• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

A question of identity

Michael Littlewood asks why his smidgen of Maori blood should influence the number of Maori seats and suggests it's time for the nation to grow up.

Michael Littlewood and great-great-great-grandmother Tiraha. Photo/David White

My family’s story illustrates what’s right about the way we New Zealanders do things and also what’s wrong.

In the past three years, I have been tracking down my family’s roots and I now know the names and origins of all 32 of my great-great-great (GGG) grandparents. Fifteen were from England, 10 from Ireland, four from Scotland, two from Wales and one, a Maori, from New Zealand.

I know quite a lot about half of them, including, in a couple of cases, their GGG grandparents, but others are still shadows.

At some point in New Zealand’s entire peopled history, one of the people or families from each of the main strands of my past arrived by boat: six by sailing ship between 1823 and 1874, one by steamer in 1892 and one by canoe about 700 years ago. In all of New Zealand’s 4.5 million inhabitants, probably only my two brothers have exactly the same racial background that I have.

Apart from the most recent arrivals, all New Zealanders share different versions of my story – some slightly different, others very different. That’s New Zealand’s story; that’s what should make us New Zealanders.


The individual form in the 2013 Census, like others before it, had three questions on race. Question 11 asked: “Which ethnic group do you belong to Mark the space or spaces which apply to you: New Zealand European; Maori; Samoan; Cook Island Maori; Tongan; Niuean; Chinese; Indian; Other such as Dutch, Japanese, Tokelauan. Please state.”

Based on the nationalities of my GGG grandparents, I suppose I should have chosen New Zealand European and Maori, but I really do not feel I “belong” to those “ethnic groups”. Given that “belong” is as much about perception as DNA, I chose Other and wrote “New Zealander”.

Enoch Rhodes, Michael Littlewood’s ancestor.

As I did that, I wondered what the users of this information would make of my answer. Because mine was an awkward choice from the statisticians’ point of view (it doesn’t answer the real question), I suspect my answer, and the answers from those who did the same as me, will be ignored. The statisticians will probably think that “New Zealander” doesn’t tell us anything. I disagree for reasons I explain later.

But what would they have made of my answer if I had chosen “New Zealand European” and “Maori” as I suspect they wanted? The significance of the answer to this question diminishes over generations. It is now irrelevant and it’s time the statisticians realised that. If your grandparents were born in New Zealand, perhaps even your parents, you are surely a New Zealander, regardless of your racial background.

It’s wrong for the census to ask me questions about my feelings, which is what question 11 really does. It’s also wrong for whatever reason to slice and dice New Zealanders according to their feelings about ethnicity. I understand the wish of statisticians to continue asking the same questions from census to census so they can look at changes over time, but it’s time to stop asking New Zealanders a question about their feelings on race.

For reasons I explain later, I think question 11 is a metaphor for the race-based elements of the current constitutional review.

Census questions 14 and 15 are more directly relevant to the review. Question 14 asked: “Are you descended from a Maori (that is, did you have a Maori birth parent, grandparent or great-grandparent, etc)?”

I assumed that the “etc” included the possibility of a GGG grandparent or even a GGGG grandparent, so based on my ancestry, I should have answered “yes”.

Question 15 then went on: “Do you know the name(s) of your iwi (tribe or tribes)?” If “yes”, the question then allows up to five entries: “Mark your answer and print the name and home area, rohe or region of your iwi below.”

Ann Rhodes, Michael Littlewood’s ancestor.

I know enough about my Maori GGG grandmother to have given the requested information but I did not. Instead, I answered “no” to question 14, effectively saying I did not have a Maori ancestor. I then wrote a note in a self-inserted panel at the bottom of the form to the effect that at 1/32nd, my Maori ancestry is and should be almost irrelevant and I took exception to the possibility of any statistical interpretations being drawn from such a small proportion. Because the census form did not let me specify the number of my GGG grandparents who were Maori, I did not want to participate in that enquiry.

To emphasise that particular 1/32nd of my background would be to ignore the 15/32nds derived from my English forebears, 10/32nds Irish, 4/32nds Scottish and 2/32nds Welsh. I think that is fundamentally wrong.

At least questions 14 and 15, unlike question 11, are not asking me about my feelings on my Maori ancestry. However, if I had said “yes” to question 14 and given details of the iwi of Tiraha, my Maori GGG grandmother, Statistics New Zealand could have assumed my Maori ancestry was anywhere between 1/32nd and 32/32nds. That’s because question 15 did not ask for the fraction of my ancestry that Tiraha represented. It is 1/32nd and that’s who I am, not 32/32nds.

