Why we have Māori seats

All eyes are on Winston Peters at the moment, and what exactly he may extract from whichever party he props up as Government.

Mr Peters supports a referendum on abolishing Māori seats, along with a referendum to be delivered on the same day asking whether the number of seats in Parliament should be reduced to 100.

In an opinion piece written for RadioLIVE in July, Mr Peters said: "New Zealand First acknowledges that the Māori seats played an important role in the past but recently the seats have not improved Māori lives."

He argued all New Zealanders are in "the same boat" and Māori are being "sidelined by separatism".

Although he now opposes the seats, his party won all of them back in 1996. It was short-lived - Labour won them back in 1999.

Labour has ruled out a referendum on the seats, saying that decision should be made only by Māori. But it has skin in the game, having won all seven seats this election and six of them in 2014.

National, meanwhile, has a policy of abolishing the seats, but leader Bill English didn't campaign on it and has said he has no plans to abolish them. He told RNZ that decision should be made by Māori. When Mr English said that, National also had skin in the game, with a confidence and supply agreement with the Māori Party.

NZ First leader Winston Peters.
NZ First leader Winston Peters. Photo credit: Getty

What are they?

New Zealand's Māori seats are seven electorate seats. They largely operate in the same way as the 64 general electorate seats, with the main difference being people must be on the Māori roll in order to vote in them.

Māori can choose whether to be on the Māori roll or the general roll. This only changes which electorate they vote in, not the party vote.

If a Māori Aucklander was on the general role, they might vote in the Mount Albert electorate, for example. If they were enrolled on the Māori roll, their electorate vote would change to Tāmaki Makaurau. The operation of the party vote wouldn't change.

All electorates roughly represent the same number of people. Because the number of people on the Māori roll is much lower than the general roll, the number of Māori seats spanning New Zealand is much lower than general electorates.

The history

Before Māori seats were established, the Electoral Commission says in 1853 "about 100 Māori (mostly tribal leaders) were enrolled to vote - out of a total electorate of 5849".

The lack of participation was partly due to the fact that only property-owning men could vote at the time. Māori property was mostly owned communally, limiting Māori participation.

Four Māori seats were established in 1867 - part of a power struggle between northern and southern politicians.

The four seats were established to represent all Māori, but it wasn't proportional. Each of the four seats represented 12,500 Māori, whereas each European seat represented 3,500 people.

They were meant to be a temporary measure, with European politicians saying the seats could be abolished when Māori owned land individually. When it became clear "individualisation" of land would take a long time, the seats were extended and then made permanent in 1876.

Māori were not allowed to stand in general electorates until 1967, and only people with one Māori and one European parent could choose which roll to be on. In 1975, Labour allowed all people of Māori descent to choose whether they were on the Māori or general role.

When MMP was introduced in 1993, the number of Māori seats was increased to five, in proportion to the number of people on the Māori roll.

Opposition to the seats

As the number of Māori MPs has risen under MMP, opponents have argued the Māori seats are no longer necessary.

Others - like Dr Don Brash - say they are racist and separatist.

A Royal Commission into the seats in 1986 said the seats had not helped Māori and recommended they be abolished if MMP was introduced. 

Support for the seats

Those in support of the seats say they guarantee Māori representation in Parliament.

The Māori Party's Marama Fox says the Māori seats "represent a more complex set of issues than [general] electorates."

"People can say all they like about the numbers of Māori in the house, but those Māori who succeed as Māori in those Māori seats are representative of te ao Māori and they need to have that unique voice in the house."

"Those people in the Māori seats are there to advocate for the rights and interests of Māori unreservedly every day of the week."

Ms Fox argued that while there's disparity between Māori and non-Māori, the seats need to remain.

The Māori Party says any decision that they are no longer needed should be made by Māori.