The government is to introduce legislation to uphold council decisions to establish Māori wards, said Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta who made the announcement in New Plymouth today.
The first stage of the legislative reform would include immediate changes to establish transitional measures making the establishment of Māori wards easier ahead of the 2022 local elections.
Mahuta said the current system had a different set of rules for establishing Māori and general wards and that councils had asked for a law change.
The current law allows the decision of an elected council to introduce a Māori ward to be overturned by a local poll. Just 5 percent of support is needed for a poll to be demanded.
Mahuta said the rules needed to change.
"The process of establishing a ward should be the same for both Māori and general wards. These are decisions for democratically-elected councils, who are accountable to the public every three years.
"Polls have proven to be an almost insurmountable barrier to councils trying to improve the democratic representation of Māori interests. This process is fundamentally unfair to Māori."
Legislative reform to Māori wards processes would be progressed in two stages over the next three years.
The second stage would develop a permanent mechanism for local authorities to consider the establishment of Māori wards and constituencies.
Mahuta said increasing Māori representation would be a good thing.
"Increasing Māori representation is essential to ensuring equity in representation and to provide a Māori voice in local decision making. It will also lead to greater Māori participation in the resource management process.
"We know the importance of diversity around the council table and, as part of the government's commitment to working to honour Te Tiriti o Waitangi, we need to do our part to enable councils to achieve fair representation. Like in Parliamentary elections, specific Māori seats can assist with this.
"Māori and non-Māori across New Zealand have been calling for these changes for some time, including the recent presentation of two petitions with more than 11,000 signatures to Parliament."
On 4 December a petition was delivered to MPs urging them to get rid of legislation that enabled referenda on Māori wards.
ActionStation collected more than 10,000 signatures calling for Parliament to make the process of establishing Māori wards for district and regional councils the same as the process for establishing general wards.
The councillor driving the petition for a poll on the establishment of a Māori ward in New Plymouth said the government's decision to intervene was a sad day in history.
Murray Chong said the government was muzzling ratepayers.
"I think it's a sad day in history personally, because we've got a government not wanting to get feedback from their people."
Chong said New Zealand should be encouraging more binding referendums rather than taking them away.
ACT Leader David Seymour said the plan was "deeply divisive".
"New Zealand's electoral system should focus on our common interests and treat voters equally, but Labour's plan for Māori wards would take us down a divisive path."
Seymour said he did not believe Māori wards were necessary to achieve representation.
"Making laws that give people different rights based on who their great-grandparents were is fundamentally divisive.
"We joke about this government being undemocratic, but I never thought I'd see Labour taking away the right to vote just because they don't like people's choices," he said.
ACT is proposing to instead expand voters' rights to allow them to recall any scheme put forward by councillors.
"Power over democratic institutions should rest with the people who pay the rates, not the people who spend it," Seymour said.
- Since 2002, 24 councils have attempted to establish Māori wards using the process under the Local Electoral Act 2001 and only two have been successful so far
- Nine councils have decided to establish Māori wards for the 2022 local elections, joining three councils who established these at earlier elections. The government will support these councils' decisions to improve Māori representation
LI] The new legislation will also extend the deadline for councils to consider Māori wards to 21 May 2021, providing them with a fresh opportunity to make decisions on Māori representation at the 2022 local elections.