NZ First may back entrenchment of Māori seats - if there's a referendum first

Winston Peters says a referendum on the Māori seats could be the price of his party's support for a Bill that would make it harder to get rid of them.

Labour MP Rino Tirikatene's Electoral (Entrenchment of Māori Seats) Amendment Bill was drawn in early May. It would change the law so the Māori seats could only be removed through a 75 percent majority in Parliament, the same as the general seats. Currently it's only 51 percent.

"They've asked me for our vote, and we're saying we're happy to let you put this matter in front of the select committee, but when it's over, how about giving us a vote on whether the Māori seats should be there or not?"

Mr Peters has previously said New Zealand First would not vote for the Bill, since it's his party's policy to put the existence of the seats to a referendum.

Speaking to RadioLIVE on Monday, he said it wasn't necessarily NZ First's position to see them abolished.

"I think though if you were to ask New Zealand, there's an overwhelming view on the part of New Zealanders to have one franchise, and a country that salutes one flag and one system of laws, and one culture called the emerging New Zealand culture," he said.

"If you were to program that properly and postulate that correctly out to the public, I think there's an overwhelming majority for that."

Labour's policy is the Māori seats will only go when Māori no longer want them. But Mr Peters says any referendum will have to take into account the views of all New Zealanders, regardless of race.

"That's what a referendum is for - ensuring New Zealanders get to have a say and not temporarily empowered politicians, from whom we've heard far too much for far too long."

Even if it was left to Māori, Mr Peters is confident. He said Māori are flocking to the general roll, and most of them are already there having "already voted with their feet".

"Why would you want to entrench something a massive majority of the population - and indeed by their own electoral choice at this point in time, the greatest percentage of Māori - is not now needed?"

In fact, Māori on the Māori roll are largely choosing to stay there.

In 2017, the Electoral Commission said 52.4 percent of Māori were on the Māori roll, and 47.6 percent on the general roll. 

"Of those who opted to change rolls, more moved from the Māori roll to the general roll, and when it came to new enrolments, more opted for the Māori roll," a spokesperson said.

The changing face and structure of Parliament

NZ First swept the then-five Māori seats in 1996. Mr Peters justified that by saying it was necessary to get as much power as possible to stop Labour's 'Rogernomics' economic reforms of the 1980s, which were largely continued by his former party National in the early 1990s under the guise of 'Ruthanasia'.

"We got flooded with Māori support because they saw one party was standing up against this huge neoliberal disaster," said Mr Peters.

"I was actually acting for Māori interests when I was a young lawyer a long, long time ago, before half these people [asking] around the fringes of academia and uni about who a Māori was, okay?"

Mr Peters said predictions MMP would deliver more Māori to Parliament have come true, rendering the Māori seats obsolete.

He also said the Māori seats weren't needed to ensure Māori culture survives into the future.

"What you're saying is the key utility to do that is the Māori seats," he told host Mark Sainsbury, "and I'm saying that statement is directly, categorically, wrong."

After Mr Tirikatene's Bill was drawn in May, Mr Peters said it would give Māori "false security", since the amendment itself giving a 75 percent threshold could be overturned with a simple majority vote.