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Electoral Insight – Aboriginal Participation in Elections

Electoral Insight – November 2003

Representing Aboriginal Interests: Experiences of New Zealand and Australia

Representing Aboriginal Interests: Experiences of New Zealand and Australia

Keith Archer
Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Calgary

In many democracies that developed from European settlement, there remain to this day significant challenges in representing the interests of Aboriginal peoples within the overall political system. One way in which this representation can occur is through participation in national elections and elections to state or provincial legislative assemblies. Yet, the evidence suggests that Aboriginal participation is significantly lower than non-Aboriginal participation in many countries.Footnote 1 Furthermore, even if levels of political participation among people of Aboriginal descent are not lower than the national average, there remain difficulties in representing any minority groups through elected legislatures in plurality electoral systems.Footnote 2 The purpose of this paper is to examine the dramatically different approaches to Aboriginal electoral participation that New Zealand and Australia have taken, as a means of assessing the ways in which various institutional responses can affect the representation of Aboriginal interests.

New Zealand's electoral system and Aboriginal representation

Three features of New Zealand's electoral system have a particularly significant impact on the character of representation for the Maori, the Aboriginal people of New Zealand. First, and most important, is the existence of a set of Aboriginal electoral districts (AEDs) that provide for specific representation of Maori people. Second, there is a system of compulsory voter registration that requires all citizens of New Zealand to be registered on the electoral rolls. Third, the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system, adopted in 1993, provides a variety of options for all groups, including Maori electors, to pursue a number of strategies for the election of "their" members to the national Parliament. Although opinion is divided on the degree to which these various institutional forms of electoral representation, in particular the use of AEDs, have provided effective representation of Maori interests, there is little doubt that the manner in which they are used today provides a comparatively high degree of descriptive representation.Footnote 3 In short, in comparison with Aboriginal people in other countries, the Maori people of New Zealand, who comprise 15.2 percent of the total population,Footnote 4 have a relatively high level of success in gaining election to Parliament.

Aboriginal electoral districts

The seven Maori general electorates (electoral districts) in New Zealand.

In almost all democracies, representation through the electoral system is based almost exclusively on where one lives, rather than on who one is. The unit of representation in elections, with few exceptions, is a geographical or territorial area, usually called an electoral district, a riding or a constituency. The electoral system adopted by New Zealand in 1867 included provision for additional categories of electoral districts – for pensioners in Auckland, gold miners in the South Island, and a set of four constituencies for Maori people.Footnote 5 Although the original intent was to institute AEDs only for a five-year transitional period (there was a property qualification for the general electorate, which effectively disenfranchised the Maori electorate who held property communally),Footnote 6 the system was viewed as sufficiently salutary for the country that it has been retained, albeit with significant revisions, to the present.

It should be noted that the manner in which AEDs functioned historically has been a subject of considerable criticism. For one thing, the allocation of four Maori seats on the basis of a population of 60,000 Maori in 1867 (i.e. a ratio of one seat per 15,000), compared to 72 seats for a European population of 250,000 (i.e. a ratio of approximately one seat per 3,500) produced structural under-representation of the Maori people in Parliament.Footnote 7 In addition, the perception persisted among the White members of Parliament that the Maori MPs had a representational role only on issues as they related narrowly to the Maori community, and therefore had a reduced role in relation to other members of Parliament. Thus, some have argued, the use of Maori seats has generated the perception of representation of the Maori people without providing effective representation.Footnote 8

A number of changes have occurred recently to increase the likelihood of electing a greater number of Aboriginal legislators. When the single-member plurality electoral system was replaced by multi-member proportional representation in 1993 (see below), there also was a change in the allocation of seats to the Maori. The allocation of four seats to the Maori had remained in place since it was adopted in 1867. In 1993, the allocation formula was changed so that the number of Maori seats is determined on the basis of the population on the Maori electoral roll. As in the past, Maori have the option of registering on the general electoral roll, or on a Maori roll. The South Island of New Zealand has a predetermined number of seats in Parliament – 16. The population of the South Island (minus those on the Maori roll) is divided by 16, producing the electoral quotient, which is the average number of people in each constituency. The population of the North Island (minus those on the Maori roll) is also divided by the same electoral quotient to produce the number of seats to which it is entitled, as is the population based on the Maori roll.Footnote 9 As the Maori population increases relative to the national population, and/or as more Maori choose to register on the Maori roll (in 2001, 51.3 percent of Maori were on the Maori roll and 48.8 percent were on the general roll),Footnote 10 the number of Maori seats increases. Thus, in the 2002 election, 62 members of Parliament were elected from the general electorates and 7 from Maori electorates. An additional 51 were elected from party lists (see below). Since Maori comprise 15.2 percent of the New Zealand population, the assignment of 7 Maori seats compared to 62 general seats (10 percent) indicates that the choice of approximately half the Maori to remain on the general roll dilutes the collective electoral power of this group. That point notwithstanding, there has been a very significant increase in the collective electoral voice of the Maori since this system of representation was first introduced almost a century and a half ago.

