One newspaper last week placed a report of Bill English's speech calling for the abolition of Maori seats next to a story about John Tamihere and the creation of a National Urban Maori Authority. The two issues are connected. The Urban Maori Authority's rationale stems largely from the fact that the tribal concerns that formerly underpinned rural living and the Maori seats aren't relevant today. Created in 1867 when tribally-organised, rurally-based Maori still formed a large portion of the total population, the seats had tribal boundaries. They were intended as a short-term guarantee of Maori representation in a House elected on a property franchise. Longer term, through individualistion of land title, Maori were meant to obtain the property qualification to vote. Like many temporary expedients, the Maori seats became permanent. Over the following century the rules governing them were standardised with the European seats, although the number of Maori seats remained at four. However, rapid intermarriage gave Maori another opportunity for representation. If half-caste or less, Maori could choose to vote in the European seats. Some part Maori were also elected that way. Gisborne's Sir James Carroll, who acted as Prime Minister in 1909 and 1911, was an early example. Urban residence, especially after World War Two, enticed a majority of Maori on to "General" rolls as they became known. A significant number of my supporters were Maori. I often handled cases from Northern Maori voters too, because the large size of their electorate gave it no centre, and perforce they seldom saw their own MP.
By the time MMP came along a clear majority of Maori seemed to have given up on separate representation. Enrolment and voting in Maori seats were low by General electorate standards. For practical reasons, Maori now related to the communities where they lived, rather than to the amorphous Maori electorates. Only occasionally were Maori involved with their ancestral locations that were usually far removed from both their electorates and homes. In my West Auckland seat of Te Atatu there were Ngati Whatua and Ngapuhi, and prominent representatives from Whanau a Apanui, Tuwharetoa, Ngati Kahungunu, even southern Ngai Tahu. Some were on the Northern Maori roll, more on mine. Despite this identity confusion, most were proud of their Maori connections. Many associated with the Waipareira Trust, and the local marae. Like Carroll in earlier days, my Maori activists thought it more astute to get on the General roll where they believed they could exercise greater political clout. Most politicians expected the Maori seats to vanish. Today, with 86% of Maori living away from their iwi bases, electorates with tribal boundaries and distant history are hard to defend. Moreover, racially-based voting has a whiff about it.
Several modern developments gave the Maori seats a temporary reprieve. The first was the 1975 rule that let anyone with Maori blood enrol in a Maori seat. The second was separateness promoted by a few radicals. Then came the Lange Labour Government's promotion of iwi identification. Much discussed at the time, some criticised it as a reversion to the past. A few compared it with Apartheid's Bantustan policy where blacks had to associate with their homelands. The Waitangi Tribunal soon heard land claims from iwi and hapu. Few came from modern urban groupings. Settlement moneys at the end of the grievance process attracted some to join the Maori rolls, too. When Parliament produced a formula for increasing the number of Maori seats, and the Crown funded campaigns to enlist Maori on their rolls, incentives encouraged separateness, not togetherness, the reverse of intentions in 1867.
And yet, despite this effort at the last election, barely half of eligible Maori chose to get on the Maori rolls. Given a free decision, more will relate to their current homes and jobs. We all have a bigger stake in today than yesteryear. Besides, with MMP, we now have 18 Maori in Parliament, only 7 of them holding Maori seats. Separate representation isn't necessary for Maori representation. The Waitangi Tribunal's Waipareira finding cautiously endorsed the modern reality of urban life and sought to empower it. To be really effective, that requires local parliamentary representation as well. John Tamihere should not be surprised if his electors revert to the General roll. Incentives for ancestral tribal identification will recede over time. So, too, the arguments for the amorphously-defined Maori seats. Tamihere's Urban Maori Authority represents the modern reality. If Bill English is around politics long enough, he'll probably get his way.