Māori seat rules need to change – Wairoa mayor

The rules governing Māori constituencies are not ensuring balanced representation in communities lacking diversity around the council table.

Five of Wairoa‘s seven elected members identify as Māori. The council is made up of Jeremy Harker, left, Melissa Kaimoana, Denise Eaglesome-Karekare, Mayor Craig Little, Danika Goldsack, Hine Flood and Chaans Tumataroa-Clarke. Photo: Supplied/Wairoa District Council

That‘s the view of the mayor of the only district council in New Zealand with a Māori ward.

Now into his fourth term on Wairoa District Council – and his third term as mayor – Craig Little said in his community Māori made up more than 60 percent of the population so were able to elect councillors to represent them, and a Māori ward was unnecessary in this case.

Wairoa has the highest level of Māori representation of any council in the country, with five of its seven elected members identifying as Māori. Four of its councillors are women and four are aged under 50.

Mayor Little said Local Electoral Act rules meant communities that would benefit from having Māori constituencies did not have them, and a review of the law was sorely needed.

In Kaikōura, Whakatāne, Western Bay of Plenty, Manawatu and Palmerston North, council moves to establish Māori wards were rejected last May in referendums prompted by petitions opposing the wards.

By law, a petition signed by at least 5 percent of a local authority‘s population can force a referendum on Māori wards.

No other council wards can be challenged in this way.

Mayor Little believes his electorate did not receive enough information about the implications of the Māori ward introduced for this year‘s election.

It meant voters could elect only three councillors for the general ward or three councillors for the Māori ward, depending on which electoral roll they were on.

Māori ward councillor Melissa Kaimoana said her election campaign ended up being more of an education drive about how the new council structure worked.

“Voters didn‘t realise the impact the wards would have,” Cr Kaimoana said. “Effectively, you could vote for only half of your council.

“People were saying to me, ‘I want to vote for you, but you‘re not on my list.‘”

Wairoa voter turnout for the local body elections was down from 63 percent in 2016 to 51 percent this year. Votes were cast by 56 percent of those on the general roll and 45 percent of those on the Māori roll.

Although the Māori ward may not be the panacea for Wairoa, which is home to about 8700 people, Cr Kaimoana said it would give Māori an opportunity to have input on “mainstream” council business and not just matters concerning iwi, hapū and marae.

Māori ward councillor Chaans Tumataroa-Clarke said: “At the end of the day, we are a Maori voice that will represent the whole community.”

Like Mayor Little, Cr Tumataroa-Clarke thought the Māori ward was unnecessary for Wairoa, and it put him off standing for the council, before he was talked around by whānau and friends.

The 27-year-old Anglican minister said the issues that affected Māori were no different to those that affected Pākehā.

Although still being inducted into local body politics, Cr Tumataroa-Clarke said he was committed to strengthening the relationship between tangata whenua and the council.

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Māori ward councillor Danika Goldsack said her decision to stand for the council was entirely dependent on the introduction of the Māori ward, as she felt she would not have been successful in a general ward election.

Wairoa mayor Craig Little Photo: RNZ / Kate Gudsell

Cr Goldsack hoped to bring both common sense and a Māori perspective to the council table.

Wairoa District Council decided to ask voters in 2016 whether they wanted the council to introduce at least one Māori ward for at least the next two local body elections, in 2019 and 2022. The electorate voted 54 percent to 46 percent in favour of the wards.

That followed a similar referendum in 2012, prompted by a petition, when the electorate voted against the wards, 52 percent to 48 percent.

Between the two polls, an attempt to introduce a Māori ward at New Plymouth District Council was rejected in a 2015 citizens-initiated referendum.

Other councils

Apart from Wairoa District Council, the only other local authorities with Māori constituencies are Waikato Regional Council and Bay of Plenty Regional Council.

In Gisborne, where about 50 percent of the population identify as Maori, district councillor Meredith Akuhata-Brown thinks Māori wards could be valuable – improving tangata whenua engagement in local democracy and allowing Māori knowledge to better inform decision-making.

Just five of Gisborne District Council‘s 14 elected members had identified Māori heritage, Cr Akuhata-Brown said.

In a statement, Local Government New Zealand president Dave Cull said the way Māori wards were treated differently to other forms of wards was discriminatory.

“Either the poll provisions should apply to all wards or they should apply to none,” Mr Cull said.

In 2017, Green Party MP Marama Davidson‘s member‘s bill, which would have kept the process for establishing Māori wards the same as for general wards, was voted down by National, Act and New Zealand First.

Don Brash, leader of Hobson‘s Pledge, which campaigns against “favouritism” under the Treaty of Waitangi, said in a media release that opposition to Māori wards at the five councils where referendums were held showed the majority of people did not want the wards.

But in an article on The Spinoff website, the director of social justice group ActionStation, Laura O‘Connell Rapira, said: “The rights of a minority group should never be decided by the majority.”

The five referendums last May were always likely to vote down Māori wards “because there are more Pākehā voters than Māori”.

Wairoa‘s 2019 election results

Wairoa Mayor Craig Little received 1973 votes, with challengers Jennifer Takuta-Moses and Waipatu Winitana receiving 179 votes and 521 votes respectively.

The district‘s three general ward seats went to Denise Eaglesome-Karekare – the highest polling candidate with 1190 votes – Jeremy Harker (1137 votes) and Hine Flood (867 votes).

The three Māori ward seats went to Chaans Tumataroa-Clarke (661 votes), Melissa Kaimoana (518 votes) and Danika Goldsack (344 votes).

Local Democracy Reporting is a public interest news service supported by RNZ, the Newspaper Publishers‘ Association and NZ On Air.

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