The Maori seats

The NZ Herald reports on a paper by Canterbury University law professor (a leading constitutional expert) on the , calling for them to be abolished:

Professor Joseph said putting aside the seven Maori seats, the 15 other Maori representatives in Parliament put it a little under 2 per cent short of reflecting the 14 per cent national population.

However, with the Maori seats the current parliamentary representation equated to 22 per cent.

In response says:

Political commentator Matt McCarten said Professor Joseph’s argument was “ignorantly racist” because it seemed to suggest there was a strict quota of Maori MPs acceptable in Parliament.

“You didn’t see a report when rich, white men were over-represented in Parliament. Now, it’s suddenly become a concern because Maori might soon wield real influence.”

Matt misses or avoids the point though. If there were no dedicated race based seats, then “over-representation” would not be an issue. I would not be at all concerned if New Zealanders elected a Parliament that had a particular demographic over-represented. Absolutely there should be no maximum quota of acceptability.

But the issue is that the rationale for having dedicated race based seats is justifiably called into question when that demographic is over-represented, not under-represented, in Parliament.

In a way it is similiar to the immigration issue. If there are no country based quotas in immigration (which I prefer) then I don’t care at all about the nationality or origin of our immigrants. But if there is a country based quota, it is legitimate to debate whether that quota is necessary or desirable.

There are reasons one can argue in favour of the Maori seats, beyond Maori being under-represented in Parliament (which has not been true for some time). Likewise there are arguments against the Maori seats (and my fear is the longer we retain them, the more we develop a Fiji type constitution). However taking the seats away, without fairly broad agreement from Maoridom is not necessarily a constructive thing to do. There are no easy answers, but it is an issue which won’t go away.

I think the best solution is that of the Royal Commission on the Electoral System which proposed they be abolished, but that the special status of Maori as tangata whenua be recognised by having no threshold (so getting around 0.7% of the vote should ensure representation) for Maori political parties. This would also solve the issue of the Maori seats causing overhang in Parliament which can distort the proportional result you are meant to have under MMP. This could be a big factor in 2008.

Before people react kneejerk, can I suggest people read the excellent Chapter 3 of the Royal Commission report which goes into the pros and cons and history of the seats.

One advantage of abolishing the Maori seats but having no threshold for Maori political parties is you could get more diverse Maori representation in Parliament. The main parties would still I am sure have Maori MPs, but you might have three or four different Maori parties all gaining one or two MPs. There might be a radical activist party for the Hone Harawiras. A urban Maori party for the John Tamiheres. A Iwi rights party for Ngai Tahu and supporters. Having no threshold for Maori Parties would encourage more diverse representation and in my opinion be a more effective way of guaranteeing Maori representation in Parliament without the negatives of having separate rolls and separate seats.

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