In fact, as far as Statistics NZ is concerned, if I had described Tirahi’s iwi, it would have no idea that I was even as much as 1/32nd Maori. The answer could have been the same if Tiraha had been my GGGGG grandmother (1/128th), rather than my GGG grandmother.


Make no mistake, I am very happy to have discovered Tiraha and to have a photograph of her; seeing that photo was my “Who do you think you are?” moment. But I am also happy to have discovered my other 31 GGG grandparents and to know something of their stories. Because Statistics NZ did not want to know about the other 31 GGG grandparents, I decided not to tell Census 2013 about Tiraha.

So, why is Statistics NZ asking the questions about Maori ancestry (other than that the questions were also in earlier censuses)? Part of the answer is to figure out how many Maori seats there should be in Parliament.

Francis Creighton, Michael Littlewood's ancestor.

I assume the census data also feeds into the Government’s Budget allocations because of connections between poverty, education and race. However, we should not include race as a qualifier for redistributive aspects of Budget allocations. If people are poor, they need help. If they are illiterate or innumerate, they need different help. If communities need support because of economic changes, we should offer that; but being Maori, even part-Maori or part-part-part-Maori, of itself, should not be a defining qualifier for help.

The time has come to stop trying to define today’s New Zealanders by the race of, in my case, GGG grandparents. Unless Census 2018 asks how many of my GGG grandparents were Maori, questions 14 and 15 should go. If questions like them are to stay in Census 2018, they should extend to include the ethnic background of all 32 of my GGG grandparents. If census respondents cannot answer question 15 for all 32 GGG grandparents, then we should stop asking about just the Maori members of that group.

Anyway, where will it all end? If the focus is on the diminishing share of the population’s DNA that is attributable to just Maori, how will my GGG grandchildren answer the equivalent of questions 14 and 15? On the highly unlikely assumption that they collect no further Maori DNA from their own parents or grandparents (my children’s children), my GGG grandchildren will claim just a 1/512th connection with Tiraha. If census questionnaires continue to collect the race data, does Statistics NZ propose to ignore the other 511/512ths of their DNA? What possible significance might 1/512th represent?

On this basis, the number of self-declared “Maori” must continue to grow, even if New Zealand’s overall population doesn’t change. We see that from the census data – so-called Maori as a percentage of the total population were just 7% in 1951. By the last census in 2006, they had reached 16%, an increase of 129% (and that excludes people like me who have a Maori ancestor but do not declare that in the census) compared with a 114% increase in the total population.

This kind of official analysis inevitably becomes a nonsensical reductio ad absurdum and must stop. I understand that doing something about the census questions is not part of the current conversation about our constitution.

Michael Littlewood: “It’s time to stop trying to define today’s New Zealanders by the race of, in my case, great-great-great-grandparents.” Photo/David White


So, why do the race questions in the census matter to the constitutional review? The issue here is the separate representation of Maori through the Maori seats in Parliament.

In “New Zealand’s Constitution: The Conversation So Far”, published last September, the Constitutional Advisory Panel, which is doing the review, does not fully explain how the number of Maori seats is fixed: “Firstly, the [Representation] Commission divides the number of people living in the South Island by 16 … The result is called the ‘population quota’.

“Secondly, the Commission divides the Maori electoral population, and North Island electoral population, by the South Island population quota. This calculation results in the number of North Island and Maori electorates.”

Elizabeth McCabe, Michael Littlewood's ancestor.

So, what exactly is the “Maori electoral population”? First, we need to know who is a “Maori”. According to the Electoral Act, “‘Maori’ means a person of the Maori race of New Zealand; and includes any descendant of such a person.” So, anyone who claims at least one Maori ancestor can be a “Maori”. In my case, having just one of my 32 GGG grandparents is sufficient. For my (currently eight) children’s children, having just one of their 128 GGGGG grandparents will be sufficient.

Section 45 of the Electoral Act 1993 drives the process of establishing the number of Maori seats. To determine the Maori electoral population, it uses the number of people who have chosen to go onto the Maori roll divided by the “total number of persons of New Zealand Maori descent registered” on the general and Maori rolls, multiplied by “the total number of ordinarily resident persons of New Zealand Maori descent as determined by the last periodical census”.

