When New Zealand held its first general election in 1853, there were no political parties. Rather, all candidates stood as independents.
In order to vote at that time you had to be male and either hold individual title to land, or lease or rent lands of a certain value. Few Māori met those requirements, and no Māori were elected.
In 1867 four new electorates were created specifically for Māori, who would only be able to vote in these electorates. Likewise, Māori candidates could stand only in Māori electorates, unless they had one non-Māori parent and then they could stand in either a Māori or a general electorate.
There were several reasons behind the creation of these electorates:
Creating the Māori electorates was originally seen as a temporary measure. Officials expected that once all Māori land was in individual title, Māori would vote in general seats and there would be no further need for Māori seats. Instead, the seats remain a unique feature of the New Zealand electoral system in the 21st century.
When the four Māori parliamentary seats were created in 1867, Ngāpuhi prophet Āperahama Taonui protested, ‘What are these four to do among so many Pakehas; where will their voices be as compared with the Pakeha voices?’1 Along with other Ngāpuhi leaders he believed candidates should be appointed through tribal consultation. He was himself selected by numerous chiefs as the best candidate for the Northern Māori seat. However, the European ballot system was used instead and Frederick Nene Russell, the son of a European shipbuilder and a Māori woman of mana, was nominated and elected unopposed. The chiefs refused to participate in the vote.
In 1868 Frederick Nene Russell became the MP for Northern Māori and Mete Kīngi Te Rangi Paetahi (Ngā Poutama and Ngāti Tumango) the MP for Western Māori. Both men were elected unopposed. In Eastern Māori, Tāreha Te Moananui (Ngāti Kahungunu) won by a single vote. Southern Māori saw a three-way contest, won by John Patterson.
The first Māori MPs had to deal with serious language barriers. Few parliamentary bills, papers or documents were translated into te reo Māori and few Pākehā MPs could understand parliamentary speeches given in Māori without the aid of an interpreter. From 1881 to 1906 speeches in Māori were printed in Nga Korero Paramete (a Māori version of Hansard) but all other parliamentary business was in English.
In subsequent elections, the Northern Māori electorate was won by Wiremu Kātene, Hōri Karaka Tawhiti, Īhaka Hakuene and Hirini Taiwhanga. Eastern Māori was represented by Karaitiana Takamoana and Hēnare Tomoana between 1871 and 1883. Wiremu Parata, Hoani Nahe, Wiremu Te Wheoro and Te Puke Te Ao represented Western Māori between 1871 and 1884. Meanwhile, following Patterson in Southern Māori were Hōri Kerei Taiaroa, Īhāia Tainui and, from 1885, Tame Parata of Ngāi Tahu.
From the late 19th century young graduates of Te Aute College in Hawke's Bay formed a loose association called the Young Māori Party. Te Rangi Hīroa (also known as Peter Buck), Māui Pōmare and Apirana Ngata were Young Māori Party members who went on to become MPs dedicated to improving the social and economic position of Māori. Each pursued his political goals by aligning himself with one of the major political parties, and they were characterised by their ability to work in both the Pākehā and Māori worlds.
In the 1890s New Zealand’s first organised political party was formed – the Liberal Party. Its reforming government attracted support from a number of Māori MPs.
The conservative Reform Party, which formally came into being in 1909, appealed to both the farming community and the growing urban middle class.
James Carroll (Ngāti Kahungunu) was elected in Eastern Māori in 1887 and became an early supporter of the Liberal Party. In 1892 he became the first Māori Cabinet minister.
When the Liberal Party promoted the sale of Māori land to settlers, this threatened to weaken Carroll’s Eastern Māori support. However, with an Irish father and Ngāti Kahungunu mother he was eligible to stand in either a Māori or general electorate.
In 1893 he stood in and won Waiapu, becoming the first Māori to win a general seat. In 1908 he was elected MP for Gisborne and in 1910 and 1911 he served briefly as Acting Prime Minister.
Wī Pere (Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki, Rongowhakaata) entered Parliament for Eastern Māori in 1884 but was defeated by James Carroll in 1887 and 1889. He was a strong supporter of the Kotahitanga movement which opposed both the sale and lease of Māori lands. In 1893, Wī Pere returned to Parliament for Eastern Māori. He was appointed to the Legislative Council from 1907 to 1912.
Hōne Heke Ngāpua (Ngāpuhi) was elected to Parliament in 1893 and represented the people of Northern Māori almost continuously until his death in 1909. He aligned himself with the Liberal Party but sought recognition of the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi through a partnership between Māori and the Crown.
Liberal Party supporter Apirana Ngata (Ngāti Porou) represented Eastern Māori from 1905 until 1943, and held the office of native minister from 1928 to 1934. His knowledge of the Pākehā world and his professional skills assisted his efforts to help his people develop and farm their land. He also encouraged the preservation of Māori culture and identity.
Reform Party supporter Taurekareka Hēnare (Ngāti Hine, Ngāpuhi) was the Northern Māori representative from 1914 until his 1938 defeat by Paraire Paikea. In 1993 his great-grandson Tau Hēnare won the Northern Māori seat for the newly formed New Zealand First Party. From 2005 to 2014 Tau Henare was a list MP for the National Party.
