14 Feb 2021

Māori wards: A voice on local council grounded in the Māori world view

5:25 pm on 14 February 2021

Explainer - There are more Māori in parliament than ever, but that level of representation is not matched in city and regional councils.

Labour Maori caucus - from left: Kiri Allan, Peeni Henare, Nanaia Mahuta, Kelvin Davis, Meka Whaitiri, Willie Jackson, Adrian Rurawhe, and Rino Tirikatene.

Labour's Māori caucus (from left) Kiri Allan, Peeni Henare, Nanaia Mahuta, Kelvin Davis, Meka Whaitiri, Willie Jackson, Adrian Rurawhe, and Rino Tirikatene. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Māori make up 20 percent of Cabinet - and almost a third of the executive - but while there's no shortage of Māori in the Beehive, it has long been a struggle for tangata whenua to be represented at a local government level.

Only 13.5 percent of councillors are Māori, an increase on 2007 where local elected Māori membership was a mere 5 percent.

A legislation change in 2002 which allowed councils to set up Māori wards was intended to improve this, but the binding referendum provision has vetoed almost all council moves to establish a Māori ward in their district.

Only two of the 24 councils which have tried to set it up have been successful, leaving locally elected representatives frustrated their attempts to be better Treaty partners have been thwarted.

Former Local Government New Zealand president Dave Cull said the provision was inconsistent with the principle of equal treatment enshrined in the Treaty of Waitangi.

In a letter to Minister of Local Government Nanaia Mahuta, Nelson Mayor Rachel Reese said what should be a "positive step for Māori and council partnership" was instead being "overshadowed by a discriminatory polling process."

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Nelson Mayor Rachel Reese. Photo: RNZ / Tracy Neal

She said Māori representatives bring te ao Māori values which could aid in the tackling of major issues like climate change.

Northland Regional Council chair Penny Smart agreed there was much to be gained from councils and tangata whenua working together "on a more equal footing".

Having strong Māori central government representation was not a substitute for this, Labour MP Willie Jackson said.

"So many decisions are made at local level and people forget how important local councils are in terms of the rates, in terms of the everyday happenings in the suburbs so I've always encouraged our people to get involved, but they almost give up when it's election time because they get shutout by the majority," he said.

However, not all Māori MPs are onboard.

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Tauranga MP Simon Bridges. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

In the House this week, Tauranga MP Simon Bridges said it was insulting as a Māori man because it implied he wasn't good enough to win the vote of a non-Māori.

But East Coast MP Kiri Allan said Māori elected in general seats, like herself and Bridges, had different mandates.

Minister of Conservation Kiri Allan at the Hihiaua Centre in Whangārei on 5 February, 2021

East Coast MP Kiri Allan. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Similarly to the Māori seats in central government, Māori wards were designed specifically to bring forward the "views and aspirations of whānau, hapū and iwi," she said.

Gisborne district councillor Meredith Akuhata-Brown agrees.

As a Waikato-Tainui descendant, she doesn't whakapapa to the region she represents and so was unable to bring the mātauranga (knowledge) of the land to the council table like a mana whenua representative could.

"I see this as actually an opportunity for people to understand that for a long time the knowledge of the landscape we've been... elected to govern, there's actually local people who are from the land that have generational knowledge passed down to them, and who have always had to come to council to make submissions, to constantly battle in this space to be heard.

"When it comes to set knowledge about landscape, around how our awa have moved, even with regard to whenua that have been used as dumps, all of these things that come up for council to deliberate on... we keep talking about who sits around those tables [and] having mana whenua, having people from the local iwi and hapū sit at the council table with that knowledge, in my view is going to be such a benefit."

Ultimately, though Akuhata-Brown said the decision as to whether those running in Māori wards should whakapapa to the region should be up to each individual council along with the local iwi and hapū of each area to determine.

Māori Party co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer wants to go one step further than wards to "guarantee" Māori representation by making mana whenua representation on councils compulsory.

But before that is considered, the proposed bill to make it easier to establish Māori wards is being thrashed out in a short select committee phase that finishes up on Monday.

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