Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images

The Māori ward project is failing, and it’s hurting New Zealand democracy

Traditional local council structures are shutting out indigenous voices. Māori wards were supposed to be the answer – so why are so few being created?

Local government elections occur every three years, and are a chance to decide who we want to represent us in our local councils. But year after year, proposals to establish Māori wards, meant to provide accurate representation for Māori people on their local governments, are voted down by councils and their constituencies. From Te Tai Tokerau to Te Wai Pounamu, the Māori ward project is failing.

The Human Rights Commission in 2010 identified Māori representation in local government as one of the top 10 race relations priorities for 2010, saying “unless positive steps are taken, Māori representation in local government will continue to languish well below the proportion of Māori in the population.”

The Bay of Plenty Council was the first in New Zealand to establish Māori wards, in 2004. Tīpene Perenara Marr (Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāti Rangitihi, Te Ātiawa) has held one of the Māori seats on the Bay of Plenty Council since they were established.

He says in that time, the seats have been beneficial for not just the BOP region, but an example for wider New Zealand.

“We have made a better space for Māori in all Māori seats across New Zealand. Unfortunately councils and Pākehā people don’t see it that way sometimes. The thing they need to understand is we’re not getting power. The seats mean we’re getting representation. We’re getting opinion, we’re getting a say.”

Councillor Tīpene Marr (back row, far right) representing Kōhi on the BOP Regional Council, 2011. Source: Te Ara

The Local Government Act requires that councils include a place for Māori to contribute to decision making. But instead of making seats available at the main table, to fulfil their legal obligation councils usually make space on independent boards and advisory committees. The problem is, there’s a huge difference between being on an advisory panel and being part of the group who makes the final decisions.

Former New Plymouth mayor Andrew Judd says this difference is crucial. “Councils make decisions around the environment and if Māori aren’t at the table in a real way, then you’ve got a massive problem and a disconnect, and we do.”

Legislation allowing petitions to force public votes on the establishment of Māori wards has been challenged many times. In 2017 Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson proposed an amendment to Parliament: If a territorial authority or regional council resolves to establish a Māori ward or constituency, a poll on the issue must be held if 5 percent of the electors of the city, district, or region request it,” she explained at the time. “That is all it takes. The result of such a poll is binding on the authority or council for at least two elections.”

“There is no equivalent requirement applicable to the establishment of general wards or constituencies. Ensuring that the establishment of Māori wards follows the same legal process as the establishment of general wards is the very least we can do to ensure better Māori representation in local government, so that our people have a voice in the decisions that affect us.”

Her bill failed to get its first reading, with National, New Zealand First and the ACT party voting against it.

In New Plymouth, Andrew Judd tried and failed to get a bill passed to create a Māori seat during his time as the mayor from 2013 to 2016. His council voted in favour of establishing one Māori ward in the region but a petition started by two of the opposing councillors caused the decision to go to a binding referendum, and 85% of the 21,000 votes cast were against.

Treaty revisionist group Hobson’s Pledge has backed many petitions around the country in opposition to the establishment of Māori wards. They took aim at Māori wards in Tauranga, and even have a dedicated page on their website named “separatists gallery” where they list local board members who voted in favour of Māori wards.

Bay of Plenty councillor Tīpene Marr says he is in favour of a democratic vote, but it should be up to Māori to decide whether they want the seats – not the general public, who often don’t understand why they’re necessary.

The biggest problem with Māori seats not getting into councils is that it goes out to a vote and, of course, Pākehā in the constituency say ‘no, no, no, we don’t want to give Māori any power.’ It’s old and draconian. It should be just Māori voting whether they want Māori seats or not, otherwise it will always get outvoted.”

Professor Janine Hayward of the University of Otago is an expert on local politics, and says the system of electing local government has been set up to exclude minorities.

“First Past the Post, when it’s used in local government elections, produces some of the most disproportional results you could ever get in an election. It makes it really hard for groups like Māori to get elected. The electoral system is distorting how to get there.”

