Why did New Zealand adopt Māori electorates? The account of the debate on the encyclopaedia is lacking. What caused New Zealand to adopt Māori electorates, where other settler societies did not adopt indigenous specific electorates?

  • 1
    Which settler countries are you comparing with? The USA, Canada and Australia?
    – Golden Cuy
    Aug 19, 2013 at 20:56
  • @AndrewGrimm I've seen the term used expansively to refer to some South American and African colonies. I've also seen it used narrowly to refer to the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Given the variety of academic uses of the term, I think the question should follow the habit of those who discuss indigenous incorporation into the settler state, or indigenous sovereignty. Aug 19, 2013 at 23:16

2 Answers 2


Why did New Zealand adopt Māori electorates?
(Looking for an answer drawing from credible and/or official sources.)

While the Wikipedia article Māori electorates provides an overview, the source at footnote 4, a research paper, The Origins of the Māori Seats, 31 May 2009, from the New Zealand Parliament (Pāremata Aotearoa), provides a more detailed view.


  • Earlier accounts view the Māori seats as being created in a moral and legislative vacuum: the Māori seats “stumbled into being”; the Māori Representation Act 1867 was a piece of “ad hoc” legislation; the seats “involved no high intentions or moral principles”; they were simply a useful way of rewarding Māori loyalists and placating Māori rebels; they helped to assure critics in Britain that the colonists were looking after Māori interests.

  • More recent accounts provide evidence that the origins of the Māori seats owe somewhat more to a sense of idealism and justice than is often granted. The legislative history – the Native Rights Act 1865, the unsuccessful Māori Electoral Bill of 1865, the Native Commission Act 1865, and the Māori Representation Act of 1867 – are evidence of both a sense of moral obligation to a disenfranchised property-owning people paying substantial taxes, as well as a recognition of the colonists’ constitutional obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi.

The following, consecutive, sections of the research paper seem most appropriate for answering the question. (There is a PDF of the report. These may be found on pages 5 through 11 of that PDF. Some indentation was applied to be consistent with the PDF.)

Estranged from the Political System

To participate in the formal institutions of political power in New Zealand over the period 1852 to the mid-1860s – to gain the franchise – required Māori to individualise their land. When combined with the land acquisition policies of the colonial governments, the bitterness and distrust of European settlers arising out of the loss of land, poverty, and the divided political responsibility for Māori affairs, Māori were effectively estranged from the political system.


Separate Māori institutions

As a consequence of the effective exclusion of Māori from formal political participation during the 1850s and 1860s, Māori began to direct their political energy to the development of their own tribal and supra-tribal organisations. Supported by their understanding of their political rights under the Treaty of Waitangi, as well as those seemingly granted under Section 71 of the NZCA, Māori endeavoured to seek political representation, a degree of political autonomy, or both, over the ensuing decades. However, Māori opinion was divided as to whether this should be done separately from, or in association with, the Europeans.

Māori nationalism – in the form of calls for a Māori King and a Māori parliament – were examples of attempts to create separate Māori political institutions. In 1853 the Christian chief from Ötaki, Matene Te Whiwhi, called for the tribes to unite under the Queen’s government. In 1856, there was a large meeting of Māori at Taupö where an annual Māori parliament was proposed as a way to check the growing influence of the colonists and restore the power of the native chiefs. The meeting also endeavoured to proclaim a Māori King, and called for an end to land sales to the government.


Ultimately, the continued refusal by government to recognise Te Kötahitanga, or the Māori King, led Māori to come back to Māori representation in Parliament as “their last vestige of a lost autonomy.”

The Origins of the Māori Seats

It is within this context – conflict over land sales, estrangement from the political system, and the desire by Māori to enjoy political representation – that the origins of the Māori seats lie. A number of authors set out what might now be regarded as a commonly held view: that the Māori seats stumbled into being; that the Māori Representation Act 1867 was a piece of “ad hoc” legislation; that the seats “involved no high intentions or moral principles”; that they were simply a useful way of rewarding Māori loyalists and placating Māori rebels; or that they helped to assure critics in Britain that the colonists were looking after Māori interests.

Taken individually, and read within the context of their authors’ work, these accounts of the origins of the Māori seats offer valid, if sometimes partial, explanations. Taken collectively, and out of context, these accounts risk creating the impression that the origins of the Māori seats owe more to tokenism than principles; that they were created in a moral and legislative vacuum.

No such vacuum existed. As Claudia Orange notes, embarrassment over censure from abroad is not by itself a satisfactory explanation of changes in colonial attitudes to Māori rights in the 1860s. A “thread of idealism, present in the treaty-making, was still evident.”

This “thread of idealism” among colonial legislators is variously apparent: in the recognition of a moral duty to accord voting rights to Māori as a consequence of the large landholdings held by Māori; in the acknowledgement of the sizeable contribution made by Māori to taxation revenue; and in the affirmation of the equality of Māori under Article III of the Treaty of Waitangi. European idealism also found more concrete expression: in the Native Rights Act 1865 that recognised in statute the equality and rights of Māori; in the legislative attempts aimed at modifying the existing property qualifications to enable Māori to vote; and in the Māori Representation Act 1867. These are discussed in turn.

