Winston Peters says his price for government is two binding referendums. If we believe him, which we probably shouldn't, then let's note some more problems with his proposal. 

I've already penned something for RNZ's website (which I then fleshed out a bit more over on The Spinoff) as to why Winston Peters' demand for binding referendums on the number of MPs and the Māori seats is both dumb and dangerous. I'll assume you've read what I said there - because, really, why wouldn't you follow my breadcrumb trail of genius all around the interwebz?

But if you haven't done so, it doesn't really matter. Here I want to pick up on a few stand-alone problems with Peters' referendum call that I didn't get to address in those earlier pieces.

First, I'm simply not convinced this announcement is all Peters says it is. He was quoted in this article as saying:

My strategy is to tell everybody out there that you won't be talking to NZ First unless you want a referendum on both those issues at the mid-term mark of this election.

Oh, really? So we're expected to believe that Labour will fight tooth-and-nail to win the Māori seats this election, then meekly capitulate to allowing a binding vote on their future straight afterwards? And we're expected to believe that the Greens will totally capitulate on their stong Treaty of Waitangi principles and go along with this because they have no other options? Yeah ... but, nah.

And even if we think that National might backtrack on 9 years of solid co-operation with the Māori Party and agree to Peters' demand for a vote on the Māori seats, do we really think it's going to allow a catastrophically bad idea like cutting the number of MPs to 100 to go before the public? Is another three years in power really worth gutting the legislative branch as an institution?

So I'm filing Peters "you won't talk to us unless you want this" claim alongside the recent "Winston might become PM!" hooplah  ... nice for generating headlines and clicks (witness this post!), but almost certain to wither away in the cold hard light of political reality.

Second, Peters is flat out lying about the Māori seats. Today he told RNZ's Morning Report that:

The vast majority of Māori, entitled to be on the Māori roll, are on the general roll.

As the kids probably never said, "nuh-uh ... not even". Here's the actual statistics from the Electoral Commission at the end of the 2013 Maori Electoral Option period (the last time that voters of Māori descent got to choose which electoral roll to be on).

At that time, there were 228,718 voters on the Māori roll, or 55% of all voters of Māori descent. On the general roll there were 184,630 voters of Māori descent, or 45% of that cohort. So far from the "vast majority" not being on the Māori roll, a small but significant majority of Māori voters positively have chosen to do so. And by making that choice, they thereby indicate their support for the Māori seats continuing in the future ... because the more Māori on the Māori roll, the more such Māori seats there are.

"Ah-ha", you may say, "these figures are from 2013 ... so maybe they have changed since then!" Well, maybe ... but likely not in a way that helps Peters out. 

Because once a voter of Māori descent has decided which roll to be on, they can only switch during the Māori Electoral Option period. The next one of these is not until 2018.

So, the only changes to the Māori or general roll since 2013 will be from newly enrolling Māori voters - people who have just turned 18, or are going onto the roll after having been removed from it for some reason. If you then look at the statistics from the 2013 Māori Electoral Option period, such newly enrolling Māori voters overwhelmingly chose the Māori roll over the general.

During that option period, some 2,721 newly enrolled voters of Māori descent went on the general roll, while 6,454 such voters went on the Māori roll. Assuming that pattern has continued since 2013 - and why shouldn't we do so? - an even greater majority of Māori voters will be on the Māori roll today than was the case in 2013.

You understand why Peters is telling this lie, of course. He wants to make out that the Māori seats are an anachronism that Māori themselves do not want, so removing them is just doing them a favour. But if those seats actually are valued and preferred by Māori, then the picture changes markedly. Now it becomes a non-Māori majority making a decision for the majority of Māori that runs counter to what they want for themselves. And that's a much uglier and harder to sell narrative. 

