Maori Seats are the great survivors

The Maori seats are here to stay. NationaI has been purposefully vague about its abolition plans, and even if it was serious, getting the job done would mean a long and complex process of constitutional reform


Pita Sharples and John Key have aired their differences over what they did or did not agree about the future of the Maori seats – but they will both bury them if their differing interpretations of a private conversation two months ago is the only issue standing in the way of a partnership in government.

Sharples and the Maori Party want to strengthen Maori representation in government decision-making. Their longer term goal is to have the Treaty of Waitangi and Maori seats entrenched in a constitution. To achieve that, they have to win the consent of a significant majority of New Zealanders.

Key and the National Party recognize that Maori participation and political representation are essential if New Zealand is to continue to be regarded as a democracy that demonstrates an acceptable degree of respect for human rights. They are not absolute abolitionists and their policy is full of caveats.

At the conclusion of the settlement of historic Treaty claims, which we anticipate will be in 2014, National will begin a constitutional process to abolish the Maori seats".

What that means, in short, is that three elections from now, we might be in a position to start some unspecified constitutional process to abolish the Maori seats. This is not the kind of policy that will get the skeletons rattling at Orewa, but it is enough to keep them quiet.

Key says he is not prepared to compromise on the policy. There is no need. It is compromised enough already. And there's plenty of grey area to work with in National's other Maori affairs policies as well.

The presumption that historic Treaty claims will be settled by 2014 is a bold leap of faithrequiring a massive acceleration in the rate of settlements achieved since the Waitangi Tribunal went to work in 1975.

The deadline for lodging historic Treaty claims is supposed to have expired at the beginning of September, under the Treaty of Waitangi Amendment Act 2006, passed by the Labour-led government.

As the Waitangi Tribunal points out:“previously registered historic claims may still be amended at any stage, and new contemporary claims may still be lodged.”

The complex task of drawing a line between historic and contemporary claims has still to be confronted.

The second major hurdle to the abolition on the Maori seats is the first leg of National's electoral law policy: a referendum on the future of MMP no later than 2011.

In 1986, the Royal Commission of Inquiry that recommended the adoption of MMP opined it would obviate the need for Maori seats by opening new paths for Maori representation in Parliament.

Subsequent events show the Commission was half right. MMP has expanded the quantity of Maori representation across the benches in Parliament. But it's the presence of Maori Party MPs in Maori electorate seats that has improved its strength and quality.

The Royal Commission also expressed other views of enduring importance for any future debate about the continuance of MMP and Maori seats.

“Maori interests should… continue to be represented in Parliament by MPs who are also members of the Maori community. These MPs, moreover, ought to be democratically accountable to Maori electors and should be able to serve their constituents in ways that correspond to Maori customs, traditions and expectations.”

The protection of representation of Maori interests by Maori MPs is seen as a fundamental requirement for MMP – and for any alternative that might be considered if the majority vote for change in 2011.

The third hurdle to the abolition of Maori seats is the absence of a specific “constitutional process” to address the issue.

Parliament established a Constitutional Arrangements Committee in 2004. By 2006, it reached the astonishing conclusion that “some generic principles should underpin all discussions of constitutional change in the absence of any prescribed process”.

This bland statement of the blindingly obvious was coupled with a majority decision that “there should be some specific process for facilitating discussion within Maori communities on constitutional issues.” End of story.

Our continuing debate on constitutional issues was noted in 2006 by the United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights and the fundamental freedoms of indigenous people, Rodolfo Stavenhagen.

The rapporteur recommended that, “A convention should be convened to design a constitutional reform in order to clearly regulate the relationship between the Government and Maori people on the basis of the Treaty of Waitangi and the internationally recognized rights of all peoples to self–determination.”

Stavenhagen added that New Zealand’s MMP electoral system should be constitutionally entrenched to guarantee adequate representation of Maori in the legislature and at the regional and local governance level.

Stavenhagen’s critics were quick to point out that MMP is already constitutionally entrenched, but ignored his real point: Maori representation is not.

Eliminating Maori seats might seem relatively easy to do – but the path to the point of decision runs through difficult and uncharted territory.

The National Party needs minority support to govern long enough to get to point where its half-formed notions about abolishing the Maori seats can begin to be formed into a specific proposal to be put to the public three elections from now.

The Maori Party needs majority support to obtain its long-term objectives. Some of its members say there is a lot of water to flow under the bridge between now and 2014. More know that we have to survive the flood of the century in 2009 to get there.

Survival will drive most political decision-making after this election – and the instinct for survival will secure the future of the Maori seats as long as Maori want to retain them.