New Zealand First wants a binding referendum during the midterm of the next Parliament on the future of the seven Maori electorates.

After some uncertainty whether party leader Winston Peters favoured leaving the decision with Maori voters - the preferred option of his Maori affairs spokesman and MP Pita Paraone - Peters issued a statement stating that "every registered voter" would be entitled to cast a vote.

How these differences play out in NZ First is yet to be seen. Peters says the referendum is a bottom line for any coalition talks after the September election. But negotiations, if they occur, will involve compromises and horsetrading.

National has been in favour of scrapping the seats, but did not press the issue when it embraced the Maori Party nine years ago. The Maori Party says the seats must remain while disparity persists between Maori and non-Maori. And it says any decision lies in the hands of Maori. Labour has said it opposes the referendum. The NZ First policy lacks political friends.

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The latest enrolment statistics show there are 2,918,928 registered voters on the general roll and 236,866 on the Maori roll. The Maori roll has been growing, despite assertions from the NZ First leader that voters were leaving in droves. After the last electoral option in 2013, a majority of Maori voters - 55 per cent - were on the Maori roll.

In the five-yearly option, more eligible voters moved from the general roll to the Maori roll than those who shifted in the other direction. New voters of Maori descent favoured the Maori roll by nearly three to one.

On this evidence the Maori roll, which is used to calculate the number of Maori electorates, is seen by Maori New Zealanders as essential to their democratic and political interests.

In a sense the Maori option is a referendum on the Maori seats: if sufficient Maori voters switch to general seats then the Maori electorates could disappear.

Four years ago the Constitutional Review Panel completed a thorough review of New Zealand's constitutional arrangements. In its report, it said that while it had received a "large number" of submissions supporting the removal of the Maori seats it did not endorse this option.

The panel remarked: "It is inappropriate for longstanding rights of a minority to be taken away simply because that minority is outnumbered. The existence of the Maori seats does not impede or limit the rights of other New Zealanders to exercise their vote."

The panel had a similar view about having a referendum on the retention or abolition of the Maori seats.

It concluded: "The question about options for the Maori seats and Maori representation requires a more nuanced decision-making tool that takes account of minority views. The panel agrees that the decision about the future of Maori seats should remain in the hands of Maori."

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The Maori seats have been a distinctive feature of New Zealand's political landscape for over a century and have survived pressure for their abolition. The panel's points about longstanding rights should be respected.