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Local Election

Local ElectionsSeptember 18, 2019

Race briefing: The highly successful Māori wards in the Bay of Plenty

Local Election

The Bay of Plenty Regional Council was the first in New Zealand to vote in Māori ward seats. This election, the region’s longest-standing Māori councillor is up against some fierce competition from a former broadcaster who’s already put his skills to use in a viral video.

The Spinoff local election coverage is entirely funded by The Spinoff Members. For more about becoming a member and supporting The Spinoff’s journalism click here.


The Bay of Plenty region is a long strip of land on the East Coast of the north island that stretches inland as far as Taupō. 

The region has a Māori population of around 28%, and 38% of the land that makes up the region is Māori-owned. Its three Māori wards are Ōkurei, Mauāo and Kohi. Kohi is the largest, representing the iwi of Ngāti Rangitihi in the West to Ngāti Porou in the East, and just past Ngāti Whare in the South.

Ōkurei covers Rotorua, and represents iwi from Ngāti Kearoa/Ngāti Tuarā in its west to Ngāti Tūwharetoa (Taupō) in the south. Mauāo stretches down the bay from the six iwi of Pare Hauraki to Ngāti Makino. Each of these wards has one seat on the council.

What are the Māori wards?

As part of a local council’s commitments under the Local Government Act, it must allow space for Māori to contribute to decision-making, but for most councils, this space has been very small. A seat on an independent board or council-adjacent committee is what most councils around Aotearoa have ‘gifted’ to their local Māori, but a handful of councils, Bay of Plenty Regional Council included, voted to establish Māori wards, to ensure Māori voices are being heard at the council level. 

The wards are a hugely (and stupidly) contested topic in New Zealand. Several councils (Whakatane, New Plymouth, Palmerston North, Manuwatū, Whakatāne and Western Bay of Plenty, Waipa, Kaikoura and probably more places) have voted to establish Māori wards only to then have them abolished by binding public referendum. 

For the Bay of Plenty Regional Council, Māori wards are working well, and luckily they were set up before the Local Government Electoral Amendment Act 2002 allowed the public to vote in opposition to their establishment. BoP Regional Council has three Māori wards, each with one seat on the council. To vote in these wards, you must be Māori and have selected this option on your enrollment forms. While certain Pākehā groups are adamant these seats represent some sort of “reverse racism”, this system ensures Māori councillors are voted in by the very people they will be representing, Māori people. 

What are the issues?

Water, mainly. The region is home to the Rotorua Te Arawa lakes, Tauranga Harbour, Ōhiwa Harbour and the Whakatāne, Kaituna, Rangitāiki and Wairoa Rivers, all very significant bodies for local Māori. Hydraulic oil spilled into Tauranga Harbour earlier this year and in the two years up to mid-2018, there were over 40 oil spills into this harbour, but only one that was prosecuted.

The council currently spends $30m a year on protecting the region’s freshwater sources, and Māori input is crucial to understand the value of the awa and roto in the Bay of Plenty.

Youth engagement. This problem isn’t specific to the Bay of Plenty region. In fact, it’s nationwide. Youth don’t engage with local body politics. That is, until Toi Iti found signs that it may be getting better.

Climate change. Earlier this year, the Bay of Plenty Regional Council voted in support of declaring a climate emergency in the coastal region, joining six other councils in New Zealand in the declaration. Rising sea waters are predicted to lead to increased coastal erosion and flooding, which, in an area that hugs a bay, could be very bad.

The Ministry for the Environment also says the warmer weather could mean an increase in water and food-borne diseases and viruses like salmonella. Yay. 

Who is running?

One of the seats, the Ōkurei ward, will be going to Te Taru White, former chairperson of Te Tatau o Te Arawa who is running uncontested.

The race starts to get interesting when you move east to Kohi. The ward seat has been held by Tiipene Marr since the Māori seats were introduced to BoP regional council in 2004. This year, however, his position is being contested by former actor and director, Toi Kai Rakau Iti, who recently got over 17,000 views on a Facebook video reacting to a cock and balls being tagged on one of his billboards.

Iti’s father is Tūhoe Māori activist Tame Iti, known for participating in many protest movements, including against the Vietnam War and apartheid in South Africa in the 70s and 80s and recognised by many for his tā moko.

Iti’s main campaign message is centred around water: “Te Mana o te Wai, Protect our Water.” In his Policy Local description, Iti says looking after the environment is the most important thing he can do as a councillor. 

“This is what motivates me as it is from the whenua we came and it is to the whenua we will return. This is a Māori world view and I stand to articulate and whakamana this perspective.”

Marr has held the seat for the last 15 years, and has been vocal about the Māori ward project and how it’s helped the region over that time. He told The Spinoff in April that Māori-appointed councillors have been instrumental in ensuring Māori constituencies are heard and understood.

“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.”

Marr’s online presence is very small (if not non-existent) leading into this campaign, which seems like an oversight, especially since he’s up against a candidate making hit videos off the back of a bit of c&b graffiti.

In Mauao, current councillor Matemoana McDonald is running again, and her competition is Riki Nelson, a contractor/project manager from Arataki. Nelson is campaigning strongly on climate change action, with specific focus on the impacts it will have on Māori. 

“Our waterways are polluted, climate change will impose serious impacts on the environment and people and outside iwi are pushing for recognition as mana whenua in Tauranga Moana… Climate change will impact Māori negatively across economy, social and health statistics.”

McDonald was elected to the position in 2017 after a by-election following the passing of councillor Awanui Black. She has been a staunch advocate for mental illness support for Māori and for the protection and regeneration of freshwater sources in the BoP.

“We learned from the Hawke’s Bay experience the need to protect our drinking water. There should never again be loss of life through contaminated water. We’ve seen the impact on our rivers through contamination via urban growth and/or unmonitored farming practices. Sweeping plan changes are under way to address this but that’s only the beginning of what’s needed to protect the water.

“For us as Māori the kaupapa is huge too. We have a role to play as kaitiaki to protect the water as well as taking care of our own needs and development.”

Where can I find out more?

On Policy Local, our nationwide candidate comparison tool, of course.

What is the voting method?

The bad one – First Past the Post.

The Spinoff local election coverage is entirely funded by The Spinoff Members. For more about becoming a member and supporting The Spinoff’s journalism click here.

Read all our local election race briefings here.

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