Dual cultural heritage moves stymied by system

Maori seats put a brake on political progress, argues Philip Temple.

Recently in the Otago Daily Times (7.10.08), Dr Lachy Paterson traced the history of the Maori seats and made a case for their retention based on some dubious assumptions.

He argued that if the Maori seats were abolished, the voters now on the Maori roll would be unable to split their two MMP votes - that is, giving their electorate vote to the Maori Party and their party vote to their traditional ally, Labour.

If all Maori voters were spread around 60 (actually 62) general electorates, it would be difficult for the Maori Party to win a seat, he wrote.

At the last election, the Maori Party gained 2.12% of the party vote and gained four of the seven Maori electorates.

This created an overhang of one seat in Parliament, above the mandated 120, because their party vote entitled them to only three.

Polls and political opinion are predicting some increase in the Maori Party party vote this election, to about 3%, and capture of two more of the Maori electorates.

This would perpetuate and perhaps increase the overhang: a continuing corruption of MMPs proportionality.

What would most likely happen to the Maori Party if the Maori seats were abolished? Dr Paterson believes that those currently on the Maori roll would vote for Labour with both their votes.

What is much more likely is that their voting pattern would reverse: ex-Maori rollers would give their electorate vote to a Labour candidate and their party vote to the Maori Party.

Even if I am no more than half right, the number of ex-Maori roll voters who would support the Maori Party would almost certainly carry it over the 5% threshold, giving it six or seven seats.

Occasionally, Maori Party leaders say that their party is for pakeha, too.

But given that it depends on a separate roll and separate seats that are race-based, this hardly encourages non-Maori voters.

On the other hand, if the Maori Party had to fight an election on an equal footing to other smaller parties, such as the Greens, and developed policies designed to appeal to all New Zealand voters, but from a Maori perspective, then more pakeha voters would be attracted.

The sky's the limit.

The number of Maori seats is based on the number of people on the Maori roll.

After the last Maori roll option in 2006, the number of seats did not increase.

Maori leaders expressed disappointment that more Maori had not shifted across from the general roll, despite heavy promotion.

Many Maori roll voters shifted the other way, cancelling out about half the Maori roll increase.

The number of Maori seats is unlikely, therefore, to increase in the future, and certainly not by more than another one or two.

Given that these will almost always be split between the Maori Party and Labour, it is severely limiting for the Maori Party to depend on the Maori seats alone.

In other words, they are shooting themselves in their collective foot.

They should be aiming to take pakeha with them, not remain planted in a fortified political pa shouting threats of civil disobedience across the palisade in response to calls to come out.

Dr Paterson's thinking seems to be rooted in 19th and 20th-century resentment.

No other country with similar democratic traditions - Australia, UK, Canada, USA - uses race-based separate rolls and electorates for elections to their national parliament.

The MMP electoral system has increased Maori representation in Parliament regardless of the separate Maori seats.

It was one of the key arguments for having MMP in the first place.

It is now entirely legitimate to ask why there should continue to be a separate Maori roll and electorates that distort MMPs democratic and proportional representation.

It is no longer appropriate or fair in the 21st century to sustain racially separate electorates established in the entirely different political, social and demographic circumstances of the 19th century.

Dr Philip Temple is a Dunedin author and electoral commentator.


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