Auckland Council has voted against establishing a Māori ward for the 2019 elections – but not because it doesn’t want one. 

Mayor Phil Goff says a referendum or poll on whether Aucklanders wanted such a change would “divide .. it would rip our community apart”. 

The issue was canvassed at yesterday’s Governing Body meeting, because to take effect at the 2019 elections a resolution would have to be made by November this year. If more than five percent of electors signed a petition demanding a poll on the issue, that would have to happen – estimated cost, $1 million. There was also no reason to believe such a poll would deliver a different result to similar polls in other parts of New Zealand, which have voted 80 – 20 against Māori wards.

There is another reason that adding a Māori seat is no easy task, and it’s a uniquely Auckland one. Under legislation drawn up during the region’s amalgamation process, the city can’t increase the number of councillors it has from the current 20 plus the mayor. If there was a new Māori ward, the current ward boundaries would have to be re-drawn. That’s a legacy from designers Rodney Hide and Steven Joyce, who ignored the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance. The commission had recommended a dedicated seat for a mana whenua appointment and two seats for election by those on the Māori roll. 

Based on current population, the council is entitled to one councillor elected by a Māori ward. Currently it has an advisory board, the Independent Māori Statutory Board, which is appointed, not elected. Appointees have a voice at committee level but no seat at the table of power. 

If a Māori ward were to be added, some councillors said there would need to be another discussion about the need for the IMSB, and whether it would remain in parallel. 

Councillor Richard Hills also expressed concern about the likely virulent reaction to a referendum, saying a lot of damage and misinformation tended to surface during such debates. He referenced the yes/no poll over same-sex marriage in Australia in saying “my concern is about Māori people in this country being subjected to what a referendum does.”

So instead of treading down a path of huge resistance, Goff will add another demand to his list when he heads to Wellington to talk to whoever the incoming government will be. That is, that the legislation is changed to allow Auckland to decide its own representation. “We are the only council in New Zealand that can’t make that determination,” he said. 

The council resolved that if that was successful, to “agree in principle to establish a Māori ward and request for a consistent policy regarding Māori representation in line with legislation governing the composition of Parliament”.

“I’m on record as having supported a Māori ward,” said Goff. “The reason for that is we are a democracy, and if we want representation on this council it’s better to elect it than appoint it.

“We want this city to be an inclusive and united city.”

Goff referenced Winston Peters’ policy to hold a referendum on the Māori parliamentary seats in expressing his concern over the tone of debate likely to result. He said the majority of New Zealanders now acknowledged that grievances are best resolved when we follow a process that seeks a conversation rather than aggravates a division. 

“My fear of what may be foisted on the country …. of a removal of the Māori seats of Parliament, would cause incredible division and hurt and take us back after the huge achievements we’ve made in recent decades under respective governments. My fear about the referendum that we would hold under this proposal is the same.

“We need to move forward together. There is nothing more fundamental to the health of a city, a community, a country, than having that sense of mutual respect and honouring the promises you made in the past.”

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