While we're on the subject of selling a false narrative, I also wonder how Wayne "Buck" Shelford feels about being Peters' poster-boy for abolishing the Māori seats? Peters said this in his speech:

When did you ever hear Buck Shelford say don't tackle me too hard I'm a Māori, or all those women playing in our netball team or any other team, when have you ever heard them say don't hit me too hard I'm a Māori?

Māori don't need the Māori seats - they don't need any more tokenism.

While Shelford certainly never called for easier treatment because of his Māori heritage, he is a staunch supporter of retaining particularly Māori institutions within a predominently Pakeha framework. For here he is in 2008, arguing in favour of the Māori All Blacks and criticising the Rugby Union's decision to cut its funding. And here he is in 2010, explaining why dedicated Māori teams are so valuable:

The kaumatua teaches them tikanga – the protocols they would have never have learnt otherwise, as many of our Maori are now growing up in the cities and don’t get that.

The learning curve and growth they get out of that, the researching of their whakapapa and getting to know where they came from is instrumental in growing good people.

That's hardly "one team for all!" rhetoric, is it?

Turning to the proposal to let voters decide whether to cut the number of MPs to 100 (from its current 120), there's a couple of additional reasons why this is bad that I didn't have time to cover in my earlier posts.

First of all, even if the number of parliamentary seats were cut to 100, the number of electorates would remain at 71. This is because the statutory formula that provides that number is entrenched - you can't change it except by a 75% vote of MPs or a seperate, stand alone referendum.

That means there would only be 29 list seats to apportion in order to create overall proportionality in an MMP Parliament. And this simply isn't be enough to do so - we will frequently see Parliaments that are distorted by "parliamentary overhangs" where parties win more electorate seats than their share of the party vote actually entitles them to. 

Furthermore, at present there are 27 Ministers in the executive branch, or 22.5% of the total number of MPs. Cut the size of Parliament to 100, and that executive branch becomes some 27% of total MPs - tightening the stranglehold that it already applies to the legislative branch.

So cutting the number of MPs to 100 will not only damage how MMP functions, but it will lead to even greater executive dominance of Parliament as an institution. And we should all vote on whether to do so ... why, precisely?

Comments (21)

by Peter Grant on July 17, 2017
Peter Grant

As usual for Mr Peters, he throws a wildcard to confuse those of us who are easily led !!

by Chris Morris on July 17, 2017
Chris Morris

I thought there was no fixed number for Cabinet and that the number with that rank was just to assure a majority in caucus discussions or to reward factions or minor parties. In reality, the heavy lifting is only done by about half a dozen and has been that way for years, maybe all the way back to King Dick. The rest are make weights.

by Charlie on July 17, 2017

"gutting the legislative branch as an institution?"

Really Andrew?

Applying the same ratios of voter to seat as they do in the UK we should have 60 seats. Bear in mind NZ only has the population and GDP of Greater Manchester.

An MP once told me that as a back bencher he had absolutely nothing to do was bored to tears and his most creative act was completing his expense claim.


by Andrew Geddis on July 17, 2017
Andrew Geddis

Applying the same ratios of voter to seat as they do in the UK we should have 60 seats.

That's just silly. The question isn't "how many MPs per person do we have?" (although, if you really want to apply that measure, we should have 132 MPs based on the MP-per-person ratio that existed in 1993). The real question is how many MPs do we need to do the work of Parliament. Just because NZ has fewer people does not mean that we have correspondingly fewer issues that need dealing with. So, for example, there are 18 select committes in the House that need MPs to sit on them. Those MPs cannot be members of the executive. If we only have 73 MPs to do that work (100 - 27 Ministers), it simply won't be done as well as it presently is.

This all was discussed in some detail here as well as here.

An MP once told me that as a back bencher he had absolutely nothing to do was bored to tears and his most creative act was completing his expense claim.

And a random commentator on the internet once told me not to base my views of public policy issues on anecdotes supplied by random commentators on the internet. 

by Eszett on July 17, 2017

Execllent write up, as usual. However, it is a false assumption that Peters actually means what he says.

