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Maori Ward polls: 'Discriminatory' or a 'democratic process' - a look at both sides of the argument

The way Maori Wards are created on local councils have been called "discriminatory" against Maori, as it contains an extra step other wards are free of which critics says perpetuates already low Maori representation in local government.

However, others say the addition of a public poll is imperative and other measures should instead be taken to boost Maori representation.

Currently, the public can demand a poll to be taken for Maori Wards or Maori constituencies, after their councils decide to enact a Maori Ward. 

Five per cent of the public in the area can call for the public poll. The whole electorate then gets to vote on whether the Maori Ward is created or not.

A Maori Ward would mean those able to vote can still vote for their local council mayor and the councillors sitting at large.

Binding public referendums were held in five locations recently: Kaikoura, Manawatu, Western Bay of Plenty, Whakatane and Palmerston North. All areas voted in opposition to the wards. 

Local Government New Zealand

LGNZ president Dave Cull Source: 1 NEWS

The rules have been criticised by Local Government New Zealand, whose President Dave Cull wrote an open letter to government urging the removal the polls.

"The polls reduce a complex issue to a simple binary choice, which, by encouraging people to take sides, damages race relations in our districts," the letter read.

"Resorting to simplistic and emotion-fuelled campaigns to seek signatures and votes is not good for our communities."

A LGNZ spokesperson told 1 NEWS Mr Cull's letter "brought to the fore the issue of inconsistencies in the current approach" of the establishment of Maori Wards. 

"Essentially, it is about representation and diversity.  Like the creation of any other ward, Māori or rural wards serve to represent the diversity of a community."

The spokesperson said their concern was not whether or not the wards are created, but instead that the system "does not treat the creation of all wards in a similar manner".

"Either the poll provisions should apply to all wards, or they should apply to none."

Hobson's Pledge

Hobson's Pledge co-spokesperson Casey Costello spoke to 1 NEWS about why the group thought the additional Maori Ward polls are important. 

"[Maori Wards] are a racial differentiation on voting," she said. "On these recent polls, we supported locals and communities who had already started a process of trying to challenge the decision by the council. We thought it was important we support them to ensure a democratic process was being followed in these decisions."

"To start differentiating people on race is something that we've always fought against, and I always thought that that was separatism."

Ms Costello said there could be better solutions to Maori Wards. 

Don Brash of Hobson's Pledge Source: Te Karere

"Nothing else has been tried, the first thing they went to was separatism, there were no other initiatives to include Maori candidates in their ticket, and there was no active engagement."

"It's about encouragement, it's about empowerment, and it's about discussion."

"The argument people keep saying Maori don't have a voice... They have a voice under the RMA, they have a voice under most council process and policies regarding consenting, it's legislated voice."

"This is about unity of citizenship, we all have strengths and weaknesses, and as a Maori I might have really strong views about something, but it doesn't mean I can speak for all Maori."

When asked about the inconsistency of the poll for Maori Wards, compared to other wards, Ms Costello said it was because others were geographical.  

"Those wards are geographic, logical business. They're not differentiating people by race."

Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson

Source: 1 NEWS

Ms Davidson was critical of the polling-process of Maori wards, describing them as "discriminatory", due to it not being a factor in the establishment of any other local government ward. 

"Then there's the issue of the majority being able to have a say on how the minority vote. When you've got Maori who are not going to be the overwhelming majority, they're going to lose out on these types of polls."

Ms Davidson said the implementation of Maori Wards ensures Maori representation at local government level.

"Maori representation at local government is not good enough. It's is abysmally low at the moment and the United Nations has raised that as a concern."

"[The poll is] an unfair extra step in law that needs to be changed. If a poll is called by only five per cent of the region's electors, and then a poll is run that is binding, that's a whole extra, wasteful step that is standing in the way of fairness. It also undermines the local government voice."

Ms Davidson said the benefits of having adequate Maori representation and local government level is "about making sure that Maori have a voice in looking after the living systems, the water, the soil". 

"It's about benefiting everybody in the community to making sure that good decisions are made for protecting the environment and for social and economic development."

Government

Local Govt NZ have criticised the way councils are forced to implement Maori wards in order to increase Maori representation. Source: 1 NEWS

Local government and Maori development Minister Nanaia Mahuta said work was needed to "to turn around some deeply entrenched views in our wider community".

"There is nothing to fear from Maori representation," Ms Mahuta said. "At a local level there are already great examples of hapu, Maori and iwi working constructively with councils and communities to deliver more inclusive decision making."

Ms Mahuta said her and Minister for Crown/Maori relations Kelvin Davis and Associate Minister Meka Whaititi, would be discussing the future of Māori wards with their coalition partners. 

National's local government spokesperson Jacqui Dean told 1 NEWS that they acknowledge that "people have expressed strong views about recent local referendum results for Maori Wards... But it's important that we respect the current democratic rights of local authorities to vote on any change to their electoral system."

New Zealand First, National and ACT voted against Marama Davidson's 2017 Local Electoral Amendment Bill, which would have taken out the extra step of a public poll in the Maori Ward establishment process. 

Aside from changing the Local Government Act in Parliament, LGNZ said there were no other ways councils could enact Maori Wards without the provision of a public poll. 

When asked if getting government approval for the removal of Maori polls would be an issue, Ms Davidson said despite her bill being voted down, "this is only the beginning of the conversation". 

"It's showing more and more people are going to become aware of the benefits of establishing Maori Wards and how unfair it is that this extra step exists. People need to take heart that Maori wards will eventually happen, I believe, we've just got to keep up the support."