Abolishing the Māori seats would cause more disruption than modern New Zealand has seen, maybe since the Springbok Tour.

Let’s put this in context first with other recent controversies. John Key’s ill-fated flag referenda were promoted, discussed and argued for six months from October 2014 when the decision was agreed by the cabinet through to March 2015 when the official results were reported. The Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Act 2007 known in its infancy as the ‘anti-smacking’ bill first entered the public consciousness in 2005 when it was drawn as a private member’s bill in Green Party MP Sue Bradford’s name. The proposed legislation motivated marches, protests and nationwide division between supporters of the law change and those who wanted to protect what they saw as their right to hit their children with impunity.

The citizens-initiated referendum launched by those still determined to find fault with the Act revived the debate in 2009. That’s more than four years, and the pro-smacking lobby still won’t let it go.

The furore inspired by these issues would pale in comparison to the impact of a referendum of all voters on the Māori seats.

A binding referendum is a complex process to enact. Legislative change is required, which would be accompanied by significant media interest, information campaigns and associated activity. And by activity I mean protests. Protests accompanying every step of this action. Protests which would make the ‘foreshore and seabed’ controversy look like an esoteric philosophical debate in comparison.

In a speech to the New Zealand First annual conference on July 16, Winston Peters said NZ First would make a binding referendum on the fate of the Māori seats a priority if it formed the Government. Subsequent media interviews confirmed this would be a bottom line for  Peters in any coalition agreement. This was startling. Not because the leader of NZ First is a stranger to controversy. But because mere weeks prior, I had watched the newly announced NZ First candidate Shane Jones tell The Hui the seats should remain “as long as people of Māori extraction remain on them and want them to continue”. Put aside for the moment the peculiarity of this position from a political party which campaigned in, and won, all the Māori seats in 1996.

Before I forget, I need to make a disclaimer of personal interest here – I am registered on the Māori electoral roll. I wasn’t always. I can’t remember when I switched from the general roll but at the time I recall thinking it was a ‘use it or lose it’ scenario and that I’d better use it.

Which is exactly my point about the ‘Māori seats’. There is a binding referendum on them every five years when the Māori electoral option comes up.

For those who aren’t aware, if you whakapapa Māori (have Māori ancestry) you have the option to go on the Māori electoral roll or the general roll when you first register to vote. One person, one vote. You can’t go on both. You can then move between them when the Māori electoral option comes up. This is held after the census of population and dwellings occurs every five years. The Māori electoral option was introduced to allow the number of Māori electorates to increase or decrease according to the results i.e. the number of Māori enrolled.

Sounds suspiciously similar to a binding referendum, to me.

The number of Māori enrolled in the Māori electorates has steadily risen since 1993 when MMP was introduced – MMP itself was the result of an unintentionally agreed-to referendum with extraordinary consequences.The number of Māori electorates has risen accordingly, from five in 1993 to seven since 2002. Now 55% of all registered voters with Māori genealogy are on the so-called Māori roll.

This tells me those of us who are enrolled in the Māori electorates see value in them, despite the increasing representation of Māori in Parliament over the same period. Everyone will have their own perspective on this but for me, it’s a distinction between representation and accountability. MPs elected in Te Tai Tokerau, Te Tai Hauāuru, Te Tai Tonga, Ikaroa-Rawhiti, Tāmaki Makaurau, Hauraki-Waikato and Waiariki are directly accountable to Māori. Now, you can argue whether that has contributed in a positive way to Māori, but this accountability is protected from the whims of party politics in ways that representation through MPs who whakapapa Māori in general seats or on party lists are not.

Because the fact is it hasn’t been common for Māori to win general electorates, and so Māori MPs’ place in Parliament has been largely dependent on securing a seat via the list. This makes their position entirely at the whim of the party and whatever flavour of internal politics is in favour at the time. Call me a cynic but I’m not willing to hang representation, which is essential to a healthy democracy, on the whims of political party apparatchiks.

Which brings us back to the referendum. As someone who (perhaps tragically, in your view) watches hours of Māori and mainstream political and current affairs shows each weekend, I observe a marked difference between the two. There is an undercurrent of unity among even the most combative of participants on the Māori shows. Unity towards promoting Māori achievement and turning back the tide of hardship many of our people experience, inequitably, relative to others.

The concept of the unidimensional ‘Māori vote’ is a myth which has thankfully lost currency among political commentators. It took far too long for ‘experts’ to appreciate that Māori hold views as diverse as any other group of people. However, Māori do have the potential to unite towards a common cause if it threatens our sovereignty. The Foreshore and Seabed Bill was one within living memory.

I suggest the future of the Maori seats could be far bigger. It’s not just the motivation of Māori like myself, who believe in the importance of the seats themselves. It is what the seats come to represent when they are threatened. It’s very difficult to control a narrative over months and even years and something like this, as with the Foreshore and Seabed Act which launched the Māori Party, would end up representing every shitty thing that has happened as a result of other people making decisions on behalf of our people. The news cycle would be stuck on one channel: Māori protest. Other important kaupapa would suffer – homelessness, health, education, trade and justice. These issues would be trampled into silence under the feet of thousands on hikoi across the country. The small but nasty racist underbelly of New Zealand would find a lightning rod for their views, inflating their sense of relevance and delivering them a wedge to prop open the door for ignorance and intolerance to enter our schools, workplaces and homes.

If you think I’m being hyperbolic, pour yourself a drink and find some news footage from the protests against the Foreshore and Seabed legislation, google the National Front and Hobson’s Pledge and tell me I’m wrong, and there’s no threat to our sense of community as a nation from setting this particular haystack on fire. Former PM John Key knew this, when he quavered at the prospect of “hikois from hell” in 2014.

And what’s the point? Is this really a good use of our collective energy, and a worthy cause of heartache? The ‘problem’ doesn’t even exist. If, as the argument goes, the seats are no longer necessary because adequate representation exists – people like me can choose to go on the general roll and the Māori seats will disappear into history of their own accord, and for the right reason: because Māori decided they were no longer required to ensure our rights as partners under Te Tiriti were upheld.

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