COMMENT:

The outcome of this year's Māori electoral option indicates a significant trend to the general roll.

Most commentators believe the seven Māori electorates will remain. However, once calculations tied to the South Island voter electorate ratio are completed, there might only be six.

For the first time in five re-enrolment options, the number of Māori on the general roll grew more than the Māori roll, 4000 to 1200. In another first, more Māori chose to transfer from the Māori roll to the general roll than went the other way, 10,200 to 8000.

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Overall, Māori voters have increased in 59 of 64 general electorates. Compare that to the earliest options when all general electorates lost Māori voters. Of the five general electorates that did lose Māori this time, two were by a single Māori constituent.

The percentage of Māori on the Māori roll is at its lowest, at 52 per cent, since MMP began. The percentage of Māori on the general roll, 48 per cent, is at its highest.

Supporters of the Māori seats have argued the trend in this year's option might be the result of shoddy work by the Electoral Commission. However, whatever issues exist, they will have likely been there for some time and never impeded the earlier spectacular rise in the Māori roll.

Those who say the Māori electorates have passed their use-by date will claim Māori are abandoning them. This is not strictly true. All seven Māori electorates saw a rise in voter numbers albeit a more modest rise.

As in all previous options, new Māori voters continue to favour the Māori roll. At a ratio of just under two-to-one, this preference is lower than the peak of three or four-to-one in previous options, but consistent. A majority of Māori remain on the Māori roll.

To properly interpret the option, it is important to couple these figures with the enrolment patterns of new Māori enrolments during the period between each option. Together these show Māori voters shift their strategic choices according to the best opportunities for increasing their political voice.

Since the original four Māori electorates were established in 1867, Māori have consistently sought greater representation.

In 1975 the Labour Government legislated an electoral option allowing Māori voters to choose between the Maori and general roll with provision to increase the number of Māori electorates after each census. The following year, the National Government re-capped the Māori seats at four.

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With the cap preventing an increase in the Māori seats, Māori opted to influence elections through the general seats. Consequently, the Māori roll declined to 41 per cent of Māori voters by 1991.

Māori voters found their preferred voice in 1996, the first MMP election with the addition of a fifth Māori electorate. More voice motivated more to enrol in Māori seats. At each option, three to four times as many new Māori voters joined the Māori roll. The number of Māori electorates rose to seven.

Factoring in enrolments between options shows 70 per cent of the total increase in Māori voters between 1991 and 2006 went to the Māori roll, which rose from 88,000 to a staggering 222,000 or 58 per cent of all Māori voters.

Concerned at the limitations on Māori MPs within the majority European caucus of their traditional ally, Labour, Māori voters sought other voices. In 1996, they sent all five Māori seats to New Zealand First. A decade later, they went to the Māori Party.

As an MMP-empowered voice, Māori were harsh when independent parties failed to deliver. The debacle of the National-NZ First Government returned the Māori seats to Labour in 1999. The Māori Party-Mana Movement disintegration saw loyalty tested in 2011 and 2014 before final rejection in 2017.

The last election unlocked a new voice born of the quiet revolution of more Māori in Parliament. The number of Māori MPs had grown from 13 in 1996 to 29 after election 2017. Twenty are in the Labour, NZ First and Green Party governing arrangement. Ten have executive portfolios.

MPs of Māori descent lead National, NZ First, Act and the Greens and Kelvin Davis is deputy leader of Labour.

Alongside more cross-culturally informed leaders such as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, the new direction has reversed momentum away from the Māori roll. The roll fell 3 per cent in the 2013 option and again this year.

Factoring all new enrolments, the net gain of 61,000 Māori to the general roll since 2006, compared to 25,000 to the Māori roll, exactly matches the earlier 70 per cent swing to the Māori roll.

Whether the latest trend will continue or reverse again is moot. Not all Māori MPs are connected to Māori communities. The new Government will need the right combination of mainstream and āori specific strategies on Māori concerns over poverty, housing, employment, poor outcomes in education, and high Māori prison and youth suicide rates. Mainstreaming one size fits all has never worked.

The Greens have just one Māori MP. Labour's Māori MPs were not on its 2017 list. In a tight 2020 election, where is their place? Beyond that, new alt-right racism threatens Māori rights.

If Labour falters and alt-right racism strengthens, the opportunity will open for another independent Māori initiative. For that to be successful the lesson of recent history is that there can be one Māori party.

Dr Rawiri Taonui is an independent writer and adviser.