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Maori Wards must be decided by ratepayers, not councils alone

April 12, 2021

While Hamilton City Council and the Taranaki Regional Council appear to be approaching the thorny issue of Maori Wards for local bodies from completely different positions, they are in fact both taking exactly the right course.

The Taranaki Regional Council recently resolved to establish a Maori ward in time for the 2022 local body elections. Before making that decision, the regional council had the time to ask ratepayers what they thought of the idea. There was a disappointingly low response but, of 383 submission received 55 per cent approved the concept. The regional council could then justifiably claim a public mandate for the proposal.

When the Hamilton City Council was faced with the same proposal last week Mayor Paula Southgate said she also wanted a community discussion on Maori wards before asking her council to make the decision but did not have the time before the May 21 deadline. She said the best way to consult with ratepayers would be when the council adopts its strategy Pillars of Wellbeing strategy later this year. But that will be after the deadline for the 2022 local body elections. There will no doubt be adverse criticisms of both local bodies for those decisions but both have made the right decisions for the right reasons. 

While Government has legislated to remove the previous right of five percent of ratepayers to demand a binding referendum on Maori wards, there remains an obligation for all local bodies to consult with their communities on such fundamental changes. 

The Hamilton City Council does not have to wait for the adoption of their well-being strategy to consult ratepayers on a Maori ward and that decision is to be reconsidered. Making a decision on such a ward however should not be made without public consultation.   

It is too easy to label those who disagree, or agree, with Maori wards as racist but both sides to the debate have done that already. Many people on both sides of the question have strongly held opinions based on equality and the high principles of democracy and it is simply wrong to suggest they are all racist.   

There appears also an assumption that non-Maori voters will not vote for Maori candidates so having dedicated Maori seats is the only way to have Maori on councils. The number of Maori in general seats in Parliament suggests there is more to the matter than simple racism. A lack of Maori candidates and a voter turn-out of little more than forty percent are more important considerations. There are many Maori members of district and regional councils and they have been elected by largely non-Maori ratepayers for no other reason than they were the right person for the role. 

The Maori seats in Parliament have also been cited as a precedent but they were established in 1872 to ensure Maori could vote in general elections and stand for Parliament as only men with Crown issued title to land could vote in those times and they were almost exclusively Pakeha. New Zealand had a population of something less than 800,000 but only about 2500 could vote.  

There have been no such impediments to Maori or other candidates in local body or general elections since 1893 and many Maori leaders now see the Parliamentary seats as a form, of separatism and a means of confining Maori political influence to an easily managed or ignored group. 

There has already been a lot of discussion on the issue and unfortunately, much of that debate has included a lot of woefully ill-informed rhetoric and acrimonious argument. That was evident when Hana-Rawhiti Maipi-Clarke, the granddaughter of Taitimu Maipi who attacked a statue of Captain Hamilton with a hammer in 2018 calling him a murderer, told the Hamilton City Council that Maori, having been silenced for 168 years, wanted their voices to be heard. She then asked, “now where is my seat in this chamber?”

No one has been silenced by the Hamilton City Council or any local body and such statements are untrue and unhelpful. There has never been any impediment – financial, legal or political – for anyone standing for election to local bodies. And, as things are now, seats in the council chamber are totally dependent on the will of Hamilton City ratepayers when they vote every three years. Council positions are a privilege, not a right, and therein lies the opportunity for anyone, Maori or non-Maori, to become a city councilor. There is ample time between now and the next round of local body elections to convince ratepayers they are the right person for the job. That will probably take a little more innovative persuasion than demanding a seat as a right or attacking statues of colonial figures and calling them murderers.

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