There is a significant disconnect between those “of New Zealand Maori descent” and those who are on the Maori roll. A table of Maori electoral statistics in parliamentary library research paper “The Origins of the Maori Seats” shows that in 1949 (the earliest year for which numbers are given), 78% of all “Maori” of voting age were on the Maori roll. That proportion in 2008 (the latest year for which numbers are given) was 60%, although that is higher than its low point in 1990 of 34%.

About half of all “Maori” of voting age are on the general roll and that has been roughly the case since 1990 when it was 52%. It was 46% for the 2002, 2005 and 2008 elections.

In other words, the increasingly flawed census questions 14 and 15 play a central role in determining how many Maori seats there are. But rather than changing the basis for determining the number of Maori seats, I prefer to see them abolished altogether.


Historically, the voting franchise in New Zealand (and in many other countries) was defined by property: to qualify, a New Zealand resident originally had to either own land of a minimum value or be a tenant of a property with a minimum annual rent. That’s because taxes were largely based on property, there being no form of individual income tax.

The Constitutional Advisory Panel says Maori were not individual landowners and as “land was held communally [they] could not vote even though they paid taxes and were affected by decisions”. That is true but it’s not a complete explanation.

The Maori Representation Act 1867 changed the 1852 Act’s requirements by providing for the direct election of four Maori members of Parliament, New Zealand’s first “universal” suffrage, albeit limited to Maori.

Michael McCabe, Michael Littlewood's ancestor.

The preamble to the Act described why: “Whereas owing to the peculiar nature of Maori 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.” (My emphasis.)

The Act set out that there will be “four members of the said House who shall be elected under the provisions of this Act to represent therein the inhabitants of the Colony of the Maori race” and four “Maori electoral districts”.

Section 2 described who was entitled to vote in these districts: “The term ‘Maori’ in this Act shall mean a male aboriginal native inhabitant of New Zealand of the age of twenty-one years and upwards and shall include half-castes.”

The Act imposed a racial threshold for the franchise, a threshold that persisted until 1975. “Half-castes” presumably excluded those who did not have at least one fullblooded Maori parent, although there had scarcely been sufficient time in the short life of the colony for there to be many potential voters of less than “half-caste”. On that basis, it was then still clear who was a Maori and who was not.

The Constitutional Advisory Panel’s “New Zealand’s Constitution: The Conversation So Far” does not explain that the directly elected Maori representatives were seen as a stop-gap until land-ownership issues were resolved, as it was intended that property ownership would continue to define the right to be a voter. Section 12 of the Maori Representation Act stated: “This Act shall continue in force for five years after the passing thereof …”

At the time, Maori land-ownership issues were expected to be resolved within those five years, but they weren’t – the 1867 Act was extended for a further five years in 1872.

According to “The Origins of the Maori Seats”, “In 1876 the Act was extended indefinitely as European members began to fear that abolishing the seats would result in a flood of Maori voters onto the European rolls, thereby jeopardising the chances of European members in those seats.”

From this distance, it seems ironic that it was the MPs representing general voters who opposed the reform that should now happen.

Opportunities for reform were also missed in:

•1879 when the Qualification of Electors Act gave the vote to all men over age 21 who had lived in New Zealand for at least a year; and

•1893 when women were given the vote. I think it is wrong to use race as a qualifier for anything but especially something as important as choosing a member of Parliament. The fact that being a “Maori” is such a flawed concept makes that doubly difficult.


Some suggest we must retain the separate race-based Maori seats because of the Crown’s obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi.

For example: “Equally there is no doubt Treaty principles impose a positive obligation on the Crown, within constraints of the reasonable, to protect the position of Maori under the Treaty and the expression from time to time of that position. … Maori representation – Maori seats – have become such an expression.” Taiaroa & Ors vs Minister of Justice & Ors (1994).

As the Constitutional Advisory Panel notes, the Waitangi Tribunal reached a similar conclusion, also in 1994.

Edward Friend, Michael Littlewood's ancestor.

At the time of the Treaty, representation of anyone in a Parliament, never mind Maori, would probably have been furthest from any of the signatories’ minds, Pakeha or Maori. The preamble of the Treaty’s English version said Queen Victoria was “desirous to establish a settled form of Civil Government”, presumably (if someone had asked) in the form of something that looked like the then Westminster style of government.

There were just three articles in the Treaty: the first article of the English version “cedes” to the “Queen of England” sovereignty over New Zealand. The second guarantees to the chiefs full “exclusive and undisturbed possession of their Lands and Estates Forests Fisheries and other properties”. It also specifies that Maori will sell land only to the Crown. The third article guarantees to all Maori “all the Rights and Privileges of British Subjects”.

