8 May 2024

Fourth urgent inquiry by the Waitangi Tribunal, this time on Māori wards

4:03 pm on 8 May 2024
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(file image). Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

The Waitangi Tribunal is conducting another urgent inquiry into plans to require councils to hold a binding referendum on Māori wards.

It adds to a growing list of urgent Tribunal inquiries into government policies, taking the number to four since the government took office.

In April, Local Government Minister Simeon Brown announced the move, saying it would reverse the previous government's "divisive changes that denied local communities the ability to determine" if Māori wards were set up.

Speaking to RNZ, lead claimaint and Indigenous Rights campaigner Te Raukura O'Connell Rapira (Te Ātiawa, Ngāruahine, Ngāpuhi, Te Rarawa, Ngāti Whakaue) said the government was feeling threatened by the progress that Aotearoa had made towards becoming a more Tiriti-honouring society.

"The proposal to remove Māori wards, or force councils to put them to a referendum is just the latest attack in a long string of attacks. In the past few years Aotearoa has gone from having three councils with Māori wards to 49 who now have them or will have them at the 2025 local elections.

"We don't govern our way towards a better, more harmonious, future through bullying and division. We govern our way to a more harmonious future through consensus-based and participatory decision making - that's what we're trying to protect," they said.

The government had massively overreached into the jurisdiction of local councils, Rapira said.

"They're bringing colonised thinking, fear and projection to these spaces when, actually, the councils that have put in place Māori wards have been through their own localised processes because those councils are more in touch with the community than some bureaucrats in Wellington.

"Not only are they riding roughshod over their Treaty obligations, they're also riding roughshod over their supposed belief in liberal democracy.

"We have a famous whakataukī in the Māori world which says, 'With your food basket and my food basket, the people will thrive'. They bring the baskets of knowledge contained within the Māori world together with the baskets of knowledge contained within the non-Māori world so that all of Aotearoa and the people that call this place home can thrive," they said.

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon said all three parties in his government campaigned on restoring the rights of communities to determine whether to introduce Māori wards.

Luxon told RNZ the tribunal was free to do what it wanted, but the change was well sign-posted.

When the Coalition reviewed the focus and scope of the Tribunal in a post-treaty settlement world, it would be done in a proper and considered way, Luxon said.

Claimant evidence and opening submissions were due 8 May, with the Crown's evidence and opening submissions due 10 May. Claimants will then have until 14 May for closing submissions and reply to the Crown.

The Tribunal has to release its report before 20 May, when the government is set to introduce the bill.

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