The purpose and creation of the Māori electoral roll

It will be easier for Māori voters to move from the Māori electoral roll to the general roll and...
It will be easier for Māori voters to move from the Māori electoral roll to the general roll and vice-versa. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Last month National and Labour came to an agreement to support legislation that would make it easier for Māori voters to move from the Māori electoral roll to the general roll and vice-versa.

Previously if someone wanted to change rolls they could only do it over a four-month period every five or six years as I found out in the 1980s when I sent my form in a few days late and found that I had to stay on the general roll for a further five years.

Comments about the validity of the Māori electoral roll occur regularly and so it is useful to look at why it came into existence in the first place.

In 1852 the New Zealand Constitution Act allowed for the self-governance of the colony of New Zealand. The original intention of the British was for a government to govern Europeans and that Māori could govern themselves and that "particular districts should be set apart" where Māori "laws, customs, or usages" would be observed.

The Constitution Act gave voting rights to males over the age of 21 years who had individual property such as freehold land worth over 50 pounds. Māori, as communal owners of their tribal lands, did not figure in this calculation and so the political future of the colony was placed into the hands of the settlers.

The British plan for separate districts did not come about because the settlers wanted all the country, particularly the land and its people, to come under British law. This however had unintended consequences. By the letter of the law, if you met the qualifications to be an elector, that is if you owned the right sort of property, it meant that you could vote in an election and stand for parliament. By the late 1850s it appeared that hundreds of Māori men were getting organised to vote.

Also, by the late 1850s Māori had become reluctant sellers of land that was needed for the growing number of settlers. The communal ownership of land and the rise of the King Movement had made it difficult to get Māori to sell which meant something had to be done so that land purchasers only had to deal with individuals rather than tribes or whanau. The response was the Native Land Court, whose primary task was to get land surveyed and converted into individual ownership so that owners could be pressured, tempted and persuaded to sell their land.

This too had unintended consequences as, all of a sudden, it became possible for thousands of Māori men to meet the qualification to vote and stand for parliament.

As early as 1858 newspapers had begun publishing opinion pieces arguing for the government to do something to prevent Māori from voting in elections. Some advocated for an education test based on reading and writing in English, but were worried that a law change would be difficult. One group were fiercely against Māori registering to vote and claimed that that they had personally persuaded 200 ‘natives’ not to register and were calling for the government to step in. While 200 doesn’t sound many, the electorates of those times were much smaller than they are today. In the 1855 election the average electorate had only 267 electors who voted. The election in 1860 was even lower where an average of 248 electors voted in the 53 seats.

I have seen articles that stated that the Māori seats came about because of some moral obligation by the British. I am more cynical. Māori were often considered inferior and so the prospect of having thousands of Māori being able to vote and consequently the potential for real political power would have been intolerable for many settlers. Especially when many working class European men could not vote and wouldn’t until 1879, 14 years before women.

To make sure that Māori had no power and just as importantly, no influence, four Māori seats were created in 1868 to join the 66 general seats. This ensured Māori had little opportunity to influence government unless it was what the settlers wanted.

Until 1967 all Māori designated by the government to be half caste or more could only enrol in the Māori electorates and no-one designated less than a half caste could vote on the Māori roll until 1975.

Today anyone with Māori ancestry can vote on the Māori roll with the number of seats decided by the number of Māori on the Māori electoral roll.

I do find it interesting that the undemocratic response to implement the Māori seats was the worry that Māori would have genuine political influence and power. My suspicion is that many of those who want to get rid of the Māori seats today, have a similar worry about Māori having political influence and power.

— Anaru Eketone is an associate professor in social and community work at the University of Otago.