The danger of losing Māori representation

If the current rate of Māori transferring to the general roll continues, by 2024 there will be fewer Māori on the Māori electoral roll than on the general roll, according to research by Associate Professor Maria Bargh.

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While the general election is putting the spotlight on the Māori electorate seats, Associate Professor Bargh (Te Arawa, Ngāti Awa) from Te Kawa a Māui is passionate about Māori engagement with voting at every level, from national, to city councils, to hapū and iwi level.

“Part of my motivation for researching voting by Māori is that there are projects that have a deficit approach, premised on the idea Māori don’t vote, and I wanted to counter-balance that. The deficit approach exposes stereotypes about Māori that are really negative and unhelpful,” she says.

One of the key ways in which the Māori voice has been explicitly recognised in national elections is through Māori electorates which provide Māori representation in Parliament. But there are serious issues with the way in which Māori are able to choose between the Māori electoral roll and the general roll, because Māori can only choose once every five years which roll they want to be on, in a process called the Māori Electoral Option which runs for three months, says Associate Professor Bargh.

“Since 2011, the Electoral Commission has recommended changes to the Māori Electoral Option. They have said that it's not at the right time, and they are in favour of Māori being able to choose once per electoral cycle whenever they feel like it. There is widespread frustration and confusion about when you can swap rolls among both Māori stakeholders and the public.”

In an upcoming article in MAI journal, Associate Professor Bargh presents the results of a survey she conducted with Māori who were on the general roll.

“Many of my respondents noted there wasn’t enough choice in the Māori electorates, something that comes from many major political parties choosing not to stand candidates in them. They also complained that there isn’t as much information in the media about Māori electorate candidates in comparison to those in the general electorates—they don’t get as much airtime.”

Interestingly, she found Māori voters on the general roll still strongly supported the Māori seats, “but they don’t seem to realise that if everybody moves off there will be no Māori-focused MPs”.

As well as teaching Māori politics at the University, Associate Professor Bargh is involved in political education within iwi and hapū, and regularly provides commentary on the voting rights of mana whenua across a broad range of politics, particularly local government.

Each regional council in Aotearoa has its own arrangements for involving Māori in decision-making. Waikato, Bay of Plenty, and Wairoa District councils have Māori seats, the Auckland Council has an Independent Māori Statutory Board, and Hamilton City Council has iwi representatives on its committees.

“In most places though, councils have some sort of position or advisory board for the council which is unpaid, without voting rights. So iwi participate and try to give their view but it’s often ignored. There are requirements under the Local Government Act and the Resource Management Act (RMA) for councils to involve Māori in decision making, but most are falling short in achieving that.

“For many years, councils have had a particular demographic of people that dominate them, and their understanding of New Zealand history and what their Treaty commitments might involve is not what a true Treaty partnership is. We saw this attitude in the Wellington City Council when it was suggested tangata whenua needed more voting rights, and a councillor turned his back and looked out the window.”

As part of her involvement in the Biological Heritage National Science Challenge, for which Te Kawa a Māui has received $2.95 million in funding, Associate Professor Bargh is leading research into how governance and policy needs to change for better environmental outcomes, and to support better Treaty partnerships.

“There are several levels where change is needed. The top one is constitutional change to ensure that Māori rights and interests are protected on a large scale. Next is the Local Government Act and the RMA. A recent review by Randerson et. al. has suggested the RMA be repealed and two new acts put in place, with strong clauses ensuring Māori are involved equally in decision-making.”

She says it is becoming even more important that the issue of Māori representation is brought to the forefront of people’s minds, as communities grapple together with the effects of climate change. She herself is on the Greater Wellington Regional Council climate committee.

“A lot of iwi are finally in a post-settlement environment, and moving on to dealing with other matters including resource management issues, trying to promote the biodiversity in their iwi, and mitigate against climate change, as well as pursuing sustainable development options,” says Associate Professor Bargh.

“It is time for government to work jointly with iwi organisations and embrace the fact mana whenua are not going anywhere, and work constructively with these communities towards a transition to a low-carbon future. We need to make some difficult decisions, like whether people on the coastline will have to forfeit their homes, who owns the coastline once it is under water, and how to include Māori with sacred sites in the region in decisions on how retreat is managed.

“If communities can make decisions in a ‘tika’ way—one that ensures the process is just and correct and guided by tikanga Māori with respect given to all members views, then it ensures the difficult decisions have a better chance of being accepted and are durable.”