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What’s the big fuss about Māori seats on councils?

Annie Te One explains why embedding Māori representation in local government shouldn’t be such a big deal. 

After the next local elections, Tauranga City Council will join Wairoa District Council and Bay of Plenty and Waikato Regional Councils in being the only local governments with designated Māori wards. Debates over Māori representation in local government, whether about designated Māori seats or voting rights on committees, are ongoing. Many arguments against Māori representation are well known but confusion still exists about the whole topic. Below are some common questions and concerns, answered.

Are local governments the Crown? Because if they aren’t, do they have obligations to Te Tiriti o Waitangi?

Local governments receive their powers from the Crown and are therefore expected to uphold the governing principles and responsibilities the Crown has. This includes responsibilities to Te Tiriti o Waitangi, which is referenced in important local government legislation, including section four of the Local Government Act 2002.

Do Māori seats encourage separatism and racial inequality?

No, designated Māori seats on local government are in fact aimed at working towards creating equality in decision-making and ensuring there is better collaboration with Māori. Māori wards and constituencies are one avenue through which councils can uphold Te Tiriti o Waitangi obligations and other statutory obligations to include Māori in decision-making. Currently, only about 10% of councillors are Māori, so having Māori seats is one way we can work towards more equal representation in local government.

But maybe if more Māori stood as candidates they’d get elected – what’s stopping them?

Many Māori do in fact stand as candidates in local elections, but many struggle to gain a support base if they seek to champion Māori political rights. Having designated Māori seats is one way Māori voices can be sure to be heard, while still giving Māori constituencies the exact same rights as the rest of the community to cast a single vote for a candidate they prefer.

But if you aren’t voted in by the public, you shouldn’t have a say in council decisions, should you?

Local governments already appoint, and pay, numerous experts who are not councillors to sit on committees and sub-committees. This is to ensure the decisions they make are well informed by experts in different fields. When the first forms of British-informed local government were set up in Wellington in the 1840s, they had surveyors (who were not councillors) present at all council meetings to help develop the city plans. Mana whenua have expertise over their lands and resources that is essential to council decision-making and will make for better-informed decisions that benefit the entire community.

Māori need to win a seat based on their own merit, not through a designated Māori seat.

Being elected to a Māori seat is Māori winning a seat based on their own merit.

Mana whenua can be involved for pōwhiri and ceremony, but not with actual decision-making.

Yes, mana whenua can and should be involved in council ceremonies, if they want to, but simply inviting Māori to open events is not the same as a Te Tiriti o Waitangi partnership. It also ignores the fact pōwhiri and ceremonies are part of wider Māori political practices that in many instances open the floor for political discussion and debate.

Giving Māori a voice on councils will give them more say than other members of the public, won’t it?

Māori are underrepresented in local government politics, so a concern they will have too much say is overstated. More importantly, though, Māori perspectives are not in opposition to the rest of the community; Māori voices come from the public and are good for everyone.

Māori are only 3% of the population in our city and that is too few to warrant a Māori seat.

Te Tiriti o Waitangi is not based on population. Partnership is not dependent on population. In fact, during the debates over Māori seats in Auckland in 2009, the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance argued that even if the Māori population were to decrease, Māori representation would be even more important to ensure Māori perspectives are maintained in local decision-making.

But Te Tiriti o Waitangi doesn’t say anything about Māori representation in local government.

Te Tiriti o Waitangi is explicit that Māori tino rangatiratanga is reaffirmed. This means Māori have the right to be directly involved in the governance of natural resources and other matters in Aotearoa. Tools such as Māori seats, or voting rights on council committees and sub-committees, are one way of working toward tino rangatiratanga. Te Tiriti is also essentially about partnership, which can begin to be met through guaranteed Māori representation.

Local government is doing enough already, with mana whenua consulted on numerous issues.

Many local governments are engaging with Māori in various ways, but, with no accountability measures on what ‘consultation’ actually means, engagement does not always result in Māori voices being clearly taken into account. Mana whenua knowledge is essential and specific expertise, and needs to be treated as such. This can be acknowledged through paid positions, voting rights and guaranteed Māori seats, all of which demonstrate the value of Māori knowledge.

Dr Annie Te One (Te Ātiawa,  Ngāti Mutunga) is a lecturer in Te Kawa a Māui/School of Māori Studies at Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington.




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