Compulsory voter registration in New Zealand

This Elections New Zealand brochure informs Maori electors that every five years they can choose whether they wish to be registered on the Maori electoral roll or the General electoral roll.

The second feature of the New Zealand electoral system that has a bearing on Aboriginal representation is compulsory voter registration.Footnote 11 Like all citizens of New Zealand, Maori have a responsibility to register themselves on the electoral roll. The only difference is that they have a choice of two rolls – the general or the Maori roll. Because voter registration is compulsory, the New Zealand election authority undertakes an active campaign to facilitate the enrolment of all electors. In the case of Maori electors, this includes conducting an electoral option campaign every five years, in which the election authority writes to all Maori electors personally, advising them of their right to be placed on the Maori or general electoral roll, and facilitating their registration on one or the other. In addition, material is available in the Maori language, and is available at all Post Shops (the responsibility for maintaining the electoral roll is held by the postal authority in New Zealand), and also directly from Elections New Zealand through the Internet (

Multi-member plurality electoral system

As a result of two national referendums on electoral system reform, New Zealand changed its electoral system in 1993 from a Single Member Plurality (SMP) to a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system.Footnote 12 There are 120 seats in Parliament, based on a number of constituency seats (either from the general electorate or the Maori electorate), and seats elected through lists based on a proportional allocation of votes for the parties. The adoption of the MMP system was intended to correct the distortion that results from the SMP system, which typically over-rewards the party with the largest number of votes, often transforming a minority of votes into a majority of legislative seats.Footnote 13 As noted above, when the MMP system was adopted in New Zealand, the allocation of Maori seats also was changed, and is based on the same electoral quotient used to allocate seats from the general electorate in both the North and South islands. Unlike some mixed electoral systems that allocate the list seats based on votes in the constituency elections, the MMP system in New Zealand provides voters with two ballots – one for the constituency (i.e. general or Maori) candidates, and a second for the party. The MMP system provides all interest groups with several electoral strategies, and provides the Maori with three strategies for election. Members of all groups can seek party nomination (or run as independent candidates) in the general electoral constituencies. They also can organize their efforts within the political parties to ensure their favoured candidates are placed near the top of a party's list. New Zealand Maori may seek party nomination (or run as independents) in the Maori constituencies, and can do so also in the general constituencies. They also can work within the parties to place their favoured candidates on the parties' lists.

The outcome of the 2002 election in New Zealand reveals the relative success of these strategies. First, with respect to the Maori electorates, all seven members elected are Maori, and all seven are Labour members of Parliament. The 62 general electorate seats, of course, present a very different portrait. Even where Aboriginal people comprise a significant minority, as they do in New Zealand with 15.2 percent of the population, they still have difficulty winning general constituency contests decided by a plurality ballot. Of the 62 general electorate seats, people of Maori background were elected to three, two for the Labour party and one for the New Zealand First party. Thus of the 69 members elected from constituencies (general or Maori), 10 members (14.5 percent) were of Maori background, and of these, 9 were elected as Labour members.Footnote 14

Maori Enrolments as at August 2003

The party list presents the third electoral option for Aboriginal people in New Zealand. Of the 51 seats allocated by party list, people of Maori background won 9, or 18 percent. However, the partisan composition of Maori list members of Parliament was very different from that of their constituency counterparts. One person of Maori descent was elected by party list for each of the ACT, Labour, National and Green parties, and five Maori were elected by party list for the New Zealand First party. Thus, overall, 19 of the 120 Parliamentary seats were won by Maori, which increased to 20 seats (17 percent of all Parliamentary seats) when Moana Mackey entered Parliament as a list MP on July 29, 2003. A curious element in the Maori representation by party is that the Labour party appears no more likely to place Maori or other Aboriginal candidates near the top of its list than are other parties, despite the relative success of Maori Labour candidates in the Maori constituencies, and the relative lack of success of the other parties in these constituencies.

