The Māori party, whose central pou is supporting kaupapa Māori, is attempting to take us back to 1975 when Māori did not have a choice about which electoral roll we would be on

Opinion: There is one particular policy this election that concerns me, which no one really seems to be talking about.

Perhaps because the likelihood of it becoming a reality is almost nil. Or perhaps it is because it only affects 17.4 percent of the nation, and therefore newsmakers are largely uninterested. However, I find it such an affront to modern democracy that I believe te ao Māori has no other option than to talk about it.

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The policy, announced in 2021, is from Te Pāti Māori and it is to commit all Māori to the Māori electorate roll by 2023.

If you do not whakapapa Māori, you have permission to click away now. But if you do whakapapa Māori, or if you believe that you – rather than the state – are the best person to make decisions about your own life, then let me highlight why this is one of the most repressive policies of Election 2023.

The way in which the state has used its power to restrict, minimise or extinguish the rights of Māori is well-documented, and will not be traversed here. Countless events in our nation’s modern history have amplified this distrust and it is why the words – and intentions – of politicians, matter.

The intention behind the establishment of the Māori roll is found somewhere within the context of land sales, estrangement from the political system, and the desire by Māori to enjoy political representation.

I have truncated parts of an Otago Daily Times opinion piece by Associate Professor Anaru Eketone, from the University of Otago, who eloquently explains:

“In 1852 the New Zealand Constitution Act allowed for the self-governance of the colony of New Zealand … The Constitution Act gave voting rights to males over the age of 21 years who had individual property such as freehold land worth over 50 pounds. Māori, as communal owners of their tribal lands, did not figure in this calculation and so the political future of the colony was placed into the hands of the settlers.

“By the letter of the law, if you met the qualifications to be an elector, that is if you owned the right sort of property, it meant that you could vote in an election and stand for parliament. By the late 1850s it appeared that hundreds of Māori men were getting organised to vote.”

Eketone went on to say by the late 1850s, communal ownership of land and the rise of the King Movement had made it difficult to encourage Māori to sell land. In response, the Native Land Court was established so that land could be surveyed and converted into individual ownership. “All of a sudden, it became possible for thousands of Māori men to meet the qualification to vote and stand for parliament,” Eketone writes.

The Māori Representation Act 1867 was passed and four Māori seats were created for a Māori population of 56,000. Te Ika-a-Māui (the North Island) was divided into three electorates, and the whole of Te Waipounamu (the South Island), Stewart Island, and adjacent islands were the fourth seat.

After the change to MMP in 1993, the number of Māori seats increased from four to five in 1996, and now there are seven.

Rather than litigate the done-to-death debate about whether they should exist or not (I believe it’s a moot point – it will never happen unless a vast majority of Māori call for it, and I see no reason why we would) I want to explain why, against the backdrop of their origin story, forcing everyone with whakapapa Māori to be on the Māori electorate roll is an affront to equity.

The Electoral (Māori Electoral Option) Legislation Act 2022, which was passed in November, sought to rectify the unreasonable restrictions placed on the ability of voters with whakapapa Māori to switch between the general and Māori roll. Before it was passed, we could only move between the Māori and general rolls once every five to six years during a window post-census.

Mana motuhake (self-determination) is being able to make choices over my own future. Mana motuhake is getting to determine what is best for myself and my whānau. Mana motuhake is mana through self-determination

The law, which needed bipartisan support to pass (any amendment to the Electorate Act requires three quarters of Parliament to vote for it), now allows Māori to change electoral rolls at any time, up until three months before a general election.

Once it was enacted, roll shifting ensued. In June, Whakaata Māori reported that more than 10,000 people had switched, making a compelling case for the necessity of the law change. However, when you look into the numbers, it’s not all one way. Though 5,371 voters with whakapapa Māori moved from the general roll to the Māori roll, 4,674 voters moved in the opposite direction.

In the days after the publication of these numbers I witnessed commentary on social media questioning why those with whakapapa Māori might move to the general role.

Acknowledging voting is an extremely personal process, let me hazard a few guesses.

Perhaps they tried the Māori roll and decided it was not for them?

Perhaps they do not feel there is a Māori electorate candidate that aligns with their values? 

Perhaps they had a whānau discussion and they decided their electorate seat representation had not lived up to their expectation and decided to vote more strategically?

Or perhaps, just perhaps, they would just like to exercise their right to decide what is best for them?

We now have a political party, whose central pou is supporting kaupapa Māori, attempting to take us back to 1975 – a time when we, as Māori, did not have a choice about which roll we would be on. When we were – once again – being told what is best for us.

In reflecting on this shortsighted policy, I looked back to the words of a political leader I have long admired from afar; a wahine Māori who stood in Pāremata Aotearoa and let her actions say more than words ever could when she crossed the floor of the debating chamber to vote against the Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004 – the co-founder of the Māori Party, Dame Tariana Turia.

She said: “It is a fundamental principle of democracy that citizens have rights against the Crown.”

Despite Parliament being formed in 1854, it took 113 years to get equity for Māori regarding where we could stand. It wasn’t until 1967 that Māori got the right to stand in general electorate seats (at the time known as European seats).

In 1975, when the National Party’s Manuera Benjamin Rīwai Couch QSO JP (Ngāi Tahu) and William Rex Austin MBE (Ngāi Tahu, Waitaha, Kāti Māmoe) were elected for Wairarapa and Awarua respectively, Māori were finally successful in general electorates. Before this, the only individual with whakapapa Māori to hold a general seat was Tā James Carroll (Ngāti Kahungunu).

We have a duty to our tīpuna to ensure this equity in our democracy is maintained. Why should Hon Willow-Jean Prime (Ngāti Hine, Ngāpuhi) not be allowed to vote for herself in Northland? Likewise, Tama Potaka (Ngāti Hauiti, Whanganui, Taranaki, Ngāti Toa) in Hamilton West? It makes no sense.

Māori do – and should – have the right to be represented by whomever they wish to be represented by. Some 4,674 voters made a conscious choice to move from the Māori roll to the general roll: is it fair to make their choice invalid? Kaore!

Mana motuhake (self-determination) is being able to make choices over my own future. Mana motuhake is getting to determine what is best for myself and my whānau. Mana motuhake is mana through self-determination. Mana motuhake is not this.

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