Māori ward councillors dismayed over referendums move

7:42 am on 5 April 2024
Wellington City Councillor Nīkau Wi Neera.

Wellington city councillor Nīkau Wi Neera has concerns for his fellow Māori ward councillors across the country. Photo: Supplied

Māori ward councillors say the government's plan to reintroduce referendums for councils to bring in their role is absurd and cruel.

On Thursday, Local Government Minister Simeon Brown announced councils which brought in Māori wards without polling residents will need to hold one - or scrap the wards they had set up. The results of those referendums would be binding and take effect from the 2028 local government term.

In 2022, Labour abolished the requirement for local councils to hold a referendum on Māori wards, saying rural and other wards did not face that requirement.

Manawatū District Council Māori ward representative Bridget Bell said she was not shocked by the announcement, but the timing of the referendum was cruel.

Councillors would now face double the pressure of winning re-election while convincing voters that Māori wards have value, she said.

Bridget Bell represents the Ngā Tapuae o Matangi Māori Ward on Manawatū District Council.

Manawatū District Council Māori ward representative Bridget Bell Photo: Supplied / Bridget Bell

"I think that is such a cruel reality now is that you worked extremely hard during elections to earn your seat then find out there's no seat at the table."

She believed it was hypocritical for the National Party to stand candidates in the Māori seats at the national level while potentially abolishing Māori seats at a local level.

Local Government Minister Simeon Brown said requiring referendums on Māori wards would restore the rights of communities to decide whether or not to introduce Māori wards.

"Local community members deserve to have a say in their governance arrangements," Brown said.

"The Coalition government's view is that any decision to establish or disestablish a Māori ward is one that should remain with communities. This does not affect councils' responsibilities to consult with mana whenua on issues that affect them."

He said the government had decided to require the referendums to take place at the same time as the election "so that the cost is minimised", but "ultimately the only cost will be if an extra piece of paper needs to be printed and the cost to count an additional vote".

"We've been advised it's going to be a minimal cost if any."

Wellington city councillor Nīkau Wi Neera said he found out his job may be on the line while in hospital.

"The idea that it's about fairness is absurd. What it's really about is a race-based agenda from ACT and New Zealand First, and the government lacking the backbone to stand up to them and do what's right," he said.

He was not worried for his job but had concerns for some of his fellow Māori ward councillors across the country.

Wellington Mayor says govt 'out of step and out of date'

Tory Whanau

Wellington Mayor Tory Whanau says she work through this with mana whenua and iwi partners before responding further. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Wellington Mayor Tory Whanau said she was committed to Māori representation in the city and had no plans to remove the Māori ward at Wellington City Council.

"This is a concerning example of central government overruling a democratically made local government decision. This is over and above a reversion to the law of 2021, which only required a poll if demanded by a certain number of citizens.

"I question whether this complies with the Crown's obligations to Māori under Te Tiriti. This government is out of step and out of date with these changes to legislation and our democracy. I will work through this with our mana whenua and iwi partners before responding further."

The previous government's decision to abolish the need for a referendum on Māori wards had helped to increase representation in local councils to its highest rate ever, Whanau said.

"It is so important that we continue to not only recognise but uphold tangata whenua perspectives in decision-making and in the council chamber. Ultimately, it is better for all of us."

On Thursday, Brown denied the government's plan was overreach, saying it was "a Coalition commitment, we've made it very clear ... this is about local communities making decisions about their representation and how those representation decisions are made, it's putting the legislation back to what it was only a few years ago".

Councils including Wairoa District, Waikato Regional and the Bay of Plenty Regional would not be affected as their Māori wards were set up before the removal of poll requirements.

Ōpōtiki District's wards would also not be affected as they were set up after voluntarily holding a poll at the 2022 elections, which was in favour.

The government planned to introduce legislation in the coming months, to be passed by the end of July.

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