Article III of the Treaty of Waitangi had guaranteed Māori the rights and privileges of British subjects, and this was re-enacted in statute law with the passing of the 1865 Native Rights Act that specified that Māori were deemed to be natural-born subjects of the Crown. The Native Minister, James Fitzgerald, long-time advocate for Māori political and legal equality, argued that it was futile to demand that Māori come under English law while at the same time prohibiting Māori claimants from taking questions affecting land held in customary title before the Supreme Court.

“Two rules are deeply fixed in my mind. 1. To expect men to respect law who don’t enjoy it is absurd. 2. To try and govern a folk by our courts and at the same time to say that our courts shall take no cognisance of their property is amazing folly. Two-thirds of the Northern Island is held under a tenure which is ignored by our law. Is it possible to govern any people by a law which does not recognise their estate in land?”


The Māori Electoral Bill 1865 was proposed by the Weld Government (1864 -1865) in an attempt to address the implementation of the electoral rights of Māori under Article III of the Treaty of Waitangi. The Bill proposed to modify the existing (1852) franchise qualification for Māori from one based on individual property ownership, to one that would recognise Māori customary landholdings (joint or common ownership) as the basis for voting rights.

“The qualification of a Māori elector shall be a right or title in the nature of an absolute proprietary right or title according to Māori custom in or to land or a part or share of land within the Colony in which the Māori title shall not have been extinguished of the value of fifty pounds.”

However, the Bill was never introduced. In any event, it appeared to contravene an opinion sought from the Imperial Crown Law Office in 1859 to clarify the status of Māori land in relation to the franchise. This office ruled that

“Natives cannot have such possession of any Land, used or occupied by them in common as Tribes or Communities, and not held under Title derived from the Crown, as would qualify them to become voters.”

The right to vote, the Imperial Crown Law Office confirmed, depended on an individual owning land held in individual Crown title. Although Māori were substantial owners of land, they held the land in common as joint owners and under customary title – that is, not registered by the Crown. Māori had also been prohibited from registering any more than ten people as owners of the land they held.


Given the strong associations between property ownership, taxation, and the franchise, there appeared to be a moral obligation to find a solution to the problem of Māori enfranchisement – alluded to in the preamble of the Māori Representation Act 1867 (MRA) 1867.

“Whereas owing to the peculiar nature of Māori land and to other causes the Native Aboriginal inhabitants of this Colony of New Zealand have heretofore with few exceptions been unable to become registered as electors or to vote at the election of members of the House of Representatives or of the Provincial Councils of the said Colony. And it is expedient for the better protection of the interests of Her Majesty’s subjects of the Native Race that temporary provisions should be made for the special representation of Her Majesty’s Native subjects in the House of Representatives and Provincial Councils of said Colony.”

The Māori Representation Act 1867

The MRA provided for the division of the North Island into three electorates: one north of Auckland; the other two bisected by a line running down the centre of the island. The whole of the South Island, Stewart Island, and adjacent islands were included in the fourth seat. The franchise was granted to Māori males aged 21 and over, including half-castes, but excluding any who had been "attainted or convicted of any treason felony or infamous offence" – a provision that was intended to exclude rebels against the Crown, but which gradually ceased to operate. Section 6 of the Act specified that the representatives were to be chosen by and from the eligible electors; in other words, they were to be Māori or half-castes.

From today’s perspective, it is perhaps difficult to appreciate how radical a step it was in 1867 to grant voting rights on any other basis than property ownership. Voting rights in New Zealand, between 1852 and 1867, were not just restricted to adult males, but, with some exceptions (see below), to those males who either owned, leased, or rented property (see above, p. 3). Indeed, such was the association between the franchise and property that the Daily Southern Cross deplored the granting of the universal suffrage to Māori on precisely these grounds: it removed the incentive to acquire personal estate.


The origins of the Māori seats, therefore, owe somewhat more to a sense of idealism and justice than is often granted. There was both a sense of moral obligation – seen in the legislative attempts to fulfil the moral responsibilities to a disenfranchised people who were paying substantial taxes – as well as a sense of fulfilling the constitutional obligations of the Treaty of Waitangi. This can be seen in the legislative history outlined above. Both dimensions suggest that efforts to achieve Māori political and legal equality were serious, and more than just a matter of public relations, goodwill, or tokenism.

Nevertheless, once the seats had been created, such accusations took on more resonance as the system of Māori representation began to be administered.

By the 1880s, the key elements of New Zealand’s modern-day electoral system were clearly visible: voting by secret ballot; an electoral roll; general elections held on the same day throughout the country; and a Representation Commission to determine electorates on the basis of population.


According to Wikipedia, before the establishment of the Maori Electorates the Maori were frequently ineligible to vote at all, on account of there being a property ownership requirement. it is reasonable to presume that this was a way to allow Maori participation in elections without relaxing the property requirement. Again according to Wikipedia the opposition to the proposal largely was opposed to Maori participation at all, rather than being in favour of integrating Maori into the existing electoral system.

  • 1
    >The account of the debate on the encyclopaedia is lacking. Aug 21, 2013 at 22:11

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