The Maori Seats
Don Brash is surely correct to argue for the ultimate abolition of the Maori seats. Helen Clark is right, too, when she suggests National is making a hash of mounting the case. Her own stance also confuses. The journalists, as usual, can't see beyond the next deadline or headline. The Maori seats will eventually go, just as surely as that other anachronism, New Zealand's link with the monarchy. There'll be ebbs and flows along the way, and a fair bit of nostalgia, but it's only a matter of timing.
The Maori seats were introduced as a temporary measure in 1867 until Maori land rights were placed on the same basis as those of Pakeha. That process turned out more difficult than anticipated. The Maori seats remained. No one expected them to last for ever, so the number stayed at four for a century. As they urbanised from the 1940s, Maori themselves opted more and more for the general roll, figuring they could exercise greater influence in the general electorates. Maori electorate rolls dwindled, and in my youth Eruera Tirakatene won his Southern Maori seat in 1951 with fewer than 1,000 votes. Separate seats seemed on the way out. It wasn't just that Maori thought their interests best served by voting in the general seats; few could now pass the stringent test required to be on the Maori roll. Full blooded Maori no longer existed, and even half-castes were rapidly dwindling.
Enter the Maori Affairs Amendment Act 1974 that relaxed the definition of a Maori so as to encompass anyone of Maori descent, no test required. This, coupled with a resurgence of international interest in indigenous people, much loose talk about the Treaty of Waitangi, and increasing public funding of ethnic difference resulted in a Maori cultural surge. Maori seats were tangible evidence of a separate identity, no matter their original purpose. Before long, some wanted more Maori seats. Large expenditure on campaigns by both National and Labour pushed up Maori enrolment to a point where 8 separate seats look like a possibility for 2008.
In my view, separateness will eventually be regarded by Maori as a curse rather than a blessing. The reason lies mostly in that 1974 legislation. Hone Harawira likes boasting about the "browning" of New Zealand society, but what most New Zealanders are noticing is the "whitening" of Maori. At what point, and on what basis does someone who calls him/herself a Maori, but is really almost entirely European or Pacific Island in origin, cease to possess any credible claim to be a Maori? Or to benefit from separate Maori funding? Assertion won't be enough. When Maori and European eventually look alike, the gap between us collectively and the other cultures that are becoming powerful engines in our globalising economy will be more stark. There is no separate representation for them, nor should there be. We will be forced to concede that Maori rolls are anachronistic. Maori culture will survive. But that doesn't require separate seats.
In the meantime, the Maori Party, a time-limited beneficiary of continuing separateness, might be able to perform a useful function. Since 1867, with only a few notable exceptions like Sir Peter Buck and Sir Apirana Ngata, Maori have lacked leadership at the national level. Tribal rivalries endured, while the only agreed policy has been to blame Pakeha for the things that ail Maori. It could be that the Maori Party might develop the leadership necessary to solve those mostly internal problems. As Peter Sharples and Tariana Turia wobble disconcertingly between wanting to rid Maori of welfare dependence, then plead for short-term top-ups for beneficiaries, some new purpose might emerge? Ngata always said that Maori would thrive only if they extracted the best from Pakeha ways. Following outmoded dogma or Stone Age cultural practices, let alone the worst Pakeha examples, can't assist.
So ending the Maori seats is about timing and progress. Helen Clark understands this as well as Don Brash and Gerry Brownlee. Their differences relate to process. Both major parties have little to gain from separate rolls. Commonsense will eventually push most Maori advocates of separateness towards the mainstream, especially as the Waitangi grievance industry splutters to a close, and separate financial privileges are phased out. Exaggerated estimates of Treaty entitlements have had their day. Article 3 that spoke of Maori having the same rights and privileges as others will eventually be fulfilled for the benefit of all races.