If you do one thing this year, enrol or switch to the Maori roll. I can’t stress it enough – enrol on or switch to the Maori roll. Do it. Do it now.
In 1975 the then Labour government introduced the Maori electoral option. The option lets Maori choose between enrolling on the general roll or – as every patriotic Maori should – enrolling on the Maori roll. The option is held in census’ years and determines whether or not there will be an increase or decrease in the number of Maori seats.
Along with the Treaty of Waitangi, the Maori seats lend Maori a special constitutional status.* This is the unintended consequence of the seats creation. For 129 years the Maori seats were capped at four – despite explosive growth in the Maori population and the extension of the franchise – thus limiting Maori political power. Until 1951 elections for the Maori seats were held separately and until 1975 only “half-castes” could elect to vote on either the European roll (as it was then called) or the Maori roll. It wasn’t until 1993 that the number of Maori seats was tied to the Maori electoral population.**
The Maori seats give our people, for want of better metaphors, a foot in the door and a seat at the table. They anchor Maori political power. Without them, Maori political progress is wholly dependent on the acquiescence of non-Maori parties. It will be a perverse situation if we, rather than external actors, are responsible for limiting our own political power.
If we enrol in numbers the smart money is on an eighth Maori seat, probably in South Auckland. I’m picking that’ll mean Te Tai Tokerau, Tamaki Makaurau and Hauraki-Waikato will have to be reconfigured.
It’s so, so important that we enrol on or switch to the Maori roll. I can’t emphasise that enough. Unlike the provisions of the Electoral Act regulating the general electorate seats, the provisions around Maori representation are not entrenched. In other words, the Maori seats are subject to abolition by simple majority.
It’s also worth considering the timing of the electoral option (i.e. five-yearly). The practical effect of the five-yearly option is, I think, to discourage Maori from switching rolls. There may be a constitutional rationale for the restriction, but as the Electoral Commission notes one of the main concerns among Maori is that they cannot switch rolls at or between elections. The Commission recommended that Maori should have option of switching rolls between elections. The compromise option appears to be limiting enrolment several months before or after elections rather than anytime between.
The Maori seats don’t lend Maori more electoral power than non-Maori. Maori roll voters can only vote in one electorate and cast one party vote. The Maori seats do, however, ensure that kaupapa Maori issues will not be – or at the least don’t have to be – subsumed into the body politic.*** That's something we have to preserve. Now enrol.
Post script: for a good backgrounder on the Maori seats have a look at this research paper - The Origins of the Maori Seats - by the Parliamentary Library.
*See the Waitangi Tribunal report linked to above.
**For an accessible discussion citing those facts see this piece at Te Ara.
***That should probably read “subsumed into mainstream political discourse”. However, I like the words body politic and the metaphor it represents.