10 October 2017 marked 150 years since the introduction of the Māori Representation Act 1867.
The Act was considered a radical document at the time as, prior to its introduction, European politicians controlled Parliament and the rights of the indigenous people were not always considered in the government’s law-making process.
Upon its passage, the Act had two major impacts: Four Māori electorates were established, three in the North Island and one in the South Island, and all Māori men aged from 21 years were given the right to vote; previously only men aged 21 and over who owned property under individual property ownership laws had this right.
Before the Māori Representation Act 1867, laws surrounding voting rights were meant to be colour-blind, but they are widely seen as having favoured European settlers.
Voting law was established based on the traditional European laws of individual property ownership titles; if an individual owned property, they could vote. Māori owned property communally, no individual retained full ownership, so many didn’t participate in elections.
The Act was passed during a period of warfare between the government and several North Island Māori tribes, and was seen as a way to reduce conflict between the races in future.
The inclusion of Māori representation in New Zealand’s Parliament was as a huge step in brokering piece and assimilation of Māori into ‘mainstream’ politics.
Though initial Māori voter turn-out was low, interest slowly grew from the 1870s with the inclusion of the first Māori MPs.
Although these MPs came from tribes that had either fought alongside the Crown or had remained neutral in the wars, it was still seen as a step forward.
Representation in government
The fairness of the electoral system for Māori has been the subject of many a debate with seat numbers being a fiery topic. The number of Māori seats has increased from just four to seven since the Māori Representation Act was passed in 1867.
As of writing, depending on the outcome of the government negotiations and coalition arrangements, the Māori seats may face a referendum on whether they are kept.