Tuesday 9 September 2014

A Policy A Day: Abolish Maori Electorate Seats

In the lead-up to the election, we are going to examine one policy per (working) day. We've selected policies to be as balanced as possible across a range of policy areas and across the political parties. The idea is to explain the background, analyse the policy to investigate the pros and cons, and give a verdict on the policy at the end. Inevitably, some opinion will make its way in and we make no apology for that - after all, we're voters too. Also, I say 'we' because this series will feature some guest posts from other young people, to share their thoughts and ideas as well. Enjoy!

Today's post is by Rosie Polaschek.

The prospect of “hikois from hell” is a factor in the National Party’s current disinterest in pursuing its policy of abolishing the Maori seats, according to the Prime Minister’s latest soundbite on the issue [1]. Prime Minister John Key acknowledged that this was an incredibly controversial issue, and committed to only implementing it if Maori were in favour of the proposal. Despite this political protection for the Maori seats, their abolition remains a plank of National, ACT, and Conservative Party policies, with NZ First committed to putting it to a referendum [2]. This discussion focuses on ACT’s approach to abolishing Maori seats, firstly because Andrew asked me to look at an ACT policy and secondly because they have recently decided to ‘pin’ part of their campaign, controversially, on the “one law for all” concept.

There are major limitations to my discussion of this issue. The first is that this is a topic people have written entire dissertations on, and therefore this post will only scratch the surface of what could be said about the Maori seats. In light of this, I will concentrate only on the modern political arguments around the seats and eschew dealing with their historical context which is well detailed elsewhere [3].

The second limitation is that I am not Maori, and cannot speak to a Maori experience of electoral politics or the Maori electorates. In my opinion, the views of those of Maori descent should be prioritised in discussion about whether there is a need or a benefit in retaining seats for Maori. Common consensus is that there is general support among Maori for the Maori seats, although I cannot find any polling evidence online.

Having said that, in a very long-winded way: onto the analysis!

What are the ‘Maori seats’?
The ‘Maori seats’ is the colloquialism used to refer to the 7 Maori electorates that guarantee Maori representation in Parliament. These reflect the proportion of the population who enrol on the Maori roll and the number of people identifying as Maori on the census (amongst other factors, detailed here) [4], meaning the number of electorates under MMP will fluctuate with the number of enrolled Maori voters. Anyone who identifies as Maori can opt onto the Maori roll. These electorates are considered by those who support them to be a means of guaranteeing representation for Maori in Parliament.

Why does ACT want to abolish them?
“Equality”. Their Treaty of Waitangi policy states that the Treaty is not a partnership, and that it sets up a Government that is for all people in New Zealand equally. Under the ACT view, any recognition of differentiated rights of privileges is wrong and discriminatory. On this basis, they oppose Maori seats as creating a special privilege for one group over others.

The problem with this argument is Maori who are registered to vote in Maori electorates don't gain anything. They have one electorate vote and one party vote - just like any other New Zealander. In no sense are Maori getting two bites of the cherry: we are simply recognising a different means of Maori being represented rather than a discrete geographic marker. Although the Maori seats can create an overhang - an overrepresentation of a certain political party compared to their Party vote distribution - it is entirely possible that this will happen to ACT itself if it wins the Epsom electorate on its current share of the Party vote.

ACT also believes that it is principally unfair to distinguish between Maori and Pakeha with ‘separate’ electoral rolls, with firm belief that there should be “one law for all”, and one set of MPs for all. They would point to the lack of “special seats” for other minority groups and use that to say there should be no such ‘special seat’ for Maori. This critique is slightly more substantive - on what basis do we differentiate Maori from other minority groups?

Some parties, such as Internet Mana, would simply respond by saying there is a need to have things like a Rainbow Representative to increase specific representation of smaller minorities. This might be logistically difficult on a large scale, and certainly is not in line with ACT’s policy. An alternate justification for the Maori seats is that they recognise that Maori are a distinct minority group and do deserve different protection and recognition.

Maori are the indigenous peoples’ of this country, and have been historically and contemporarily marginalised. The Maori worldview, and tikanga belief system was dominated by the Pakeha worldview when Pakeha arrived and colonised. Although the ACT Treaty of Waitangi policy highlights the benefits Maori got under the Treaty, they ignore that the supposed benefits Maori gained (private property rights and full rights as British citizens) were not fully extended to them. Maori land was confiscated from them with very little compensation, and they were not treated or considered as ‘real’ citizens. The Treaty of Waitangi incorporates concepts of rangatiratanga, and kawanatanga, being ideas of governorship and self-determination. Through the Maori seats, some of these constitutional guarantees can be met in a meaningful and straightforward way. This is important given, as detailed, these promises were not historically kept and there is unlikely to be any contemporary moves towards more radical forms of self-determination being out into place. The bargain between Maori and Pakeha settlers requires respecting, and part of that is acknowledging the value and importance of the Maori viewpoint in decisions, particularly those relating to Maori peoples and to the lands of New Zealand. The relationship laid out in the Treaty was, in theory a partnership from the Maori perspective at the very least. If a full partnership is not politically or practically feasible, then specific representation should be the least that can be provided as part redress and part merely keeping our promises.