Thus, the features of the New Zealand electoral system, and mechanisms of electoral administration such as compulsory voter registration and an optional Maori electoral list, result in a relatively significant amount of representation for Aboriginal people in New Zealand's Parliament. It has also resulted in the appointment of a number of Aboriginal people to Cabinet (including four as of September 2003),Footnote 15 particularly in areas of importance to the Maori community. As in all matters of representation, it is debatable whether these forms of representational institutionalization are the most effective and efficient for the Aboriginal community, or whether such forms reflect more of a co-optation of the community.Footnote 16 A full assessment of this question is beyond the scope of this article. What is clear, however, is that in terms of descriptive representation, the New Zealand model provides an indication of at least partial success.

Representing Aboriginal interests in Australia

Aboriginal electors voting at remote polling location in Australia

Australian representation of the interests of Aboriginal people provides a significant contrast to the New Zealand experience. Whereas New Zealand provides for at least partial institutional inclusion within the legislature, Australia's history of legislative representation of Aborigines has largely been one of institutional exclusion. The difference between the approaches adopted in the two countries is based in part on cultural and attitudinal differences. For much of its history, Australia has had a far less accommodating approach to Aboriginal and other minority representation. There is also a large difference in the demographic sizes of the Aboriginal populations in the two countries.

In 2002, the Maori population was 15.2 percent of the total New Zealand population; in contrast, the 2001 Australian census revealed that Indigenous peoples, defined as those of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander background, comprised only 2.4 percent of the Australian population. Furthermore, among the six Australian states, the Indigenous population ranged from a low of 0.6 percent in Victoria to a high of 3.7 percent in Tasmania. Only in the Northern Territory, which represents only 1 percent of the national population, are Indigenous peoples present in any strength, comprising 28.8 percent of the total.Footnote 17 Although the principle of explicit legislative exclusion has largely been abandoned in Australia, it has been replaced by a system of formal legal inclusion, but de facto under-representation. The system of representation has been adjusted to accommodate the representation of Aboriginal interests through a separate institution – the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), whose members are elected by Aboriginal voters in elections run by the Australian Electoral Commission. Recent controversies surrounding the leadership of ATSIC, however, call into question the effectiveness of this form of representation.

A history of exclusion

The history of voting in Australia can be traced back to the 1850s, when the Australian colonies became self-governing. Voting for members of legislative assemblies first occurred in South Australia in 1856, Victoria in 1857, New South Wales in 1858 and Tasmania in 1896, at which time adult male British subjects were given the franchise. Although this included Aborigines, the latter were not encouraged to register and vote, and few did. When Queensland (1856) and Western Australia (1890) became self-governing, Aboriginal people in those colonies were explicitly excluded from voting. Furthermore, when Australia was granted dominion government status as a federal state in 1901, its constitution (section 41) was interpreted as denying the federal franchise to Aboriginal people except those already on the state electoral rolls, an interpretation affirmed by the Commonwealth Franchise Act in the following year.Footnote 18

The first broadening of franchise rights for Aborigines occurred in 1949, when the vote in federal elections was extended to those who had served in the armed forces or had the right to vote in state elections. Western Australia extended the state franchise to Aboriginal electors in 1962, followed by Queensland in 1965. At the federal level, the franchise was extended to Aboriginal people in 1962, although for them, unlike other Australians, neither enrolment nor voting was compulsory. In 1984, electoral enrolment and voting were made compulsory for Aboriginal people, as they had been for non-Aboriginals since the time of nationhood in 1901.

In 1979, the Australian Electoral Commission created the Aboriginal Electoral Enrolment Program – a political education program focused on increasing the proportion of Aboriginal electors who were on the electoral rolls and who voted in elections. Although this initiative was viewed as successful in bringing participation rates closer to the national average, the program was abolished in 1996 in the wake of funding cuts.Footnote 19 In 1984, the Australian Electoral Commission introduced the use of mobile voting procedures to facilitate the participation of Aboriginal electors in sparsely populated regions.

