A poll conducted by the Waikato District Council got a clear message, from 80.06 percent of those who voted, that the district was not ready for separate Maori seats. Of the 12,672 (30.16 per cent) electors who voted, 10,111 were against the idea, while 2517 favoured it. Results were announced on April 5.
The Waikato council conducted the poll after agreeing to establish Maori seats for next year’s local body elections in response to a push from Human Rights Commissioner Joris De Bres. The Nelson City Council also agreed to set up separate Maori constituencies, but a poll there by the Nelson Mail showed 78 percent of those who responded said no to a Maori Board.
A week earlier, Consumerlink, a private research department of Colmar Brunton, questioned 1031 people throughout New Zealand asking:
Do you believe that Maori seats and the Maori electoral roll should be abolished - as recommended by the 1986 Royal Commission on the Electoral System?
Do you believe that separate Maori representation on local bodies should be abolished?
Since historic Treaty of Waitangi claims can no longer be lodged, do you believe it is time to abolish the Waitangi Tribunal?
The responses showed that 70.46 percent (73.29 percent non-Maori) of those who responded yes or no believe that separate Maori representation on local bodies should be abolished, while 69.36 percent (72.41 percent non-Maori) thought that Maori seats and the Maori electoral roll should be abolished, and 67.81 percent (70.08 percent non-Maori) were in favour of abolishing the Waitangi Tribunal.
The questions were included in the Colmar Brunton online "Omnijet" poll, so respondents would have been typically browsing through their email when the survey offer appeared. A check back at news reports shows that at the time of the poll five treaty settlements were passed into law. The row over the Takapuna Navy base being used as in a treaty settlement was going on. Relativity clause top-ups for Waikator-Tainui and Ngai Tahu was reported at the beginning of the poll period.
The polls offer a sample of public opinion where data is difficult to find. The polls are relevant since the Maori electoral option, Maori electoral participation, and Maori seats in parliament and local government form part of the terms of reference of a current constitutional review into the rules that determine who exercises power and how. The review is a Maori Party initiative and is a part of the accord between that party and the National Party.
Responses to the Colmar Brunton survey questions generally split along the Maori-non Maori line, with 61.51 percent of non-Maori opposing separate Maori MPs and 60 percent of Maori supporting them, 63.7 percent of non-Maori opposing separate Maori seats on local bodies and 57.33 percent of Maori supporting them. Only 49.33 percent of Maori supported abolishing the Waitangi Tribunal now that historic claims can no longer be lodged, while 55.13 percent of non-Maori wanted to abolish the tribunal.
The ratio of Maori to non-Maori responses was 75 to 956 on the first question, and all responses were mostly from Auckland (423 out of 1031 responses).
Clear Maori support for the status quo is not at first sight surprising. But when viewed in light of recommendations of the 1986 Royal Commission on the Electoral System, which showed that the separate vote had significantly disadvantaged Maori interests, the attitude shown in the poll result could be self-defeating. The 1986 Royal Commission noted a number of disadvantages for Maori in separate representation, arguing that they marginalised Maori concerns. The commission argued that under MMP, all parties would have to pay attention to Maori voters.
Following a referendum, parliament drafted an Electoral Reform Bill, incorporating the abolition of the Maori electorates. Both the National Party and Labour's leading reformer Geoffrey Palmer supported abolition, but Maori strongly opposed it. Eventually, the provision did not become law.
National announced in 2008 it would abolish the electorates when all historic Treaty settlements have been resolved, which it aims to complete by 2014. Prime Minister John Key shifted his position during the 2011 election campaign by saying that under his watch it would be a decision for Maori voters.
The 1986 Royal Commission imagined that MMP would bring more Maori representatives to parliament, and that has happened. In 2011 there were 23 Maori MPs in five political parties out of a 122-member house while in 1986 there were four Maori seats and at least one other Maori MP. Four separate electorates–-three in the North Island and one taking in the South Island and Stewart Island–- were established by the Maori Representation Act 1867 to bring Maori to Parliament. The four Maori electorates were intended as a temporary expedient, but within 10 years they had become a permanent feature of New Zealand’s electoral legislation.
Green MP Denise Roche criticised the Waikato poll, saying not enough resources went into educating voters. "By the council not outlining the pros and cons of the proposed changes, the whole process seems half-hearted," she said. "It doesn't strike me as a very real process and I don't think they will get a real outcome."(1)
Not all Maori support separate Maori representation. Hamilton councillor Margaret Forsyth, who strongly represents Maori in her role, said she did not think Maori should be given special treatment. "All my life I have always played on an even playing field ... I have never felt that I needed to say 'What about me, I'm Maori, I would like some special treatment here.' I have always felt you get the best people for the job with an all-out open process."(2)
Sir Tipene O’Regan, who is co-chair of the current constitutional review panel, said: "The Maori electorates are the most dysfunctional single caucus we have got. Even when we had the balance of power, we did not use it." He said he feared separate Maori seats at a local government level would not work, although he said he was not strictly opposed to the idea as long as it was not deemed necessary under the treaty.(3)
Both the Waikato poll and the Colmar Brunton survey show a large number of “don’t knows” and non-participation. Voter turnout for the Waikato poll was just 30.16 percent, under the nationwide local body election voter turnout in 2010 of 40.11 percent. The Colmar Brunton survey had “don’t knows” ranging from13 percent to 21 percent.
A local body with separate Maori representation is Environment Bay of Plenty. Voter turnout in 2010 for the two candidates for the Mauao constituency was 27 percent, or 2404 votes, 32 percent or 3072 votes for the eight candidates for Okurei, and 41 percent, or 3788 votes for the three candidates for Kohi.
While the data may seem expected or unexpected depending on your beliefs, if the current constitutional review has a major lurch towards separatism, or treatyism, there are always these poll results to measure the recommendations by.
1. Poll clearly renounces Maori seats, 05/04/2012, http://www.stuff.co.nz/waikato-times/news/6698007/Poll-clearly-renounces-Maori-seats
2. Regional council votes in Maori seats but city against, NZ Herald, October 28, 2011, http://www.nzherald.co.nz/politics/news/article.cfm?c_id=280&objectid=10762152
3. O'Regan - Treaty principles stretched too far, http://www.lgnz.co.nz/news/pr1112756727.html