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The truth about Māori wards

Nanaia Mahuta has confirmed the Labour government’s commitment to urgently change the law so that councils may establish Māori wards in the same way as general wards. Those in opposition have a lot to say about it – but what are they actually saying?

The release from local government minister Nanaia Mahuta this week states: “The government is supporting councils working to increase representation for Māori in local government by putting in place the same rules to establish Māori wards as general wards for the 2022 local elections.” Mahuta went even further and vowed to halt all current attempts to block councils from creating Māori wards. Some people may be confused about what Māori wards are and some of their benefits, because of a loud but insistent minority who think fair representation equals a separatist state. So here’s the deal.

What are ‘wards’ and what is a ‘Māori ward’?

A general ward is a geographic subdivision of a city or district identified for electoral purposes. Some councils allow voters to elect councillors to represent their ward rather than the district at large because different areas within the district have different needs and priorities.

Similarly, a Māori ward is a form of electoral representation that allows voters who have chosen to be on the Māori roll to elect a representative (or representatives) to their local council. Think of it as the local government version of the seven Māori seats in our Parliament. This is desirable as mana whenua within a district have distinct perspectives which ought to be represented at the local government level.

But only Māori get to vote in these wards? Isn’t that racial separatism?

You’ve been going to Tauranga meetings with Don Brash and his fellow Hobson’s Pledge travellers, haven’t you? But at least he stopped short of former New Conservative Party leader Elliot Ikilei, who reportedly labelled Māori wards “nothing less than Nazi-style racism.” Because Adolf Hitler was well known for his love of establishing mechanisms for increasing meaningful minority participation in democratic governing institutions.

OK, so Elliot Ikilei is clearly a dick, but doesn’t Don Brash have a point?

No. Conflating Māori representation with separatism and racism, and using that as a reason to stamp it out, is exactly the kind of attitude that leads to erasure of indigenous culture.

Separatism, in a nutshell, is advocacy for the separation of one group (be it racial, cultural, political etc) from the larger group. Māori representation in local government means councils working in partnership with Māori, not separate from them. Māori wards are clearly not a form of separatism.

Let’s take a quick moment to hone in on what racism is and is not. Racism is not simply treating people differently based on race. The reality of racism is tied up in systems of power. When a racial group is oppressed by systems of power and is discriminated against based on their race, that is racism.

Say, for example, a group of people have their land taken from them through physical and legal force, are punished for speaking their language, are imprisoned for practising their culture and protecting their land, and then must live under a system of governance built and operated by the people who did that to them – that’s racism. Failure to acknowledge such a history of oppression and its resonating effects is racism. Allowing such oppression to continue is racism.

Creating mechanisms that allow for that group’s representation in decision making is not racism, it’s equity.

Why would a local council want a Māori ward?

Well, ultimately that’s a question for each council to answer as a part of its regular review of representation. Just as councils may decide to establish a ward to allow residents of a specific area to have guaranteed representation around the council table, it may consider it beneficial to have Māori residents do so.

One reason might be that, for whatever reason (*cough* racism *cough*), Māori remain woefully underrepresented in local government around the country. Having a representative elected directly by those on the Māori electoral roll ensures that a specifically Māori perspective is present in the council chamber. Given the ever-increasing legislative importance of recognising and incorporating such perspectives in all public decision-making, that can only lead to better council processes. Māori knowledge and perspectives are hugely beneficial when considering land use,  conservation practises, climate crisis responses, local business, tourism, and the protection of vulnerable communities, for example.

Fine, so why don’t councils just go ahead and create such wards?

They’ve been trying – there are nine councils who want to have such wards in place for the 2022 local elections. But under current law, a council’s decision can be overturned if 5% of voters in a district sign a petition to force a binding vote on whether to establish a Māori ward. In reality, this mechanism only ever gets used to oppose Māori wards. Councils then are bound by the referendum decision for the next two local government elections. And so, despite 24 councils attempting to add Māori representatives over the last 18 years, only two have successfully done so.

In short, local voters have consistently vetoed their council’s decision to set up Māori wards. As New Plymouth councillor Amanda Clinton-Gohdes notes, this is a completely different process to other local government representation decisions. Adding or removing elected representatives from “ordinary” wards can only be reviewed by an independent Local Government Commission. But the creation of Māori wards, and Māori wards alone, can be vetoed by the local population irrespective of how well reasoned and justified the council choice might be. Does that sound fair or equitable to you?

What about those who’ve signed petitions asking for a referendum on current proposals? Is the petition still valid?

Not under Nanaia Mahuta’s proposal: “The Bill proposes that any demands … for a poll will not have any effect, even if they are lodged … before the Bill comes into force.” Whether or not you view this as a bad thing depends on if you think it’s OK to let majorities decide how minorities can be represented. As Khylee Quince noted in relation to the cannabis referendum, majority votes do not well serve minorities where the differential impacts on the general population versus the relevant minority are not explicitly obvious. In other words, non-Māori residents simply don’t know what it is like to be part of a group routinely excluded from collective decisions for the community.

And if that is so, why should they get to decide whether to let Māori in through the council chamber door?

Updated 9 February: This article wrongly identified Elliot Ikilei as the leader of the New Conservative Party. Ikilei stood down as leader on 30 December 2020, but for some reason nobody noticed.




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