Māori seats were decided by a show of hands, and later by declaration to a returning officer. Electoral rolls for the four Māori seats were not introduced until 1948. Registering to vote was made compulsory in 1924 for general electorates, but not until 1956 for Māori seats. Until 1951 elections for Māori seats took place separately from general elections, on different days and under different rules. Less organisational effort and fewer resources were given to Māori elections. Māori MPs pressed for an increase in the number of seats, as the size of Māori electorates made it difficult for them to serve their constituents.
Law changes in 1893 and 1896 almost totally separated the Māori and European electoral systems. Until 1975 only ‘half-castes’ (persons with one Māori and one European parent) could opt to vote in either a Māori seat or a general seat.
From 1896 Māori (except half-castes) were not allowed to stand as candidates in general seats. The law was changed in 1967, but it was not until 1975 that Māori were successful in general electorates.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries better-educated, younger Māori entered Parliament, including James Carroll, Hirini Taiwhanga, Hōne Heke Ngapua, Apirana Ngata, Te Rangihīroa (Peter Buck) and Māui Pōmare. They could hold their own with European MPs, and used the parliamentary system with great skill. Carroll won the Eastern Māori seat in 1887, and became the first Māori elected to a general seat when he won in Waiapu (Gisborne) in 1893. No other Māori would be elected to a general seat until 1975, when National candidates Rex Austin and Ben Couch won in Awarua and Wairarapa respectively. The first Māori woman to win a general seat was Sandra Lee, who took Auckland Central in 1993.
In 1975 the Labour government introduced the Māori electoral option after each five-yearly census, allowing Māori to choose whether they enrolled in general or Māori seats. The number on the Māori roll would determine whether the number of Māori seats increased or decreased, using the same population basis as for general seats. However, in 1976 a new National government fixed the number of Māori seats at four. This caused a loss of interest in the Māori seats by Māori voters, and a gradual shift from the Māori to the general roll at each option until 1991.
The 1986 Royal Commission on the Electoral System acknowledged the importance of the Māori seats to Māori. However, it found that the Māori seats had not helped Māori and that Māori would achieve better representation through a proportional voting system. The commission recommended the abolition of the Māori seats if a proportional system was adopted. Māori responded that the way the Māori seats had been administered limited their effectiveness, not the seats themselves. The Electoral Act 1993 created a 120-seat MMP (mixed-member proportional representation) Parliament that included Māori seats.
In 1993 a revised Māori electoral option meant that the number of Māori seats was again based on the numbers registering on the Māori roll. A fifth Māori seat was added in time for the first MMP election in 1996. In the Māori electoral options in 1997, 2001 and 2006, more than twice as many existing Māori voters shifted from the general roll to the Māori roll (43,000) as went the other way (18,000). This surge in Māori support for the seats added a sixth Māori seat in 1999 and a seventh in 2002. Overall, the proportion of all Māori on the Māori roll increased from 40% to 58% between 1991 (the last pre-MMP option) and 2006. In the 2013 Māori electoral option, the percentage of Māori voters choosing the Māori roll fell to 55%.
With the introduction of MMP in 1996, the proportion of Māori in Parliament increased from 8% to 14%, a total of 17 MPs. In 2011, 22 MPs (18%) were Māori; the number increased to 28 (23%) in 2017, but fell to 25 (21%) in 2020, when no New Zealand First MPs were re-elected.
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.
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
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’.
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.
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.
The first Māori MPs generally functioned as independents until the 1890s, when Māori aligned with the Liberal Party, which dominated Parliament. Māori Liberal MPs included James Carroll, Apirana Ngata and Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa). Other Māori, including Māui Pōmare, were members of the Reform Party. Māori also worked across parties, giving rise to the so-called Young Māori Party grouping of Ngata, Buck, Pōmare and Carroll.
In 1936 T. W. Rātana, leader of the Rātana movement, placed a number of highly symbolic objects before newly elected Labour Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage: three feathers of the extinct huia bird, representing Māori culture and Māori losses; a potato and kūmara (sweet potato), representing the cultivable land Māori had lost; a piece of greenstone, representing Māori mana, which Rātana was entrusting to Savage; a broken watch that had belonged to Rātana’s ancestor, who had supported the government during the New Zealand wars but became too destitute to have it repaired; and a Rātana pin, representing the 40,000-member movement that would support Labour.
In 1932 Eruera Tirikātene became the first MP to represent the Rātana religious and political movement, with instructions to support the Labour Party. Māori formed an enduring alliance with the Labour Party in 1935. The alliance had secured all four Māori seats for Labour by 1943 – a monopoly they held until 1993.
During the 1970s Māori began questioning the value of the alliance with Labour. An opportunity to form an independent Māori party arose when Labour’s Māori affairs minister, Matiu Rata, resigned in 1980 after Labour proposed merging the Māori and Pacific Island portfolios. Rata formed the Mana Motuhake party, which stood candidates in four elections between 1981 and 1990, without success. In 1991 the party joined forces with three others to form the Alliance. In 1993 Eva Rickard headed the Mana Māori Movement, which incorporated two minor radical parties, Te Tāwharau and Piri Wiri Tua.
In the 1928 general election Eruera Tirikātene failed to win the Southern Māori seat by the narrowest of margins. At that time postal voting was allowed for general seats, but not Māori seats. This meant that Tirikātene, his family and many relatives did not vote in the election since they were working on the wheat harvest at Rātana Pā. The initial result was 198 votes each for Tirikātene and Tūiti Makitānara. The returning officer, a Pākehā, gave his casting vote to Makitānara. However, Tirikātene won the seat in a by-election in 1932, becoming the first Rātana MP.