With the development of the federal franchise taking such a long time, it is perhaps not surprising that Aboriginal people in Australia have had a very poor record of success in electing representatives of Aboriginal origin to Parliament. To date, there still has not been a single Aboriginal person elected to the federal House of Representatives, and only two Aboriginal people have been elected to the federal Senate (Neville Bonner, 1972–1983, and Aden Ridgeway, 1999–present).Footnote 20 The greatest electoral success for Aboriginal people has been in the Northern Territory, not surprisingly given their greater proportion of the population in that territory. Nine of the fifteen elected Aboriginal representatives have won seats in the Northern Territory legislature, two have been elected to the state legislature in Western Australia, and one each to the state legislatures in Queensland and Tasmania. The two Aboriginal members elected at the federal level have both been through the Senate (one for Queensland and one for New South Wales). This election to legislative assemblies has not provided an effective outlet for the representation of Aboriginal interests in Australia.

Representation through the Commission

An alternative avenue for Aboriginal participation could be described as functional or neo-corporatist representation.Footnote 21 In this form of representation, a group or organization is given authority (along with governmental funds, in some cases) and is charged with representing the interests of a particular group in discussions with government and in policy development. For example, in 1990, the Australian government created the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), which is comprised of representatives from 35 regional councils in Australia; in 2002–2003 it administered a budget of $1.2 billion (AUD) in support of Aboriginal people. The regional council elections are administered by the Australian Electoral Commission, using procedures (compulsory enrolment and voting) consistent with Australian general elections.Footnote 22 To encourage enrolment and voting, the AEC has developed extensive programs for Aboriginal voter education and mobile polling in sparsely populated areas.

Although functional representation through organizations such as ATSIC has the potential to provide enhanced representation of the interests of Aboriginal people, recent controversies surrounding the senior management of the organization raise questions about its current effectiveness. For example, judicial proceedings are currently underway against the chairman on criminal matters, and public questions have arisen about whether the current leadership has respected its fiduciary responsibilities in the expenditure of public funds. Without commenting on the validity of any of the allegations, what is clear is that the organization itself, and its effectiveness in representing Aboriginal interests, have suffered from the controversy.Footnote 23


The representation of societal interests in government always entails ongoing competition among groups. While representative democracy provides an overall set of principles to link a society to its government (e.g. universal enfranchisement, free and periodic elections), the particular forms used in any context are a function of historical evolution and political choices. With respect to the representation of Aboriginal interests, the New Zealand and Australian cases demonstrate quite different choices and organizational forms.

New Zealand's model of separate electoral districts was taken up in 1991 by the [Canadian] Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing (Lortie Commission) as offering promise for more effective representation of Aboriginal interests in Canada. The proposal by the Lortie Commission involved the creation of a separate Aboriginal voter register, as in New Zealand, with the number of Aboriginal districts dependent upon the number of electors on the Aboriginal register, a procedure adopted in New Zealand with the change to the MMP electoral system in 1993.Footnote 24

In contrast, the [Canadian] Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1996 proposed an alternative set of procedures, based on the establishment of a third order of government to provide Aboriginal self-government, coupled with the creation of a third chamber of Parliament, the Aboriginal Parliament, to coexist with and advise the other two chambers, the House of Commons and the Senate, on matters relating to Aboriginal people. Thus, instead of the election of Aboriginal members to the House of Commons, the recommendation was to insert within the representational system of Canada another elected Parliament, the members of which comprised representatives of Aboriginal nations.Footnote 25 To date, the recommendations on Aboriginal representation of these Royal Commissions appear not to have generated much support within the Canadian federal government.

In the absence of such institutional reform, Aboriginal people in Canada have several options. First, they can operate outside the formal system of parliamentary representation as an organized interest, attempting to influence the highly centralized policy process in Canada. Second, they can work within the party system by attempting to increase the number of Aboriginal people who are nominated as party candidates in ridings where the party has a reasonable chance of success. Third, they may use the courts as a means of addressing policy matters of interest to Aboriginal peoples. Fourth, they can recognize that institutional reform is never complete, and continue to work at building a consensus within and outside of Parliament on proposals for reform. None of these is a simple solution, nor would any of them guarantee success in representing Aboriginal interests in government policy. What these options, which are not mutually exclusive, have in common is the recognition that representation in democratic governance is an ongoing matter, that all groups have the capacity to pursue various representational strategies, and that groups that comprise a small segment of the electorate always face very significant obstacles to the effective representation of their interests in democracies.