All he is trying to do is appeal for the votes of those who already "know" the Maori seats are a form of reverse racism and just "know" that there are just too many bloody politicians.

These people don't care about nuanced facts, they don't care about some obscure legal professor's opinion, let alone read his blog. 

Here's Winston Peters saying what they always "knew" to be true and they will give him their vote. And NZF will be sitting on 15% and whether he delivers or not wont matter.

Once Peters is at the negotiating table, that alone is all what matters to Peters. Sadly, it may just work out for him.

by Ross on July 17, 2017

I think most of us take Winston's pronouncements in election year with a pinch of salt. However, that doesn't mean that abolishing the Maori seats is a bad idea.

If we look at voting in the Maori seats at the last election, the turnout was poor. Generally, fewer voters turned out in each of the Maori seats than turned out in other electorates. If Maori really do want to keep the Maori seats, why aren't they voting in greater numbers? Indeed, a Royal Commission in 1986 stated in regards to Maori benefiting from possible changes to the electoral system:

"No matter how good the electoral system is, it will not work to their advantage unless the Maori people commit themselves to participation within it."

The Royal Commission went further by saying that "while the Maori seats may well be the principal symbol of Government's recognition of the Maori people's special standing, their tenuous nature, in our view, makes them an unsatisfactory means of recognising the constituional rights of the Maori people".

Second, there are of course plenty of Maori MPs in Parliament and that would remain so if the Maori seats were abolished. Maori seats were introduced in 1867 and I think we'd all agree that times have changed ever so slightly since then.

"When the New Zealand Constitution Act passed in the British Parliament in 1852, Maori could technically vote, but were rarely allowed to, because the right to vote was restricted to adult males who owned or rented property in a freehold or leasehold arrangement. Most Maori owned property communally or with customary title, so could not vote."



by Ross on July 17, 2017

One more point: the Royal Commission in 1986 said that the Maori seats "were never more than a temporary arrangement". One hundred and fifty years seems like a rather long temporary arrangement. :)

by Eszett on July 18, 2017

@Ross, your are conflating two issues here.

Indeed you are right, that the turnout in Maori electorates are lower than in other electorates, but the turnout of Maori voters in other electoorates is equally low. That's not an argument to abolish the Maori seats. By that logic you could abolish any electorate that has a low turnout.

Not turnout but enrollment is the key measure. And as long as a majority of Maori voters enroll in Maori seats they are here to stay.

I agree with the notion that Maori seats should not be necessary. But this cannot be achieved by a referendum.

And Peters does not really care about the abolishment Maori seats. He very well kniows that a referndum will never take place. To him they are just a vehicle to stir up resentment amongst a certain part of the electorate and get him their votes. 


by Andrew Geddis on July 18, 2017
Andrew Geddis


(1) Yes, the Royal Commission recommended abolishing the Maori seats. But Maori very strongly resisted that recommendation and rejected the Commission's underlying assumption (that doing so would lead to overall better representation for Maori). I am tehn very uncomfortable with the idea of non-Maori deciding that we know better than Maori themselves what is best for Maori. And despite Peters' claims, I don't think that the Maori seats create negative consequences for non-Maori that justify *us* abolishing them despite Maori preferences.

(2) Note also that the Royal Commission recommended that parties representing Maori interests ought to be exempt from the 5% party vote threshold. Personally, I think this is an unworkable suggestion ... but I find it interesting that one bit of the Commission's report always gets treated as holy writ whilst this other bit gets ignored.

by Simon Connell on July 18, 2017
Simon Connell


[I]t is a false assumption that Peters actually means what he says.

And his supporters take him seriously, but not always literally? I think I've heard that before somewhere.

by Ross on July 18, 2017

I am...very uncomfortable with the idea of non-Maori deciding that we know better than Maori themselves what is best for Maori.