Putting aside the very difficult issues of translation, of understanding and of intent – whether in fact there was the “meeting of minds” required under both international law and English law – it seems difficult at this distance to see how the Treaty could be interpreted as requiring separate race-based representation in a Parliament that represents all New Zealanders, then described as “all British Subjects”.

Even though the 1994 words of Justice Robert McGechan, that “Maori representation – Maori seats – have become such an expression” of the Crown’s obligation “to protect the position of Maori under the Treaty”, may rationalise what we have now, this seems at variance with history:

• the Treaty itself says Maori should have “all the same Rights and Privileges” as all other British subjects – not special or separate but the same rights and privileges;

• the voting franchise for non-Maori under the New Zealand Constitution Act 1852 was founded on property ownership or tenancy – we must guess that if the question had been raised in 1840, signatories to the Treaty would have assumed something similar for New Zealand;

• the Maori Representation Act 1867 was intended, as a temporary measure, to overcome the practical difficulty that many Maori owned land communally rather than individually; and

• once property ownership or tenancy disappeared as a unique qualifier for the franchise, the separate representation of Maori should also have been abolished. That it didn’t can be explained by contemporary politics, then and now, and has no obvious link to the Treaty.

“Children … will unite our races”. – Hone Heke. Image courtesy National Museum of Australia

Given the now extremely low threshold that establishes whether a New Zealander is Maori or not, it is hardly surprising that the number of Maori MPs representing electors on the general roll significantly exceeds the number of MPs in Maori seats. In 2013, 16 “Maori” MPs represent electors on the general roll compared with just seven separately elected Maori MPs.

I think the distinctions between Maori electors and others, and between Maori MPs and others, are now indefensible.

I’m not suggesting we ignore public policy issues of direct concern to Maori. We do not need a female roll and female MPs to ensure issues of concern to women are addressed; nor do we need an Asian roll and Asian MPs to address the needs of the Asian community. That there are still issues of concern to Maori does not justify a Maori roll and Maori MPs. In 1840, the Treaty signatories did not directly contemplate separate representation in a Parliament of New Zealanders, but even if they had, that is no justification to continue race-based separatism in 2013.


It’s now time for New Zealand to grow up. Just as significant efforts – which I support – are being made to resolve Treaty grievances, Maori need themselves to cast off the state of victimhood that sees their special needs as demanding race-based representation. I see no chance of this change being accepted by the political entities that currently depend on the presence of separate Maori representation.

That political reality should not prevent the Constitutional Advisory Panel from recommending the abolition of race-based representation, but the proposal would come even more powerfully from Maori. That would represent maturity: thinking about what’s good for the country rather than for a particular part.

Here is a suggestion: after the last Treaty of Waitangi settlement is signed, Maori should petition Parliament to abolish the Maori Roll and separate Maori seats. That would be a hugely unifying gesture, a sign of maturity.

In its history, New Zealand has done a lot of things well and some things badly, although the good has significantly outweighed the bad. Recently, a large change has occurred in the ethnic make-up of New Zealand residents (particularly in Auckland) – again, some of the ways we deal with that will be good and some less than ideal.

We can show the rest of the world what to do about a lot of things, and the way we oppose the growing international drift to separatism and balkanisation is an example. Creating and maintaining a single New Zealand peopled by just “New Zealanders” should be a constant focus of our attention.

Everyone who lives in New Zealand and who comes here to settle should be or become a New Zealander, perhaps of Maori, Tongan, Chinese or German descent, but first and foremost a New Zealander. We should all hold fast to the idea that there are some things we New Zealanders all agree with. A political distinction or favour based on race, however well-intentioned, is not and should never be one of those.

Ngapuhi chief Hone Heke supposedly said at Waitangi in 1840: “There are too many Europeans here now [to avoid change] and there are children that will unite our races.”

I like the idea that “children … will unite our races”. It’s time our Parliament acknowledged that.

Maori roll

A campaign to get more voters to enrol on or switch to the Maori electoral roll is looking unlikely to result in any extra Maori seats. The 2013 Maori Electoral Option, which closes on July 24, is offering eligible voters of Maori descent the chance to go onto the Maori or general roll or to switch between the two.

Figures to April 24 released by the Electoral Commission, halfway through the campaign, show the number of people switching from the general to the Maori roll (6774) is only slightly more than those going from the Maori to the general (6727).