Footnote 1 Determining the electoral participation rate of Aboriginal people is notoriously difficult, since few surveys have been undertaken on this topic. For a very useful attempt at this in Canada, see Roger Gibbins, "Electoral Reform and Canada's Aboriginal Population: An Assessment of Aboriginal Electoral Districts," in Robert A. Milen, ed., Aboriginal Peoples and Electoral Reform in Canada, Vol. 9 of The Collected Research Studies, Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1991), pp. 158–161.

Footnote 2 For a discussion of the representational challenges posed by single member plurality electoral systems see, among others, Henry Milner, ed., Making Every Vote Count: Reassessing Canada's Electoral System (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1999).

Footnote 3 In her classic study, The Concept of Representation, Hanna F. Pitkin (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1972) argues that there are a number of forms of representation, including formal, "standing for", and "acting for" representation. One dimension of "standing for" representation is what she describes as descriptive representation, which exists when the characteristics of the representative body mirror the characteristics of those being represented. Therefore, it concerns whether representatives figuratively look like those they represent. With respect to Aboriginal people, a representative body can be said to be descriptively representative if it contains a number of Aboriginal people roughly proportional to their proportion of the electorate.

Footnote 4 Calculated from Statistics New Zealand's estimate of Maori and total population, June 2002. See

Footnote 5 See, for example, Augie Fleras, "Aboriginal Electoral Districts for Canada: Lessons from New Zealand," in Robert A. Milen, ed., Aboriginal Peoples and Electoral Reform, p. 71; and Gibbins, "Electoral Reform and Canada's Aboriginal Population," pp. 161–162.

Footnote 6 Fleras, "Aboriginal Electoral Districts for Canada," p. 71.

Footnote 7 Gibbins, "Electoral Reform and Canada's Aboriginal Population," pp. 161.

Footnote 8 See Fleras, "Aboriginal Electoral Districts for Canada"; Gibbins, "Electoral Reform and Canada's Aboriginal Population."

Footnote 9 For a description of the New Zealand electoral system, see Elections New Zealand, "How Parliament is Elected," n.d., available at

Footnote 10 New Zealand Electoral Commission, "It's your choice," n.d., p. 3, available at

Footnote 11 In New Zealand, voter registration is compulsory but voting is optional.

Footnote 12 Elections New Zealand, New Zealand's electoral system, n.d.

Footnote 13 On the effects of electoral systems, see among many others, David Farrell, Electoral Systems: A Comparative Introduction (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2001).

Footnote 14 Data on the ethnic background of MPs was provided by the Parliamentary Information Service, New Zealand Parliamentary Library.

Footnote 15 Data from the New Zealand Parliamentary Web site,

Footnote 16 See, for example, Gibbins, "Electoral Reform and Canada's Aboriginal Population."

Footnote 17 See Australian Bureau of Statistics, Year Book Australia, 2003, Tables 5.4 and 5.7.

Footnote 18 This section is taken from the timeline presented in Australian Electoral Commission, History of the Indigenous Vote, August 2002, p. 13, available at

Footnote 19 Australian Electoral Commission, History of the Indigenous Vote, pp. 7–14.

Footnote 20 See the complete list of people of Aboriginal origin elected to legislatures in Australia in Australian Electoral Commission, History of the Indigenous Vote, p. iv.

Footnote 21 For a description of neo-corporatist representation, see Phillip C. Schmitter and Gerhard Lehmbruch, eds., Trends Toward Corporatist Intermediation (London: Sage, 1979).

Footnote 22 Australian Electoral Commission, History of the Indigenous Vote, p. 11.

Footnote 23 Details of this controversy were widely broadcast on Australian radio and television, and appeared frequently in the pages of Australian newspapers from March 2003 onwards.

Footnote 24 Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, Final Report, Vol. 1, Reforming Electoral Democracy (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1991), p. 187.

Footnote 25 Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Vol. 2, Restructuring the Relationship, Part One (Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services Canada, 1996), p. 377.


The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.