New Zealand debates whether to scrap exclusive Maori Parliamentary seats

By Gillian Bradford
Published May 25th 2003 in Australian Broadcasting Company

(This is a transcript from Correspondents Report. The program is broadcast around Australia on Sundays at 08:00 on ABC Radio National.)

HAMISH ROBERTSON: Well, political freedom may have been a long time coming in South Africa, but in New Zealand it's been taken for granted for years.

However, there's been a heated debate there in the past few weeks over whether to scrap the 18 Parliamentary seats exclusively reserved for representatives of the country's Maori population.

New Zealand's Conservative National Party Opposition believes that these seats have outlived their usefulness, given that Maori now enjoy exactly the same rights as other New Zealanders, and there was no longer the need for special rights for one race.

This is something of an about turn for the Nationals, who until now had supported retaining the seats until Maori themselves no longer wanted them. But National Party Leader, Bill English, says the time has come to abolish the seats, which were first enshrined in New Zealand law back in the 1860s.

When he announced his Party's new position on the issue, there was a chorus of protests from academics, community leaders and politicians, with Prime Minister, Helen Clark, accusing Mr English of playing "desperate politics", others simply denounced him as racist.

Well, here with the background to the story is our New Zealand Correspondent, Gillian Bradford.

GILLIAN BRADFORD: It may seem European New Zealanders were being particularly forward thinking when they introduced special seats for Maori back in 1867. But while history shows Maori were getting a better deal than many other indigenous people, they were still being sold well short when it came to equal representation in Parliament.

Maori Studies Lecturer, Dr Danny Keenan says Maori would have been given 20 seats, not four, if the Government had intended to give them equal franchise.

DANNY KEENAN: They were granted simply because pressure from London had become too intense, and I think the New Zealand Government was finding it too difficult to explain to the British Government why Maori were not voting.

GILLIAN BRADFORD: So the history of the seats isn't really that flattering. I mean, the reasons why they were set up weren't romantic at all, and yet today Maori want to keep them. Why is that?

DANNY KEENAN: The truth is Maori people are possibly divided on the issue, but the overwhelming Maori view is that they should be retained because what we see in our history I think is the Crown continuing to change legislation at will to suit its own purposes.

There is not guarantee, even under the current MMP system that Maori people will get to Parliament.

For example, the National Party has only one, it has one Maori MP.

GILLIAN BRADFORD: The four seats granted to Maori in the 1860s have only recently increased to seven. In 1996, New Zealand switched to a mixed member proportional voting system, but has shifted votes from the major two parties to a number of smaller parties, and it's that change that has convinced Opposition Leader, Bill English, that Maori no longer need special seats.

BILL ENGLISH: We say that it's now time to show some faith in New Zealand and its institutions, you know. We have a democracy that I believe is capable of allowing everyone representation of their interests, and therefore the Maori seats simply aren't needed in the way that they were in the past.

GILLIAN BRADFORD: But author and renowned Maori historian, Michael King, believes it must be Maori, and not politicians, who decide if and when the seats should go.

MICHAEL KING: Some Maoris see it as being a bit rich that Bill English is calling for the abolishment of seats and saying they're no longer available, when National has only one Maorist MP, and I would have think he'd be in a much stronger position to make that suggestion when he's got about half a dozen.

So the way I interpret it is, Bill English is not saying what he's saying because he's trying to abolish the Maori seats, he's saying what he's saying because he's trying to claw back the National Party core support that he lost in the last election.

GILLIAN BRADFORD: But you do see ahead, whether it be 10, 20 years, you do see a point where in fact Maori will accept that there is no particular need for these seats?

MICHAEL KING: No, I don't actually. I think commentators might, and no Maori politicians might, but there are very few people who will actually give away an element of political power or authority that they have.

I think the way Maori would look at it in 10 years time, even when the case is stronger propolition [phonetic], is that okay, we've now got say 18 Maori in there under the MMP system, but we've also got those four Maori under the Maori seats, and why should we give up four Maori seats in the potential additional influence of four members of Maori Parliament.

I think it's always going to be very difficult to persuade Maori en masse that they don't need those seats.

HAMISH ROBERTSON: Historian, Michael King ending that report from Gillian Bradford