Winston Peters has lobbed the bomb of a referendum on the Maori seats into the election campaign, saying it will be a bottom-line for any coalition government he's involved in after the election. So, the debate about holding a referendum could be a big deal. And if the referendum actually eventuated, it would be an even bigger deal - with potentially explosive consequences.
Below are some of the most important and interesting items to consider in getting to grips with questions around the referendum debate.
1) How divisive would a referendum be?
Unsurprisingly, the Daily Blog's Martyn Bradbury suggests it would rouse "the sleeping dogs of provincial racism" and cause a social breakdown - see his blog post, Why Winston's desire for a Muldoon civil war makes him the most dangerous politician in NZ. But he's not the only one to fear such division. Back in 2014 John Key warned against it: "Do you really want to rip a country apart? I'll tell you what would happen - hikois from hell".
2) Is it logical to be against the Maori seats, but not want them abolished immediately?
Yes, according to today's editorial in The Listener magazine - see: A Maori seats referendum is a bad idea - Brexit proves it. The magazine argues that the "Maori seats are an anachronism"," "a form of race-based politics, albeit well-intentioned", and that they "have had their day and are now paternalistic". However, "it would be a bad precedent to have them removed by a majority non-Maori vote. A referendum is an inappropriate way to deal with any issue affecting a minority. Whether the question at stake bestows or removes a privilege for a minority, or inflicts or removes a burden on a minority, the rights or interests of that minority are too easily swamped in a democratic vote."
3) Is it democratic to make these decisions by referendum?
Not according to Dominion Post editorial, Beware the populist pushing referendums. The newspaper says "the referendum would pit one democratic principle - majority rule - against another, which is the need to safeguard the rights of minorities. Populist politicians are always happy to do this. They seek popular support and don't care about minority rights, and they say what they are doing is democratic. They are happy to promote the tyranny of the majority. But this is not a democratic way of doing things."
4) Why are some Maori politicians critical of the seats?
Peters has argued that the seats have "done nothing to help reduce inequity" for Maori and Shane Jones explains why he's no longer so keen on separate representation saying he's "long gone off that notion that the (Maori seats) is the exclusive group that Maori participates in in national politics... Many of the iwi have now got a whole host of resources and assets and you don't need the Maori seats to perpetuate Maori identity in national politics because each iwi is slowly but surely growing. The problem with the iwi-centred focus that the Maori Party has had is they've overlooked matters to do with industry and jobs" - see Jo Moir's Winston Peters dismisses flip-flop and says all Kiwis will vote on whether Maori seats should be abolished.
5) Will Labour or National agree to a referendum?
It's not yet clear what National's response on this is. But Labour has been reported as ruling it out - see TVNZ's Labour 'won't agree' to Winston Peter's plan to hold a referendum on Maori seats.
6) What do other political parties think about abolishing the seats?
This could influence whether the referendum will actually occur. See Jo Moir's Political leaders draw a line in the sand over whether to keep the Maori seats.
7) Will Winston Peters really insist on the referendum being a bottom-line for forming a government?
Andrew Little says "no" - see: Matt Burrows' Andrew Little not ruling out making Winston Peters his deputy. Little says: "The sort of issues he was talking about over the weekend, he's talked about in each of the last three Cabinets he's been in, each of the last Governments he's been a part of it - none of this is new stuff... We're up to seven bottom lines already. This is just talk."
8) Why do some Maori politicians want to keep the seats?
The Labour Party's Willie Jackson puts forward "five reasons why eliminating the Maori electorates should not happen and why the whole idea of this is so unfair" - see: Come on Winston, Maori have already voted on Maori electorates with their feet. See also, Louisa Wall's Maori seats or not?.
9) Is the issue of abolishing the Maori seats a simple battle between liberals and conservatives?
John Moore challenges the assumption that the abolition of the seats is the preserve of anti-Maori rednecks - see: Abolishing the Maori seats - why this isn't just a racist proposal. In this, he argues for "rejecting a reductionist stance on this debate, one that equates opposition to the Maori seats as inevitably being racist and anti-Maori. The fact that the campaign to abolish the seat is being championed by a Maori-led party, with organic links to Maori communities, points to the need for a more nuanced discussion on this question".
10) Is it true that most Maori are now shifting to the general electoral roll?
No, says Claire Trevett: "statistics show that in 1997, 2001 and 2006 more than double the number of Maori switched from the general roll to the Maori roll than vice versa. At the last Maori Electoral Option in 2013 it was almost even - but the net impact was still an extra 7,052 on the Maori roll and the vast majority of new Maori voters opted for the Maori roll over the general roll" - see: Shane Jones, wisteria and the Maori seats pickle. See also, Trevett's NZ First leader Winston Peters hints at re-think on Maori seats referendum.
11) So why is Winston Peters suggesting Maori are going off the Maori roll?
According to law professor Andrew Geddis, "He wants to make out that the Maori seats are an anachronism that Maori themselves do not want, so removing them is just doing them a favour. But if those seats actually are valued and preferred by Maori, then the picture changes markedly. Now it becomes a non-Maori majority making a decision for the majority of Māori that runs counter to what they want for themselves. And that's a much uglier and harder to sell narrative" - see: A little bit more on Winston's proposed referendums.
12) Is there a way to leave the issue to Maori to decide?
According to Geddis, there is already an effective referendum carried out amongst Maori voters: "the five-yearly Maori electoral option already provides a de-facto referendum on this question. During this option period, every voter of Maori descent can choose whether to be on the Maori or General electoral roll. If enough Maori voters decide to switch from the Maori to the General roll, then the Maori seats automatically will cease to exist. Instead, 55% of all Maori voters prefer to be on the Maori roll. That point really needs emphasising; a majority of those Maori enrolled to vote consciously have chosen that the Maori seats should continue" - see: The trouble with Winston Peters' referendums.
13) Are there alternative referendum options, beyond just keeping or abolishing the Maori seats?
Back in 2014, David Farrar put forward an interesting perspective on the seats: "What I propose is a referendum held among those on the electoral roll of Maori descent. It should ask Maori to choose between: a) retaining the Maori seats; b) The proposal by the Royal Commission to abolish the seats but have no threshold (effectively 0.4% then) for Maori parties" - see: Time for a referendum on the Maori seats. According to Farrar, this would produce more Maori parties in Parliament: "you may have four or five different Maori parties in Parliament - a right wing Maori party, a socialist Maori party, an environmental Maori party, a religious Maori party etc etc. Maoridom would do better with multiple choices - rather than the winner takes all of the Maori seats."
Finally, "If you need a little bit of a civics course refresher on what exactly the seats are - we're here to help" says Henry Cooke in his very good overview of the debate, Explainer: The Maori seats and their uncertain future.