Māui Pōmare (Ngāti Mutunga, Ngāti Toa), who was aligned with the Reform Party, became minister for the Cook Islands in 1916 and minister of health in 1923. After Pōmare’s death Te Tāite Te Tomo (Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāti Raukawa) was voted in as MP for Western Māori in a by-election.
The Liberal government set up the 1908 Native Land Commission in response to Māori grievances relating to land loss, but the Reform government offered the first reparation package to Māori. Te Arawa was offered financial compensation in return for ownership and use of Rotorua lakes. Tūwharetoa was later offered compensation for fishing rights in Lake Taupō and its waterways.
Reform governments set up commissions of inquiry to investigate Ngāi Tahu, Whakatōhea, Taranaki and Tainui-Waikato grievances concerning unjust, illegal or excessive land confiscations with the support of both Liberal and Reform Party Māori MPs. This cross-party cooperation continued after United (as the Liberal Party became) and Reform formed a coalition government in 1931
The 20th century saw the emergence of several new Māori political parties. However, it was not until 1967 that the National government changed the law to allow Māori to stand in European electorates, and only in 1975 did Māori gain the choice to enrol either on the Māori or the general electoral roll.
Rātana began as a pan-Māori religious movement led by the charismatic prophet Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana. The movement soon became deeply involved in politics, and a fundamental kaupapa (foundational principle or idea) was ratification of the Treaty of Waitangi. Driven by the increasing poverty and landlessness of Māori, it became the first political group to transcend tribal loyalties and mobilise Māori on a national basis. Rātana members held the Southern Māori seat from 1932, Western Māori from 1935 and Northern Māori from 1938.
In 1936 Rātana formed an alliance with the Labour Party, and Rātana members began to stand for Parliament under the Labour banner.
The first Labour government provided social welfare benefits to Māori on the same basis as non- Māori. The Rātana movement took credit for this and secured the Māori vote for Labour until 1996. During this time important Māori MPs included Eruera Tirikātene, Iriaka Rātana and Whetū Tirikātene-Sullivan (the first two Māori women MPs), and Matiu Rata.
The 1993 election in Northern Māori of Tau Hēnare for New Zealand First was a sign of change in the Māori electorates.
Iriaka Rātana (Te Āti Haunui-ā-Pāpārangi) became the first Māori woman MP in 1949. She won the Western Māori seat following the death of her husband Matiu Rātana, who had succeeded his older brother Haami Tokouru Rātana in 1945. Iriaka Rātana held her seat for 20 years and focused on social welfare issues.
Whetū Tirikātene-Sullivan (Ngāi Tahu), a member of the Labour Party, succeeded her father, Eruera Tirikātene, in the Southern Māori electorate. By the time of her retirement in 1996, she was New Zealand’s longest-serving female MP. During her tenure she held the cabinet portfolios of minister of tourism, associate minister of social welfare and minister for the environment. In 2011 Rino Tirikātene – grandson of Eruera Tirikātene and nephew of Whetū Tirikātene-Sullivan – was elected the Labour MP for Te Tai Tonga, formerly the Southern Māori electorate that his grandfather and aunt had held for 64 years (1932–96).
Matiu Rata (Ngāti Kurī), a member of the Rātana church, a former seaman and a trade-union official, represented Northern Māori from 1963 until 1980. As minister of Māori affairs and of lands in the 1972–75 Labour government he was instrumental in establishing the Waitangi Tribunal. He said Māori grievances over land ‘were sufficiently strongly based that no government worth its salt would be able to ignore them once they were properly investigated.’1
He also played a key role in having 6 February (the day the Treaty of Waitangi was signed) declared a public holiday. Rata resigned from the Labour Party in 1979 and from Parliament in 1980, saying that Labour paid insufficient attention to Māori matters.
As the leader of the newly formed Mana Motuhake party, he contested a by-election in his Northern Māori electorate, but lost to Labour candidate Bruce Gregory and did not succeed in returning to Parliament. He went on to negotiate land and fishing claims on behalf of the Muriwhenua tribes of the Far North, working in this area until his death in 1997.
Mana Motuhake’s name refers to Māori self-determination, and its fundamental purpose was to retain and regain Māori land. At the 1981 general election Mana Motuhake captured over 15% of the Māori vote. It allied with New Labour in 1990 and became part of the Alliance Party in 1993. Eva Rickard then led a breakaway group to form a new Māori political party – the Mana Māori Movement – which contested the 2002 general election.
In 1993 Sandra Lee (later Sandra Lee-Vercoe), the deputy leader of Mana Motuhake and a member of the Alliance coalition, won the Auckland Central electorate. Lee was the first Māori woman to win a general electorate. In 1996 and 1999 she returned to Parliament as the Mana Motuhake list member of the Alliance. In 1999 she was appointed minister of local government and oversaw a number of local government reforms. Lee also served as minister of conservation and associate minister of Māori affairs.
The MMP electoral system was introduced in 1996, and at the same time the number of Māori electorates was increased. With these changes, Māori political parties gained more opportunities for representation.
