Will Winston get his referendum?

History might remember the NZF leader as the bloke who destroyed the Māori seats

The thing that gets me about Winston Peters is you can’t exactly tell him to stay in his lane. The bloke is Ngātiwai, and he made his name fighting for Māori land. He’s a two-time acting Prime Minister, the twentieth century’s answer to the late James Carroll.  The old fulla is entitled to say more or less what he likes about the Māori seats.

I mean, would you tell your koro to shut up?

Well, no. But he’s still wrong. The New Zealand First leader is calling for a two-part referendum on the Māori seats. The first is his long-promised referendum, a vote on whether the seats should stick around at all. The second is a vote on entrenchment. “If you want to make changes to the electoral system, you should go to the country,” Peters told RNZ.

“There should be a two-part referendum.”

This is nothing out of the ordinary – Peter’s script never changes – but note the assumption: a two-part referendum only works if the country votes for retaining the Māori seats. Maybe Peters thinks better of us, at least better than his politics would otherwise suggest. If the country votes to do away with the seats there’s only “a referendum,” not a two-part referendum.

But Peter’s knows as much. Instead he’s setting out a bargaining position. Rino Tirikatene – the entrenchment Bill’s sponsor – is never going to agree to an upfront referendum. Neither is Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (who personally supports the Bill). The Labour caucus, to their credit, would aggressively oppose any referendum as well.

From here, two things might happen: Labour and New Zealand First agree to a compromise, sending the Bill to select committee. The Māori Affairs Select Committee is certain to recommend an amendment protecting the seats from a binding referendum, but the compromise could include an agreement where Labour retains the Bill as is, meaning a binding referendum is still a possibility.

Or the Bill is fails at first reading.

This is more likely than not.  No one wants to chance it. Māori seats on the New Plymouth, Palmerston North and Whakatāne councils are no more. This is spooking Māori MPs, and so a referendum of any kind is unacceptable. The future of the Māori seats are for Māori to decide (this is what the Māori Electoral Option is for, a kind of defacto referendum).

But even if the Bill makes it out of select committee, for entrenchment to happen the Bill would need National’s buy-in (entrenched provisions must be passed by a 75 percent majority). The conditions for that buy-in are unclear. In other words, the Bill either fails at first reading or it fails at its final reading, all else remaining the same.  

In some ways this is reassuring. Referenda of any kind are terrifying, let alone the binding kind. But it’s also a let-down. There’s no good reason to treat the general seats (entrenched) better than Māori seats (unentrenched). The late Ranginui Walker condemned the different treatment as “perhaps the most discriminatory measure of all in the application of the law to Māori representation,” and he’s still right.

It’s a shame 75 percent of Parliament disagrees.