an orange sign saying "bote" with a questionmark voice box doming out of it
What are Māori wards? (Image: Shanti Mathias)

PoliticsMay 27, 2024

The Māori wards bill, explained

an orange sign saying "bote" with a questionmark voice box doming out of it
What are Māori wards? (Image: Shanti Mathias)

To fulfil National’s coalition agreements with Act and NZ First, a bill currently going through parliament is reversing changes made to increase Māori representation in local government.

National’s coalition agreements with both NZ First and Act include a commitment to “restore the right to local referendum on the establishment or ongoing use of Māori wards, including requiring a referendum on any wards established without referendum at the next local body elections”. Now, the legislation that fulfils that commitment is going through parliament: a very short submissions period is open now – more on which later – and the second reading is imminent. 

There’s a longer history to Māori wards, and they’ve been contested, usually by a very small group of people, the whole way. Here’s some more context to understand what they are and why they matter.

What are Māori wards? 

Māori wards work like Māori seats in parliament, but at a local government level; they’re a way for voters on the Māori electoral roll to be specifically represented on local councils. Just like many councils have seats assigned to geographic areas so those people can give that area a voice, Māori ward seats allow Māori to be democratically represented on council. Because the electoral rolls are the same as for national elections, Māori don’t have to vote for the Māori ward, and can choose which electoral roll to be on. 

Māori are underrepresented in local government, and creating the option to have Māori wards was one way to guarantee a baseline of representation. 

Which councils have Māori wards? 

The Local Electoral Act (2001) created the option for Maōri wards, but there wasn’t widespread take-up. This was mostly because the creation of a Māori ward could be challenged by a petition: if 5% of the council’s population signed, a binding referendum on whether or not to establish a Māori ward would be held. Of the 24 councils that tried to create Māori wards before 2021, only two succeeded. 

But in the 2022 elections, dozens of councils, including Wellington, New Plymouth, Hamilton and Gisborne, had their first Māori councillors elected. Dozens more have decided to create a Māori ward from the 2025 elections. Auckland, Dunedin and Christchurch are the major cities without Māori wards, and while Tauranga will have a Māori ward for its election in July, it can choose to have a referendum about it once under elected officials again

Additionally, Environment Canterbury, a regional council, has no Māori ward, but a guarantee of Ngāi Tahu representation through a separate act of parliament.

a picture of a table labeled with 'maori ward', the mayor, albany ward, rodney ward, and a few other Auckland Council wards
Auckland Council doesn’t have Māori seats, despite a consultation period last year (Image: Archi Banal)

Why were so many Māori wards created in the last few years? 

Because of the referendum provision, many early attempts at establishing Māori wards were voted down by a small (but vocal) majority of people – particularly because local government elections have notoriously low turnout, where older, home-owning Pākehā are the most likely to vote. 

In 2021, then local government minister Nanaia Mahuta changed the rules so that councils could establish a new Māori ward for the 2022 elections without a petition being able to force a referendum. This meant that many councils created Māori wards in time for the 2022 elections, and many more created Māori wards for the 2023 elections. 

So what is the government proposing now? 

National, Act and NZ First – as well as lobby groups like Hobson’s Pledge – consistently opposed the changes made by the previous government. Reverting the Māori ward rules to restore the referendum mechanism – including for councils that have already established them – was part of the coalition agreements last year. 

The proposed law would restore the old rules, meaning that if any council wanted to establish a Māori ward in future and a petition that had been signed by 5% of people was presented, a binding referendum would have to be held. Additionally, the bill requires that all the councils that created Māori wards since 2021 have to hold a poll about whether to keep them at the 2025 local elections, with the results of the poll to be binding and come into force in 2028. They could instead choose to disestablish the wards without a poll.

A handful of councils, including Wairoa and Bay of Plenty, that had Māori wards already wouldn’t need to go through the process of holding referendums.

NZ First leader Winston Peters said, “We campaigned on [Māori wards], that this democracy should be equal.” Local government minister Simeon Brown said the government was “restoring democracy” and called the earlier changes divisive.

a black and white picture of the beehive with a tino rangatiratanga flag
There are Māori seats in parliament, but representation isn’t guaranteed at the local government level.

What do people in local government think? 

Many local government leaders think this bill is inconsistent, as other local government changes – like establishing rural wards for people in remote areas to have guaranteed representation, or just establishing a new general ward  – don’t require referendums to create. “We made the same case last time this was changed. It’s not that we’re saying there should be Māori wards or that there shouldn’t be Māori wards. We’re just saying when that decision is made by council it shouldn’t be subject to referenda when no other ward or constituency decision needs to go to referenda also,” Local Government New Zealand president Sam Broughton told RNZ

More than 50 mayors and regional council chairpeople signed a letter to the government criticising the bill, according to reporting by 1News’s Maiki Sherman“There are bigger things to worry about with local government,” Palmerston North mayor Grant Smith told Sherman, citing water and infrastructure issues as more pressing concerns. “It’s such an overreach and I do think there’s no local in this.”  

Are there other criticisms?

There are. An urgent Waitangi Tribunal report found the requirement to have a referendum was in breach of the Treaty of Waitangi. Kassie Hartendorp, from activist platform ActionStation, said that scrapping the rules would “purely advance an ideological agenda, instead of respecting what is best for local communities”.

In the debate about the bill at its first reading, opposition politicians were strongly against it. Labour’s Kieran McAnulty described it as “appalling”; the Green Party’s spokesperson for Māori development, Hūhana Lyndon, also criticised the bill, saying “Māori wards were created to help provide equitable representation in local government, and the aim of this legislation is to make establishing Māori wards harder than it is to establish general council wards.” Te Pāti Māori’s Mariameno Kapa-Kingi mentioned the example of the Far North District Council’s Māori ward councillors, who she said had helped Māori in remote areas of the district have greater confidence in their local councils. “Disestablishing Māori wards further undermines councils’ autonomy in their rohe,” she said.

While Brown has said the cost to ratepayers would be minimal, others have said it could be upwards of $100,000.

What can I do if I have an opinion about this law change? 

As with most democratic processes, it’s possible to submit on the bill to give your direct feedback. But you’ll have to get in fast: the submission period while the bill is at select committee stage ends on Wednesday, meaning only five days have been given to submit on the bill. (Most submission periods are open for at least six weeks.). Opposition parties weren’t happy. “This is a blatant attempt at doing democracy in the dark,” said Lyndon.

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