How much Maori representation is there in Parliament currently?
One of the original justifications for Maori seats is the underrepresentation of Maori in Parliament. ACT’s major response is that under MMP, there is no need for separate Maori seats to ensure Maori representation. This is because while under the First-Past-the-Post (FPP) system, MPs were elected to Parliament on the basis of winning electorates only, under the MMP system political parties can choose to put Maori on their list. This means that Maori are adequately represented in Parliament already, as although people identifying as Maori make up 14.9% of the population [5], they made up 17% of Parliament in 2011 [6].

However, Maori who come in on the list are not seen to be there to represent Maori primarily. Merely being Maori and in Parliament is not a proxy for determining whether someone will adequately represent Maori interests. There is value in having seats that at least attempt to specifically ensure a Maori worldview is promoted in Parliament, particularly if you agree that the role of Maori is different as indigenous peoples of New Zealand.

It is the Maori seats, further, which guarantee that there will always be Maori representation. To rely on the whims of (primarily white) parties to bolster Maori representation is not seen as sufficiently certain in the context of the historical (and at times contemporary, as with the Foreshore and Seabed legislation) oppression of Maori by those exact parties and people. For example, one historical reason for the Maori seats was that only landowners could vote, and Pakeha governments had refused to recognise the Maori collective ownership system as imbuing Maori with a right to vote. Thus, there was for years no Maori representation in Parliament and no Maori voice at all. Although clearly not perfect at ensuring Maori values are protected (as they are only 7 seats out of around 120), they help to ensure a counter-narrative about a minority group is always heard by the majority making decisions. Creating a system that attempts to provide some safeguards for Maori representation and specifically Maori voices seems to me to be of value.

Is ACT’s policy tenable?
The underlying premises of ACT Party policy reflect a highly individualistic approach to politics, which understandably has difficulty catering for either collective Maori world-views, or concepts of cultural minority experiences and marginalisation. As a party who sees individuals as isolated rational actors, ACT Party policy can never adequately incorporate these ideas.

Maori voters have no particular special advantage in voting - their votes are not worth more. The state has simply chosen to acknowledge a particular group in society’s voice in a way that ensures their continued voice in Parliament.

ACT’s concern that it demarcates Maori as a separate group in society ignores that many Maori can and do identify with being Maori as a specific identity that they hold, with a different set of interests as a group - and the government ignoring that identity diminishes the chance of developing a positive, pluralistic society.

I don’t support the ACT policy. But I believe that you can have collective group identities which affect how you act and respond to events, and that historical oppressions of people require contemporary redress, including political. And I believe that indigenous peoples deserve particular recognition in their country, given their connection to New Zealand, the Treaty of Waitangi and also the subsequent treatment of Maori in New Zealand. These beliefs fundamentally do not gel with many of the central tenets on which ACT policy is based.

Verdict: Keep the seats.

Rosie is studying Law and Art History, is addicted to coffee, and is a recent convert to the Scallop Festivals. Any errors or editing mistakes should be attributed to the aftermath of the aforementioned Scallop Festival.

[1] Audrey Young, ‘John Key: Dropping Maori seats would mean hikois from hell” (Friday August 22, 2014) http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11312498
[2] It was also previously United Future policy, but their website retains no mention of the place of Maori seats. It is unclear given the vagueness of the policy on the Conservatives website whether their policy is to support abolishing Maori seats entirely, or following a referendum: see http://www.conservativeparty.org.nz/index.php?page=Issues and http://www.conservativeparty.org.nz/index.php?page=FAQ&Filter=Treaty.
[3] Parliamentary Research Support, ‘The Origins of the Maori seats’ (November 2003, updated May 2009) http://www.parliament.nz/en-nz/parl-support/research-papers/00PLLawRP03141/origins-of-the-māori-seats
[4] Electoral Commession ‘How electorates are calculated’ (12 March 2013) http://www.elections.org.nz/voting-system/electorates/how-electorates-are-calculated
[5] 2013 census, http://www.stats.govt.nz/Census/2013-census/profile-and-summary-reports/ethnic-profiles.aspx?request_value=24705&parent_id=24704&tabname=#24705
[6] Parliamentary Research Support, ‘The 2011 General Election’ (December 2011) http://www.parliament.nz/en-nz/parl-support/research-papers/00PlibCIP191/the-2011-general-election

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