The Māori Franchise
Māori people had to wait a long time, before they were awarded the vote.
In 1867, Māori were finally awarded the franchise, 27 years after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. It had taken that long for the Crown to grant Māori the right to participate in New Zealand’s political process.
By the Māori Representation Act 1867, Māori were awarded four special seats in Parliament. However, using the same population calculations that set the number of Pākehā seats, Māori should have had at least fifteen seats.
Maori Seats Temporary
The Māori seats were also designed to be temporary, for two reasons. Firstly, the awarding of the seats to Māori had come about largely through pressure exerted from the British Parliament, where the question was being asked – why is it that Māori do not have the vote? So, special seats were set up, but they were not meant to last for long, perhaps 5 years.
The second reason for setting the Māori seats as temporary was that, under the existing electoral rules, everyone (ie Pākehā) belonged to a general roll. To qualify for that roll, however, you needed to own a certain amount of land as an individual. Because Māori customary ownership was communal (owned by the whole tribe), Māori did not qualify for the general roll, and, therefore, did not have the vote.
Converting Māori Land
However, the government expected that to change, within at least 5 years. Legislation had already been passed (Native Lands Act 1862, 1865) which set about converting Māori land ownership from communal to individual. Māori strongly resisted this conversion because it inevitably led to wholesale land losses. Within 5 years (it was thought) all Māori land would be individually owned, thanks to the legislation. Māori would then qualify for the general roll, and would not need their special seats anymore.
That was the plan, but it did not work out that way. Within five years, Māori land was still overwhelmingly communal. So the seats temporary nature was extended. However, in the end, the process of changing Māori titles would last a century or more, meaning that the ‘temporary’ seats soon became permanent seats, lasting until 1991. In that year (1991), for the first time, the same population calculations as applied to general seats was applied to the Māori seats. This led to an increase in number from four to seven.
Abolishing the Māori Seats
Given how unfairly the Māori seats were first established (only 4 seats, and only temporary while Māori lose their lands), it now seems remarkable that many Pākehā and most political parties argue that the seats should be abolished, representing (it is claimed) evidence of ‘special laws favoring Māori’.
To read Danny’s article on the future of the Māori seats, as published in the Mana Magazine, No 85, January 2008, pp. 68-71, click here – # The Māori Seats.