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Phil Goff: ‘A referendum would rip our community apart’

Auckland mayor Phil Goff talks tough on the need for a dedicated Māori seat on council.

So here’s a cat to throw into the government coalition talks: the Auckland Council wants the new government to let them have a Māori ward, elected by voters on the Māori roll in the same way they elect MPs to the Māori seat in parliament. Winston’s gonna love it.

“Hey,” said Cr Alf Filipaina, a loyal member of the Labour Party, “let’s do this!”

It was his motion, for the mayor to go the Wellington and try to persuade the incoming government, whoever it is, to let the Auckland Council start a process that would create one and maybe two Māori seats around the council table.

In fact, the council can do that now. All they have to do is resolve to eliminate a general ward seat and replace it with a Māori seat. But that’s fraught with its own problems. The main one is that the boundaries of the ward seats correspond to the boundaries of the local boards, so that behind every councillor there is a board of elected members, in charge of various local matters (and soon to get more power and more money to do it with). This setup provides for clean and effective representation, at least in theory. Change the number of general wards and you have to change all the ward boundaries, and there’s no provision in the legislation for doing that.

Auckland Council is the only council in the country that cannot decide for itself how many members it has. This is because it was set up in 2010 under its own act of parliament, and the government of the day (National-led, with the Act Party’s Rodney Hide as local government minister) was very keen to control every aspect of how it would work.

All the council wants now is the authority enjoyed by all the other councils, and if the new government gives it to them, several councillors will use it to push for a Māori seat at the table. Mayor Phil Goff, by the way, contrary to what you might have heard, is a big fan. He made an impressively fiery speech about all this at the council meeting yesterday. More on that below.

The whole thing has come up because council officials were required to report on the council’s options. They put forward three recommendations. First, no change to the current setup, which involves the Independent Māori Statutory Board (IMSB) having speaking and voting rights on council committees (including the big ones like finance and planning), but no rights at the governing body (which is the proper name for what everyone else calls the council). Members of the IMSB are appointed, not elected.

Second, invite citizens to petition for a referendum: the signatures of 5% of electors are required to make a referendum happen, and it would cost $1 million. Third, for the council itself to initiate a referendum at the time of the next council election in 2019, at a cost of $150,000.

Filipaina’s motion came as an amendment. He didn’t support the referendum options because it’s well established that when this issue gets put to a popular vote, the majority shuts it down.

This isn’t the first time the question of Māori seats has come up in Auckland. The royal commission that proposed the super-city council recommended three Māori seats: one appointed by mana whenua and two elected from the Māori roll. But Hide and co didn’t like that. Several thousand people marched up Queen St in 2010 to demand Māori seats, and the Māori affairs minister at the time, Pita Sharples, who was also co-leader of the Māori Party, made a speech promising he would force his National Party colleagues to get it done. It never happened.

Now, the proposal is to have just one Māori seat. This is because the law says the number of Māori seats on a council should be proportionate to the size of the roll, much the same as in parliament. They take the average number of people on the general roll represented by each ward councillor, and apply that ratio to the Māori roll.

At present that means the Māori roll in Auckland would be represented by 1.36 councillors. Obviously the number has to be rounded, so that would become one. But if there were enough voters to get to 1.5, it would be rounded up to two.

Another relevant statistic: 11% of the Auckland population identifies as Māori, but only 5% is on the Māori roll. In other words, if more Māori switched to the Māori roll, there would not only be more Māori seats in parliament, but there could be more Māori seats on the Auckland Council too. The chance to switch will come before the next election.

Greg Sayers, the councillor from Rodney, spoke against Filipaina’s motion. He argued for a referendum, saying that if they didn’t have one they were “not respecting the democratic rights of Auckland citizens”. A couple of other councillors supported that. But most who spoke supported Filipaina.

Mayor Goff spoke last. He had three points to make. The first was that it was absurd Auckland Council could not decide how many members it should have. He did not want to drop a general council seat in favour of a Māori one because that would throw out the ward and local board alignments, and was a bad solution to the problem.

Second, he did not like the way the existing setup relies on non-elected members of the IMSB for the Māori voice at council. “We are a democracy,” he said, “and if we want Māori representation, it’s better to elect it than appoint it.” He added that “in a system where the majority rules, it is always important to ensure that minority rights are respected”.

Third, and this is where he got really fired up, he said that in his view it was “now widely accepted by the vast majority,” that the treaty process involves “addressing genuine grievances”. In his experience, “it is always better to seek solutions that unite and create consensus, rather than aggravate divisions”.

He said, “A referendum would rip our community apart.” He talked about the damage done by referenda in Northern Ireland, and how clearly that showed the referendum process serves only to divide communities. “We need to move forward as one nation of many people. This is not about giving some people disproportionate strength, it’s one person one vote, but you can do it through the Māori roll.”

An important and often overlooked point, that one. Having dedicated Māori representation doesn’t give Māori more than anyone else. It means merely that if you were on the Māori roll you would vote in the Māori ward and not in a general ward.

Goff also said this. “No change is better than a referendum. I want this city to be an inclusive city where we can all move forward together. There is nothing more fundamental to the health of a city, and of a country, than that we have that sense of respect.”

If Winston Peters, or National, or anyone else prevents Auckland Council from being able to establish democratically elected Māori representation, Goff does not want to invite a campaign of Māori bashing disguised as a democratic referendum. He’d rather find another way forward.

The council agreed with him. Alf Filipaina’s amendment was carried 10-5, with six councillors absent. The votes in favour came from the centre-left bloc: Goff, Cathy Casey, Fa’anana Efeso Collins, Chris Darby, Filipaina, Richard Hills, Penny Hulse, Mike Lee, Sir John Walker and John Watson.

The votes against were mostly on the centre-right: Bill Cashmore, Ross Clow, Greg Sayers, Desley Simpson and Sharon Stuart.

simon@thespinoff.co.nz @simonbwilson


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