The number of new enrolments of people of Maori descent was greater on the Maori roll (3404) than the general roll (1473), but the overall 3400 increase for the Maori roll falls far short of the 20,000 extra voters these types of campaign usually attract.

Michael Littlewood retired from the financial services industry in 2008, and helped establish the Retirement Policy & Research Centre at the University of Auckland. This article is based on his submission to the constitutional review.

See also: NZ’s constitution - critics claim radical changes to the way we are governed and to the role of the Treaty could be on the way, as our constitution is quietly reviewed.


It is obvious from the way Michael Littlewood uses the terms interchangeably that he does not understand the difference between the concepts of race and ethnicity. It’s equally obvious he doesn’t realise ethnicity is not the same as nationality. Littlewood’s misunderstanding is common, and duplicates the mistakes made by people like Rodney Hide and John Ansell. If Littlewood wants to mount a case for ending Maori electorates, he needs to do it without resorting to such simplistic reasoning.

The country needs a more informed debate about this issue and everyone needs to understand that confusing race and ethnicity inhibits a constructive understanding of New Zealand’s colonial legacy. Race refers to such genetic physical characteristics as height, skin colour or the shape of one’s nose or eyelids. Ethnicity relates to cultural factors such as language, lifestyle, customs, beliefs, nationality and family heritage. It therefore includes how people are treated as a result of their racial appearance and the cultural assumptions attached to that appearance.

Littlewood can claim Maori ancestry, but he is obviously not ethnically Maori.
(Oratia, Auckland)

Like a number of others hostile to owning the uncomfortable consequences of colonisation, Littlewood confuses nationality with cultural identity. His analysis of the meaning of Te Tiriti o Waitangi and the reasons many of us support Maori seats are highly debatable and particularly unhelpful when he denies people the right to self-identify in terms of ethnicity.

His suggestion that tangata whenua should petition Parliament to abolish the Maori roll and seats as a sign of “maturity” is extraordinarily out of step with the cultural realities he seeks to assimilate into a fantasy of unity on dominant culture terms. The definition of culture is not drops of blood but language, diet, a common history and creation story, -spiritual beliefs and whakapapa, obligations and connection to place and, crucially, how others see you.

The woven rope of our ethnicities is far more complex and powerful than the nationality on our passports. Racism can be crudely expressed or historically justified, but it doesn’t help the negotiation we are engaged in to recognise who has benefited and who is still paying for the unfinished business of the past 180 or so years.

Those of us who happily identify as Pakeha from Aotearoa New Zealand need to challenge others from our culture who are keen to impose a fake unity rather than build a relationship of respect with hapu and iwi. Hone Heke hoped for unity, not an assimilative wet blanket over his rangatiratanga. No matter who our great-great-grandparents were, if we have no lived experience of that aspect of our identity, we might want to tread carefully and respectfully around issues of political representation of that culture.
Catherine Delahunty

While withholding final judgment until I’ve seen the argument for retaining the Maori seats, I was very impressed with Littlewood’s article on the inadequacies of the recent census and on the matter of specific Maori representation in Parliament. I have one question: will the justice system consider charging Littlewood for knowingly answering questions 14 and 15 of the census form incorrectly?
Jerome O’Malley

Our ethnicity is our identification with the group (or groups) of people with whom we share a cultural tradition. In wishing that “everyone who lives in New Zealand … should be … a New Zealander”, Littlewood appears to be recognising that New Zealander is a nationality not an ethnicity because it encompasses diverse cultural traditions, yet that was what he entered on his census return. However, I was more surprised by his assertion that he didn’t feel he belonged to the New Zealand European group, and wondered why that was. After all, his history is the standard story of New Zealand Europeans in which Maori and other peoples are acted on rather than being active participants.

In telling that history, as when he presumes that most of those at Waitangi would have selected a Westminster style of civil government, he promotes European institutions and such practices as enfranchisement, disenfranchisement and adversarial decision-making.

Finally, his vision of New Zealand as a unified nation is a localised expression of 19th-century European nationalism that emphasised homogeneity. It would seem that, irrespective of whether he feels he belongs to it, he thinks and writes from within the New Zealand European cultural tradition: its history, institutions, practices and values. Maybe his difficulty – and it seems to be common among those sharing that ethnicity – is the success of efforts that have been and continue to be made to ensure the culture, institutions and practices of New Zealand Europeans are routinely accepted as the natural, obvious way things are and should be and, consequently, they are not seen to be “cultural”.
Raymond Nairn
(Mt Eden, Auckland)