The Māori parliamentary seats were thought to improve political power-sharing between Māori and Europeans. However, Māori remained an outvoted minority within the political system. In 1867 the European population of 250,000 had 72 seats – about one for every 3,500 people. The Māori population of around 50,000 had four seats – one for every 12,500 people. To achieve the same level of representation as Europeans, Māori would have required 14–16 Māori seats. The number of Māori electorates remained fixed at four for 129 years.
The Māori electorates suffered from official neglect. The secret ballot was introduced for European seats in 1870, but until 1938 Māori seats were decided by a show of hands, and later by declaration to a returning officer. Electoral rolls for the four Māori seats were not introduced until 1948. Registering to vote was made compulsory in 1924 for general electorates, but not until 1956 for Māori seats. Until 1951 elections for Māori seats took place separately from general elections, on different days and under different rules. Less organisational effort and fewer resources were given to Māori elections. Māori MPs pressed for an increase in the number of seats, as the size of Māori electorates made it difficult for them to serve their constituents.
Law changes in 1893 and 1896 almost totally separated the Māori and European electoral systems. Until 1975 only ‘half-castes’ (persons with one Māori and one European parent) could opt to vote in either a Māori seat or a general seat.
From 1896 Māori (except half-castes) were not allowed to stand as candidates in general seats. The law was changed in 1967, but it was not until 1975 that Māori were successful in general electorates.
New Māori MPs
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries better-educated, younger Māori entered Parliament, including James Carroll, Hirini Taiwhanga, Hōne Heke Ngapua, Apirana Ngata, Te Rangihīroa (Peter Buck) and Māui Pōmare. They could hold their own with European MPs, and used the parliamentary system with great skill. Carroll won the Eastern Māori seat in 1887, and became the first Māori elected to a general seat when he won in Waiapu (Gisborne) in 1893. No other Māori would be elected to a general seat until 1975, when National candidates Rex Austin and Ben Couch won in Awarua and Wairarapa respectively. The first Māori woman to win a general seat was Sandra Lee, who took Auckland Central in 1993.
Māori electoral option
In 1975 the Labour government introduced the Māori electoral option after each five-yearly census, allowing Māori to choose whether they enrolled in general or Māori seats. The number on the Māori roll would determine whether the number of Māori seats increased or decreased, using the same population basis as for general seats. However, in 1976 a new National government fixed the number of Māori seats at four. This caused a loss of interest in the Māori seats by Māori voters, and a gradual shift from the Māori to the general roll at each option until 1991.
Impact of MMP
The 1986 Royal Commission on the Electoral System acknowledged the importance of the Māori seats to Māori. However, it found that the Māori seats had not helped Māori and that Māori would achieve better representation through a proportional voting system. The commission recommended the abolition of the Māori seats if a proportional system was adopted. Māori responded that the way the Māori seats had been administered limited their effectiveness, not the seats themselves. The Electoral Act 1993 created a 120-seat MMP (mixed-member proportional representation) Parliament that included Māori seats.
Revised electoral option
In 1993 a revised Māori electoral option meant that the number of Māori seats was again based on the numbers registering on the Māori roll. A fifth Māori seat was added in time for the first MMP election in 1996. In the Māori electoral options in 1997, 2001 and 2006, more than twice as many existing Māori voters shifted from the general roll to the Māori roll (43,000) as went the other way (18,000). This surge in Māori support for the seats added a sixth Māori seat in 1999 and a seventh in 2002. Overall, the proportion of all Māori on the Māori roll increased from 40% to 58% between 1991 (the last pre-MMP option) and 2006. In the 2013 Māori electoral option, the percentage of Māori voters choosing the Māori roll fell to 55%.
Increased Māori representation
With the introduction of MMP in 1996, the proportion of Māori in Parliament increased from 8% to 14%, a total of 17 MPs. In 2011, 22 MPs (18%) were Māori; the number increased to 28 (23%) in 2017, but fell to 25 (21%) in 2020, when no New Zealand First MPs were re-elected.