Except we have a Parliament that makes decisions which affect all of us, sometimes negatively. If Parliament decides to increase the top tax rate, I wouldn't expect MPs to necessarily consult with the wealthy even though the wealthy are going to be the most affected by such a change. Of course, holding a referendum on the issue of Maori seats isn't saying that non-Maori know better than Maori. Ultimately it would be up to Parliament to make that call. However, I wouldn't feel comfortable with a referendum unless there was plenty of information made available to the public.


by Andrew Geddis on July 19, 2017
Andrew Geddis


Peters isn't suggesting that Parliament decide whether the Maori seats should continue. Peters is saying that voters will decide that matter directly through a referendum. I also see this issue as being different to an "ordinary" policy issue such as tax levels or the like - it's dealing with fundamental questions of how people vote and are represented in Parliament (the highest lawmaking institution in our nation). Having that decision made for Maori by non-Maori is a bad idea.

by Simon Connell on July 19, 2017
Simon Connell

The Herald is now reporting that Peters "said he will reveal soon whether his proposed referendum on the future of the seats would be for all voters or for Maori." This raises the question of exactly who would get to vote in the referendum, if it isn't everyone.

by Stephen Davis on July 19, 2017
Stephen Davis


Note also that the Royal Commission recommended that parties representing Maori interests ought to be exempt from the 5% party vote threshold. Personally, I think this is an unworkable suggestion ..

Is it really that unworkable? It would be a nightmare to have the Electoral Commission, say, decide which parties "represent Maori interests" but I don't think that's necessary.

A similar result could be achieved with less subjectivity by simply applying the 5% threshold separately to the general and Maori rolls: thus, you can qualify for seats by getting either 5% of general voters *or* 5% of Maori roll voters.

For example, in 2014, this would have qualified, in addition to the parties that got in, Internet MANA, who gained 10.22% of the Maori roll vote, but only 0.83% of the general roll vote.

by Moz on July 20, 2017

It would be a nightmare to have the Electoral Commission, say, decide which parties "represent Maori interests"

I don't think so, because Parliament already, by definition, represents the interests of all New Zealanders. Therefore since Maori are (mostly) New Zealanders, all parties represent Maori interests. The end.

I may be biased by my dislike of the anti-democratic threshold, but I think the logic is sound. If I'm right, then obviously I wholeheartedly support the above recommendation.

by Katharine Moody on July 20, 2017
Katharine Moody

Everyone seems to be assuming that the result would be determined by simple majority of an aggregate across each of the two separate rolls. But as I've seen reported, he's stating that if the seats are to go, that should be decided by Maori and, in addition, he's staing that all NZers will have a vote. My guess is he envisages the rules being that a simple majority for yes is likely to be requried in each of the two separate rolls for the seats to be abolished. 

by Andrew Geddis on July 21, 2017
Andrew Geddis

My guess is he envisages the rules being that a simple majority for yes is likely to be requried in each of the two separate rolls for the seats to be abolished. 

My guess is that he had no real idea of what he meant, aside from wanting to generate a headline "NZ First will get rid of the Maori seats", and so is making it up as he goes along.

by Ian Tinkler on July 21, 2017
Ian Tinkler

Whereas I don't think that the referendums as proposed are just. I do think this raises issues. Firstly the number of seats. Overtime they should change due to population changes. So let’s change the question to one of effective representation and how that is delivered to New Zealanders,

The current 120 seats should change as population changes. So why not an agreed formulae. I understand in Ireland there needs to be 1 TD for every 30,000 people.

Unfortunately there is a perceived public opinion that the Maori seats are racist. With MMP the commission picked up the policy from Germany (in the state of Schleswig-Holstein) which does work. I don't think a referendum makes sense however let’s not fear discussing the need for representation. It might produce alternative ways to achieve representation.

by Chuck Bird on July 22, 2017
Chuck Bird

Andrew I am very disappointed in you.  I thought you were one of the fairer people on this far left wing blog.  Calling the Rt Hon Winston Peters a liar while condoning the behaviour of the self-confessed liar and fraudster brings the law profession into disrepute.   Is this what law students are taught about ethics?