She says these barriers stopping Māori people from being elected also have an effect on the numbers of Māori who then turn out to vote, and mean that Māori communities are distancing themselves from the ‘official’ forms of local government that have been set up.

“If nobody in council looks like you and talks about the issues that you find important, why would you turn out to support them. I think in some places the horse has already bolted but Māori are post-settlement really significant socio-economic landowners and asset holders and councils are going to miss the opportunity to engage with that because Māori are finding other ways to organise themselves to engage with their communities.”

Former New Plymouth Mayor Andrew Judd (left) and Professor Janine Hayward (right)

Councillor Marr says the Māori seats on the BOP council have made a huge impact on Māori engagement in local politics.

“When there’s trouble in a hapu or someone is not seeing eye to eye with the council or they just come up against a brick wall at the marae, they come to us, the Māori councillors. It’s easier to take a Māori councillor onto a marae to try to iron out a problem. You get respect among your voters, your beneficiaries, know you’re out there standing up for them, so you can actually get in there and figure out how to fix problems.”

The lack of Māori representation on councils was made extremely apparent recently when a path was cut into the side of Te Mata peak at the end of 2017, a move that was approved by the Hastings District Council without consulting local iwi during the consent process.

Te Mata peak is, to local iwi, more than just a hill. It is the body of chief Rongokako, the grandfather of Kahungunu, and ancestor of all iwi of Ngāti Kahungunu. He died trying to eat through the hills between the coast and the plains to prove his love to Hinerakau, the daughter of a Pakipaki chief. Rongokako choked on a piece of earth and his prostrate body formed Te Mata Peak.

The work and money that went into building the track and subsequently taking it apart and restoring the peak could have been used to develop other local initiatives in the area, and if Māori had been represented on the council that made the final decision, maybe it would have.

There are Māori people on councils all over the country, and a common argument sprouting from this is that fair representation already exists in local government. But there is a difference between being Māori and representing Māori. Plenty of councils across New Zealand have members with Māori ancestry, but their policy doesn’t necessarily reflect Māori people, because they weren’t elected to do that.

Judd says those opposed to Māori wards use this argument regularly, but he says “just because you identify as Māori does not mean you speak for Māori. I’m Anglican but I don’t speak for the Anglican church. If you’re Māori or your whakapapa is Māori in a mainstream party, you answer to the mainstream, you don’t answer to Māori.”

Councillor Marr explains that Māori who have been voted in by Māori don’t have the pressure of appealing to Pākehā voters. “Māori elected by the wider community have to be nice in how they speak because they have a whole lot of Pākehā people who voted for them as well. I can say what I truly believe, I can be more ruthless and I don’t have to please the people I don’t represent.”

Professor Hayward says a lot of opposition to Māori wards is because people have been given and believe misinformation about what they actually represent, and she says this opposition is borne out of a fear of losing authority.

“Sometimes people misunderstand and feel that somehow Māori are somehow being represented twice or it is just literally a lack of clarity about what it means. But there is still a real resistance, wherever authority is going to change there is a resistance. Especially from those in authority.”

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Judd believes the opposition comes from a somewhat more racist place, whether that is conscious or not. “We grab all the Māori culture when it suits us, we have the tokenistic karakia at the council meeting, we have some carvings, we have the onsite local Māori person, but the truth is we’re not partners, we’re not sharing or partnering or understanding, legislation allows us to petition partnership. Whether you think seats are or are not the best solution, to empower yourself to petition is empowering your racism and empowering a Pākehā system.”

He says the law that allows people to petition the voice of New Zealand’s indigenous population out of having a say is “horrendous,” and “colonises Māoridom.”

“We’ve tweaked legislation to suit our white supremist system, right to the point of being able to petition the Māori voice should a council like New Plymouth try to put in a seat for Māori.”


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