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  • Writer's pictureAidan Edgecomb

EXPLAINED: New Zealand elections and Māori seats

Comparisons drawn to the proposed Voice to Parliament as both campaigns draw to a close.

New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins is looking a third straight term in office for the Labour Party, who are trailing in the polls compared to Christopher Luxon-led National.

Due to New Zealand's mixed-member proportional (MMP) electoral system, minor parties like the Greens, ACT, and New Zealand First will play a major role in the result.

From 1913 to 1993, New Zealand used a first past the post (FPTP) system, where the candidate in each electorate who gained the most votes would win the seat. This was heavily scrutinised particularly after 1981 and 1984 elections, where Labour won the popular vote, but lost the elections due to seat breakdowns.

A Royal Commission was swiftly held into the issue, with it recommending that New Zealand adopt a MMP system. A two-question indicative referendum was held in 1992 to ask whether voters wanted to change the electoral system, and then secondly which system they wanted it to be changed to. Although there was only a 55% turnout, 85% voted yes to the first question, with 70% then indicating support for MMP.

Following this, a binding referendum was called in conjunction with the 1993 federal election, to transition to a MMP system as per the Electoral Act 1993 (NZ). This had a very high 85% turnout, with the Yes vote winning with 53.86% of the vote. This change was implemented for the 1996 election.

The New Zealand parliament is made up of 120 seats – 65 of those belonging to local electorates, 48 party list seats, and 7 Māori seats. The electorate seats are won through FPTP, with the candidate winning the majority of votes, winning the seat. Voters also choose one singular party in an overall nation-wide party vote. Any party that wins over 5% of this vote is entitled to list seats in the House of Representatives, based on their share of the vote.

Furthermore, any party winning at least one electorate can gain party list seats based on the percentage of their party vote, even if it is below 5%. These seats are allocated to any party that fulfils one of these criteria, based on the proportion of list votes they receive.

This system allows the flourishing of minor parties, as a party vote can contribute to the overall seat tally, even if there’s not enough concentrated support to win electorate seats. This success led to a ‘cooperation agreement’ between Labour and the Greens after the 2020 election. Though Labour’s landslide allowed them to govern individually, the Greens were allocated two outer-cabinet ministerial positions.

Whilst a Labour victory looks unlikely, they would almost certainly need support from the Greens to form government, and potentially even Te Pāti Māori (the Māori Party). On the other hand, right-wing libertarian party, ACT, currently holds 10 seats and are extremely likely to enter into a coalition government with National.

Another possible scenario is a National collaboration with New Zealand First. They lost all of their 9 seats at the 2020 election, but polling suggests they’re set to gain most of those back. Despite criticism from Chris Hipkins regarding an accused racist statement made by a New Zealand First candidate, a working agreement with National is possible. This was confirmed by Christopher Luxon, who stated he’d be willing to “make the call” to work with New Zealand First to “[stop Labour], Te Pāti Māori and the Greens coming to power.”

Another distinctive feature of New Zealand’s electoral system is the use of specific Māori seats. As mentioned previously, 7 of these electorates exist and are made up of members elected by voters of Māori descent, though the candidates don’t need to be Māori themselves.

Māori electorates were implemented over 150 years ago by the Māori Representation Act 1867. Eligible voters can choose to join the Māori roll to vote for a representative in a Māori seat or join the general roll to vote in standard electorates. The Electoral (Māori Electoral Option) Legislation Act 2022 came into effect this year for the upcoming election, and allowed Māori voters to switch between the two rolls anytime before the three months leading up to an election date.

The Māori seats are often compared to the proposed Voice to Parliament, as both aim to give representation for their country's Indigenous people to the government. Members in Māori electorates retain full parliamentary voting rights and provide valuable parliamentary numbers for a party. This is particularly relevant in the coming election, as Labour currently holds 6/7 Māori electorates, and retaining these may be crucial to hold onto government.

In contrast, representatives for the proposed Voice will only be able to advise on issues impacting Indigenous Australians, and will have no voting rights in Parliament, nor will they act as a third chamber. Similar to the Waitangi Tribunal explored here, the government would not have to act on any advice provided.

The makeup of the Voice will also not be decided until after the referendum (if successful). This means that whether representatives will be chosen by the government, regional bodies, or through democratic election from Indigenous people, remains to be seen.

New Zealand’s election looks to be fascinating, with a complex coalition or minority government likely. At the same time, the Voice referendum result will have major ramifications on Australia’s Indigenous affairs policy in the short, and long term.

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