I’ve put up a long post about the Maori seats at Larvatus Prodeo. It’s written for Australian readers, but there’s some arguments about the alleged undemocratic nature of the seats that NZ readers might be interested in. So I have copied the post here too.
There’s a lot of huffing and puffing and chuffing going on about the Maori seats. In particular, the usual suspects (read, the National party) have been asserting that they are undemocratic and they should go. Of course, the Nats would say this: until very recent elections, the Maori seats have been solidly Labour. Ordinarily, that doesn’t matter so much under MMP, where for the most part, the proportion of seats that each party holds is determined by the party vote. As long as the number of seats a party gets based on the party vote exceeds the number of electorate seats that party holds (see the primer on MMP for how this works), then the fact that electorate seats go Labour or National or Fairies at the Bottom of the Garden Party doesn’t matter in terms of the overall makeup up parliament.
But this time round, things might be different. It looks as though the Maori party will take five or six or maybe all seven of the Maori seats, but only take about 3 to 4% of the party vote. 4% of the party vote would give them 4.8 seats in parliament (call it 5 seats). So if they take seven electorate seats, there will be an overhang of 2 seats i.e. two extra seats in the house. That means that the house will have 122 seats, and the governing coalition will need to hold 62 of those seats. All of which is a little worrying if you are the National party, hovering around 50% support, but not sure whether or not you will have any friends to play with in the big house. In your worst nightmares, the nerdy-swot kid (Labour), who is not very popular but nevertheless has lots of friends, might get to be the government instead, all courtesy of the overhang.
It’s not only the National party getting uptight about the Maori seats. Peter Dunne, leader of United Future, is fulminating about the Maori seats too, claiming that they distort democracy, and pervert the will of the majority. Which is just a bit bloody rich, considering that his micro party only makes it into parliament courtesy of his own electorate seat, and the way the polls are panning out at present, he’s highly likely to be an overhang all by himself this time around. (If you want to check the state of the polls in NZ, try Curiablog, for a rolling poll of polls, and reports of each poll as it comes out.)
So are the Maori seats undemocratic?
They certainly were when they were established, back in 1867. Until then, Maori men had been able to vote, provided they held individual title to property. This looked to be fair (i.e. consistent with the franchise for all other men), except that most Maori held property in common and only a very few had individual title. After on-going debate, four Maori seats were created in 1867, and all Maori men aged over 21 were eligible to vote in them, and stand for parliament. But on a per capita basis, there should have been about 14 to 16 Maori seats. So this was an attempt to contain Maori votes. The four seats were supposed to be temporary, until sufficient Maori owned or rented land as individuals, but by 1876 it was clear that this would take far longer than just a few years, so the seats were established on a permanent basis. But Maori could still only vote in the Maori seats unless they held individual title to land, in which case they could vote in both the Maori seats and the general seats. The dual vote was eliminated in 1893, the same year that all women were enfranchised in New Zealand. But Maori were still confined to the Maori seats. In later years, “half-caste” Maori could choose which electoral roll to enrol in, Maori or general. This system persisted until 1975, when the Labour government introduced a Maori electoral option, to be held alongside, or following each census. Voters of Maori descent could choose which roll they would be on for the next five years each time the electoral option was held. There were plans to increase the number of Maori seats, to better reflect the number of people enrolling on the Maori roll, but in 1976, the incoming National government fixed the number of Maori seats at four. Their motives were perhaps not the best: Labour had a stranglehold on the Maori seats, which under the old First Past the Post system, meant that increasing the number of seats would have simply gifted seats to Labour.
Then along came MMP. The Royal Commission on the Electoral Commission recommended introducing MMP, and argued that the Maori seats would not be needed, because parties could use the list system to ensure that Maori were represented in parliament. But Maori argued strongly for the retention of the Maori seats, so they were retained, and the number of Maori seats was allowed to increase or decrease according to the results of the regular Maori electoral option. In the first MMP election in 1996, there were five Maori seats, and in the second, there were six, and by the 2002 election, the number of Maori seats had increased to seven. The next Maori electoral role option is due to be held in 2012. In 2012, people who say that they are New Zealand Maori, or of New Zealand Maori descent, may choose to remain on their current roll (general or Maori), or switch rolls, and if enough people opt for the Maori roll, then the number of Maori seats will increase.
Given that the Maori seats are the same size as the general seats, and that usually, the number of Maori seats doesn’t affect the overall make-up of Parliament, they are not undemocratic. They are simply a mechanism for selecting individual members of Parliament, and most of the time, they don’t affect who gets to sit on the Treasury benches. But this time round, with the prospect of an overhang, and the interesting chance that the Maori party will hold the balance of power, plenty of people are getting very upset about the “undemocratic” Maori seats.
I think there are two ways that you could argue that the seats are undemocratic, neither of them convincing. You could argue that seats reserved for particular groups are undemocratic, or that trying to ensure that particular groups are represented in parliament is undemocratic. However, we already happily ensure that geographically diverse communities are represented, through electorate seats. If it’s appropriate to ensure that geographically diverse communities are represented, then it must also be appropriate to ensure that other communities are represented. Some communities are geographically diverse: hence the electorate seats based on geography. Other communities are ethnically, gender and sexually diverse. The question then is simply about which mechanism to use to ensure representation of diversity. For the most part, in New Zealand, diverse groups are represented through party lists. New Zealand’s parliament became noticeably less white, less male, and less heterosexual following the first MMP election. It also became less Christian, but aside from fringe groups, religion is not an important factor in NZ politics. It so happens that in New Zealand, representation of Maori is achieved not just through party lists, but also through the Maori electorate seats. In the 2005 election, 21 people who identify themselves as Maori or of Maori descent were elected, filling 17% of the seats in the House, which is roughly proportional to the percentage of Maori in the population (about 15%, and increasing).
Alternatively, you could argue that overhangs frustrate the will of the electorate, as expressed in the party vote. They are a bug in the MMP system. However, I don’t see them so much as a bug as, if not a feature, simply a consequence of being committed to ensuring that people from diverse communities in New Zealand are represented in the parliament. Further, our electoral system is not designed to reflect exact proportionality – we would need to have many, many more MPs in order to do that, or a parliament comprising the whole population. The system is designed, like other voting systems, to come up with a fair and defensible and it comes up with about the right result. (This is exactly what’s going on with STV in Australian elections: it’s fair enough, and defensible, and achieves around about the right result.) Not perfect, but jolly well good enough to be part of a democratic system.
There is another aspect to the Maori seats that isn’t to do with representation, but is to do with partnership, and in particular, the partnership between Maori and the Crown that is seen by Maori as part of the standing guaranteed to them under Te Tiriti o Waitangi (the Treaty of Waitangi). The Maori seats guarantee Maori a seat at the table of government. For that reason, they are unlikely to be abolished any time soon, despite the best efforts of the National party. Any attempt to remove the Maori seats would need the support of Maori (15% of the population, and increasing), and many Maori, even if they aren’t on the Maori roll, would be very reluctant to see them gone. That’s a large chunk of the electorate to upset.