You claim that “Peters is flat out lying about the Māori seats.”

Peters probably made a mistake about the percentage of Maori on the Maori roll.  Before his statement I thought more Maori were on the Maori roll.  Peters is not a fool.  If he knew there were slightly more on the Maori roll he would have known one of his enemies would have found the error like you have.  I think you own Mr Peters a public apology.  I do not expect that will happen.  Instead I will no doubt get banned from your blog. 

As I said at the start it is the hypocrisy of making an unfair attack on Peter’s honesty while condoning the dishonesty of Ms Turei that I find concerning.  Where is your logic?

It appears that Turei confessed to lying to Work and Income because she feared of being outed.  If she lied to get more money by defrauding the taxpayer why would you believe her when she says if she did not lie she would not have enough to feed her child? 

I was talking to a talk show host early this morning who had been a criminal lawyer and one of his first clients was sentenced to 8 months jail for welfare fraud.  Many on the left and centre were calling for Todd Barkley to be investigated and rightly so.  However, what Barkley did was not a crime of dishonesty if he is in fact guilty of anything.  His crime was arrogance and stupidity.

The public have a right to know the extent of Turei’s offending.  If it was not just declaring a flatmate that is one thing.  However, if she had arranged an under the table payment from the father in return for not naming him that would be a lot more serious.  If he was at any time one of the flatmates she should be charged.  Sadly, the left wing media will not ask her any hard questions. 

I guess I will probably get banned from this blog as the left are incapable of a reasoned debate.  Respect works two ways.  It is hypocritical to demand respect to the writers on this blog yet it is okay for them to defame politicians who they do not like.

by Dennis Frank on July 22, 2017
Dennis Frank

Hey Chuck, Andrew wasn't just name-calling.  He proved his point by providing the evidence that he was right.  As you say, Winston may have just made a mistake out of ignorance of the facts - but misinforming the public is unethical behaviour in any politician and the possibility that it is inadvertent won't carry much weight with any member of the public who discover that they've been successfully conned by his false assertion.  Andrew doesn't owe him an apology:  Andrew told the truth as he sees it.  Fair-minded voters who read his essay will agree.  The apology ought to come from Winston for either not bothering to research the facts, or deliberately misrepresenting them to the public.

Barclay lied to the media and also to Parliamentary Services about his secret recording of the electorate office conversations.  He told his leader he did it and told his National Party local electorate meeting that he didn't.  These facts have been validated in public by the people involved.  I've seen all the published testimony from those involved that prove his criminal conduct.  Anyone paying attention will have been similarly informed.  So why haven't you?  I'm no goddam leftist either, btw.  Just someone who thinks criticism ought to be accurate and correct.

by Andrew Geddis on July 23, 2017
Andrew Geddis

Hi Chuck,

If the leader of a political party promotes a referendum on a certain matter as being an apparently non-negotiable post-election policy demand, you might expect that he has carefully looked at the issue and at least established the basic facts about it. So by calling Winston a liar, I am doing him the courtesy of assuming that he has acted as a responsible public leader and fulfilled his basic obligations to the country he wishes to (help) lead. If you think that this is wrong of me, then I am sorry you have such a poor opinion of him and his method of operating.

However, at your insistence I am happy to publicly amend my statement to the following:

Second, Peters is either flat out lying about the Māori seats or is so woefully ignorant about the basic issues involved that he has no right to discuss them publicly, much less promote a referendum on their future.

And no, you're not going to get banned from Pundit for raising the matter of Turei's alleged-but-admitted offending (or even for claiming hypocrisy in the way it is being treated) ... you might note this post by Tim Watkin on this site raising many of the points you do, as well as the vibrant (but respectful) comment thread on the topic.

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