From 1993 to 2003 the Mana Māori Movement represented Māori interests to the left of Mana Motuhake. It incorporated two other political parties: the Piri Wiri Tua Movement which was based around the Rātana movement, and Te Tawharau, founded on Ringatū Church principles. Other even shorter-lived parties around this time were Mauri Pacific (‘Spirit of the Pacific’), led by ex-New Zealand First MP Tau Hēnare, and Mana Wahine Te Ira Tangata, led by Alamein Kopu, an ex-Alliance Party MP.
National’s first Māori MPs were Rex Austin and Ben Couch, elected in 1975, followed by Winston Peters (Ngātiwai, Ngāpuhi) in 1979. Couch was minister of Māori affairs in 1978. When National regained power in 1990, Peters became minister of Māori affairs. He was later dismissed from cabinet for publicly disagreeing with National Party policy. Peters won the Tauranga electorate in 1993 as leader of his newly formed New Zealand First Party.
The so-called ‘tight five’ (a term referring to rugby forwards) were five Māori members of the New Zealand First party (Tau Hēnare, Tukuroirangi Morgan, Rana Waitai, Tutekawa Wyllie and Tuariki Delamere) who won all the Māori seats in 1996. Two years later their party leader, Winston Peters, was sacked from cabinet and went into opposition. Wyllie remained with New Zealand First and Delamere joined the small Te Tawharau party. Hēnare, Morgan and Waitai formed a new party, Mauri Pacific, together with two former New Zealand First MPs, Jack Elder and Ann Batten. None was successful in the following election and the party disbanded.
Under Winston Peters’s leadership New Zealand First won all five Māori electorates in 1996 and held the balance of power, entering the first MMP coalition government. Peters retained the general electorate of Tauranga and 11 New Zealand Party list MPs entered Parliament. After the 1999 election New Zealand First decided not to stand candidates in the Māori seats, as it favoured their abolition. In 2008 support for the party fell below the 5% threshold required for minor parties without an electorate seat, but in 2011 Peters and seven other New Zealand First candidates returned to Parliament after the party won 6.6% of the party vote. In 2014 the party's standing improved and it won 8.7% of the party vote and 11 seats. In 2015 Peters won the general electorate of Northland in a by-election, giving his party 12 MPs. In 2017 Peters lost Northland but was returned as a list MP with eight colleagues. The party entered government in a coalition with Labour that was supported by the Greens. In 2020 New Zealand First won just 2.6% of the party vote and no seats.
The sense of grievance felt by Māori over their customary rights to the foreshore and seabed was the catalyst for the first pan-Māori political party to successfully contest the general elections. Co-leaders Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples led the Māori Party to capture four of the Māori electorates in 2005, five in 2008, and three in 2011. After the 2008 and 2011 elections the party signed a confidence and supply agreement with National and in both its leaders became ministers outside cabinet in the National-led government. Similar arrangements were made in 2014 but only co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell became a minister outside cabinet. From 2014 to 2017 he was one of only two Māori Party MPs. Both were defeated in 2017, but in 2020 two Māori Party MPs were elected.
Tariana Turia (Ngāti Apa) first entered Parliament in 1996 on the Labour list. In 2002 she won the Te Tai Hauāuru seat and continued as a Labour MP until May 2004 when she refused to support Labour’s Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004. She resigned from both the party and Parliament and forced a by-election in her electorate. She was re-elected as the Māori Party co-leader. Turia has held ministerial portfolios in both Labour and National-led coalition governments. She retired from Parliament at the 2014 election.
Pita Sharples (Ngāti Kahungunu) became an MP after winning the Tāmaki Makaurau electorate for the Māori Party in 2005. In 2010, as minister of Māori affairs, he signed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on behalf of New Zealand. He stepped down as co-leader of the Māori Party in 2013 and retired from Parliament at the 2014 election.
Hone Harawira (Ngāpuhi) led the hīkoi (protest march) opposing the Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004 which launched the Māori Party. In 2005 he was elected as the party’s MP in the Te Tai Tokerau electorate. He was re-elected in 2008 but resigned from the Māori party in February 2011 (after being suspended from its parliamentary caucus) following his criticism of the party and its relationship with National. After resigning from Parliament, he was re-elected in a by-election in June 2011 as the leader of the Mana Party.
Mana, a left-wing party committed to improving the social wellbeing of Māori as part of a socialist programme, also attracted a number of non-Māori activists. At the 2011 election Harawira retained his seat but remained the Mana Party’s sole MP. In the lead-up to the 2014 election Mana entered into an alliance with the Internet Party, but Harawira lost his seat to Labour's Kelvin Davis and Mana was out of Parliament. The alliance was dissolved.
Cody, J. F. Man of two worlds: a biography of Sir Maui Pomare. Wellington: A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1953.
Cox, Lindsay. Kotahitanga: the search for Maori political unity. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Newman, Keith. Ratana revisited: an unfinished legacy. Auckland: Raupo Publishing, 2006.
Walker, Ranginui. He tipua: the life and times of Sir Āpirana Ngata. Auckland: Viking Press/Penguin Books, 2001.