In the 1993 election a Mana Motuhake candidate, Sandra Lee, was elected to Parliament under the Alliance banner. Alamein Kopu joined her in 1996 before leaving the Alliance and forming her own party, Mana Wahine Te Ira Tangata. In 1999 another Mana Motuhake candidate, Willie Jackson, entered Parliament. In 2002 the Alliance split, and lost all its seats in that year’s election. Mana Motuhake left the Alliance shortly afterwards.
In the 1993 election Tau Henare won the Northern Māori seat for the New Zealand First Party, led by Winston Peters. In 1996, after increasing Māori dissatisfaction with Labour, New Zealand First captured all the Māori electorates. However, Labour regained the seats in 1999.
The Māori Party was formed in 2004 when Tariana Turia resigned from the Labour-led coalition government in protest at the Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004. In 2005 Mana Motuhake and the Mana Māori Movement were deregistered by the Electoral Commission as Māori threw their support behind the Māori Party. The new party won four of the Māori electorates in 2005 and added a fifth in 2008. It failed to take all seven Māori seats, mainly because Labour MPs Nanaia Mahuta and Parekura Horomia had strong personal and tribal support in their electorates. After the 2008 election the Māori Party agreed to support the National-led government on confidence and supply, in return for policy concessions and two ministerial posts outside cabinet. Similar arrangements were made after the 2011 and 2014 elections, although in 2014 only one of the two MPs was a minister outside cabinet.
In 2011 Hone Harawira, the Māori Party MP for Te Tai Tokerau, resigned from the party after criticising its stance over Māori rights to the foreshore and seabed. He formed the Mana Party and resigned from Parliament. In a by-election in June 2011 he regained Te Tai Tokerau, only to lose it to Labour's Kelvin Davis at the 2014 general election. For that election Mana entered into an alliance with the Internet Party. Because Harawira lost his seat, Mana was out of Parliament.
The increasing number of Māori MPs under mixed-member proportional representation (MMP) led to debate about the relatively few Māori elected to local bodies. Until Ray Ahipene-Mercer’s election in 2000, Wellington City Council had had only one other Māori councillor, in the 1960s. In 2001 Ahipene-Mercer was reported to be one of just 20 Māori local-body politicians, out of a total of more than 1,000. In the 2007 local government elections, less than 5% of successful candidates were Māori, despite Māori forming 14% of the population.
In the 1962 local body elections, Mākere Rangiātea Love, known as Ralph, was elected to Wellington City Council. His nephew, Peter Love, was elected to Petone Borough Council. Ralph Love worked as private secretary for the MP Eruera Tirikātene, and later for Tirikātene’s daughter, MP Whetū Tirikātene-Sullivan. In 1965 he became mayor of Petone. He was knighted in 1987.
The Local Electoral Act 2001 provided for local bodies to create Māori wards, dedicated seats elected by those on the Māori parliamentary roll. The Local Government Act 2002 further encouraged local bodies to adopt measures ‘to recognise and respect the Crown’s responsibility to take appropriate account of the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi and to maintain and improve opportunities for Māori to contribute to local government decision-making processes’.
Over the following decade, however, few councils had adopted this approach and many regional and city councils had no Māori members at all. One exception was the Bay of Plenty Regional Council which, in 2004, introduced Māori seats elected by voters on the Māori electoral roll. The three Māori seats on the 13-member council roughly equated with the region’s Māori population of 27.5%. In 2013 the Waikato Regional Council introduced two Māori wards.
From 2012 several other councils, including the Far North District Council and Nelson City Council, proposed the creation of Māori wards. In all but one case, opponents used provisions of the Local Electoral Act 2001 to trigger binding referendums which overturned the councils' plans. Wairoa District Council itself initiated a poll on this issue in 2016. In 2019, Wairoa voters elected three general ward and three Māori ward councillors.
A controversial referendum was held in May 2015 in New Plymouth District, where 83% of voters (on a 45% turnout) rejected Māori wards, much to the disappointment of Mayor Andrew Judd, who had championed the issue. The controversy prompted Judd to stand down when his term expired in 2016.
The Local Electoral (Māori Wards and Māori Constituencies) Amendment Act 2021 abolished local voters’ ability to overturn a council’s decision to establish a Māori ward.
The Royal Commission on Auckland Governance (2009) recommended the establishment of three elected Māori seats on the new Auckland Council. Two would be for ngā mātā waka – urban Māori (80% of Auckland’s Māori population) and one for mana whenua – local Auckland tribes (20% of Auckland Māori). There were then no Māori on either Auckland City Council or Auckland Regional Council. Just 10 of 250 members of all local bodies in the area were Māori.
The National government rejected the proposal for Māori seats, but after much lobbying from Māori agreed to establish a nine-member statutory Māori advisory board. A committee comprising mana whenua nominated seven mana whenua representatives and two ngā mataa waka representatives. These were endorsed by the minister of Māori affairs and accepted by cabinet. Critics questioned the disproportion between local tribes and urban Māori. The new Māori advisory board had two representatives with voting rights on 11 of 18 council committees. This surprised those who had assumed that their role would be entirely advisory. However, other non-councillor members of committees also had voting rights.
Atkinson, Neill. Adventures in democracy: a history of the vote in New Zealand. Dunedin: University of Otago Press in association with the Electoral Commission, 2003.