Maori seats and democratic colonies

New Zealand politicians like United Future‘s Peter Dunne and ACT‘s Rodney Hide and media commentators  Chris Trotter and Bob Jones have described the Maori electorates as undemocratic this election. 

The argument has been that because only Maori can vote in the Maori electorates, they are racist.  And because the Maori Party may well claim all 7 Maori seats in parliament without reaching the 5% party threshold, an overhang will be created.  For those unfamiliar with New Zealand’s mixed member proportional system, check this out.

No Right Turn points out any seat can lead to overhang – if Peter Dunne wins Ohariu-Belmont, United Future will be back in parliament even though they will struggle to make the 5% threshold – and argues this is only described as ‘undemocratic’ in reference to the Maori seats.

But both he and Tumeke agree there are reasons – if not race-based ones – to eliminate overhangs.  And Deborah at In A Strange Land notes how undemocratic the Maori seats were originally, when they were a mechanism to ensure white (landed, male) immigrants held disproportionate political power.  She concludes that Maori seats are just one way of organising electorates – no more undemocratic than designing electorates based on geographical place.

I want to look at this in a slightly different way, and ask how well democracy has served indigenous peoples in the English colonised settler societies of New Zealand, Australia, the USA and Canada.

Representative democracy is all about being able to vote for someone who will represent your interests, and many assume these days that parliaments need to represent the demographics of the people they serve.  This is not yet the case anywhere in terms of gender or race – white men still dominate in houses of representatives in New Zealand, Australia, the United States and Canada, let alone the colonial mother England.

Maori have been in parliament in Aotearoa/New Zealand since the Maori seats were established in 1869, but, with the exception of Sir James Carroll in 1893, have only been allowed to stand in general electorates since 1967. For most of our history, the level of Maori MPs has not reflected the proportion of Maori in the general population. 

I make it 85 Maori MPs since 1869, and while not every parliament has been representative of numbers of Maori in New Zealand, more recently Maori political representation has pretty closely matched census population.

The picture is different in Australia.  Their electoral websites do not record statistics about numbers of indigenous representatives, but list them by name because there have been so few.

Australia has a Senate with 76 members and a House of Representatives with 150, and indigenous Australians were 2.6% of the population in the 2006 census.  Since 1901, just 2 Aboriginal Australians have served in the Senate out of more than 530 – at the moment, there are none.

The House of Representatives from 1901 to 2005 has just fifteen Aboriginal members in total.

Puts Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s apology to indigenous Australians in context.

The United States then, home of the greatest democracy stretching back to 1789?  Congress includes the Senate with 100 members and the House of Representatives with 440.  US Census 2000 recorded 1.5% of the population were Native American.

Since 1789, just six Native Americans have been elected to the Senate out of 1897 Senators.  Tom Cole is the only current Native American in Congress.  As with Australia, official electoral sites carry lists of Native American representatives rather than statistics.

In the House of Representatives, there have been 8 former members recorded as Native American – out of 8,866.  Native American representation is the lowest of all ethnic minority groups in the US.

Canada has the highest proportion of indigenous population after Aotearoa/New Zealand, with 3.8% in the 2006 census.  Parliament consist of members elected to the House of Commons, currently with 308 members, and 105 appointees to the Senate.

The Canadian parliament website also lists Native Canadian members in the House of Commons – just 28 since the Province of Canada was formed in 1841.  Native Canadian senators number 14 in total, with the first Native Canadian appointed in 1888.

In the current parliament, 5 members of the House of Commons and 6 in the Senate are Native Canadian.

So what does that all end up looking like?  Given the riders of fallible information sources, different countries recording different things, and issues around indigenous people identifying and recording which I have not dealt with, figures for the most recent elections show:

And absolute numbers of indigenous political representatives recorded over the times below – bearing in mind how much smaller New Zealand’s parliament is compared to the other three jurisdictions:

Winner hands down – and the only country of these to use indigenous seats – is Aotearoa/New Zealand.

Of course indigenous representation is effected by other issues, such as proportion of the population and desires by indigenous people to engage with parliamentary models rather than customary ones.

But we can be pretty sure, given the stark differences between us and other English settler colonies in both levels of indigenous representation and absolute numbers of indigenous representatives, that the Maori seats have had a significant impact in mitigating the impact of democracy on Maori in New Zealand.  We are the only English colony which has not whitened our indigenous people completely out of our political equation.

Which should, in any fair person’s mind regardless of race, be a pretty good indicator of how critical these seats have been to representative democracy, well, representing us.  All of us.

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