Councils use wards to recognise communities of interest, so why are Māori wards singled out for this criticism when other wards are not?

The Government recently removed the provision in the Local Electoral Act that allowed a public poll to overturn a council’s decision to establish a Māori ward. This has reignited debates about Māori wards. Popular objections to Māori wards are that they are “undemocratic” and create a “special privilege” for Māori, even that they are “separatist” and “a form of apartheid”. These objections are not true. Māori wards are (almost) the same as all the other wards that councils can create.

Councils have the right to establish and disestablish wards. Until the recent law change, and only in the case of Māori wards and constituencies, voters in a district or region could petition the council for a poll and overturn a decision to create a Māori ward. No such poll right existed for voters to overturn a council’s decision to establish other wards. This provision was discriminatory. Over the years it has been used in many communities throughout the country to overturn councils’ decisions to establish Māori wards.

Other provisions discriminating against Māori wards remain (for example, unlike other wards they are not part of the representation review process). But now that the poll provision has been removed, Māori wards are one step closer to being based on the same principles as all other wards.

Most councils around New Zealand use a ward system. Generally speaking, councils create wards to reflect the major communities of interest in their region that need a seat at the table if the whole region is to be effectively represented. So, for example, the North Shore ward in the Auckland region ensures that two councillors are elected from that geographic region while at the other end of the country, the Wānaka ward delivers three councillors to the Queenstown Lakes District Council.

One of the purposes of wards is to ensure that communities of interest with distinct perspectives on regional issues are guaranteed representation, even though councillors ultimately govern in the interests of the whole region. If council elections are held ‘at large’ (without ward boundaries), candidates who campaign specifically in the interests of their local community, like the North Shore and Wānaka for example, might struggle to be elected and the diversity of the council could suffer as a result. Put simply, councils use wards to recognise communities of interest.

Māori wards are based on the same principle and function in the same way. But rather than using a geographic boundary, the voters in a Māori ward are identified by their choice of electoral roll. Where a Māori ward exists, Māori in that region who have chosen to be on the Māori roll can vote for a candidate who will take the views of their community to the council table and ultimately govern in the interests of the whole region. The candidates who stand for election in Māori wards don’t have to be Māori themselves. Just like every other ward.

So it makes no sense to argue that Māori wards are “undemocratic” and a “special privilege” unless all wards are undemocratic and a special privilege. It certainly makes no sense to say they are separatist and a form apartheid. So why are Māori wards singled out for this criticism when other wards are not?

It may be that those who object to Māori wards don’t think Māori are a community of interest worthy of representation through the ward system. On what basis, therefore, are Māori a community of interest? There are many answers to that question, but perhaps the most relevant here is Te Tiriti o Waitangi­/The Treaty of Waitangi 1840. In exchange for the right to establish government, the Crown expressly recognised and guaranteed Māori “tino rangatiratanga” – the right for Māori to continue to exercise authority over their lands and people.

These rights existed long before the Treaty was signed and they still exist today. In other words, Māori have rights and interests in New Zealand specific to them and which the Crown is obligated to protect. That would seem a clear reason for ensuring Māori have representation at the council table, to serve alongside councillors elected from other wards and to govern in the interests of the whole region. It even raises the question as to why Māori wards are not a mandatory obligation in local government.

Māori have historically been chronically under-represented in local government. Data shows Māori over-nominate themselves for local government elections relative to non-Māori. But Māori who campaign “with a Māori voice” (to paraphrase Associate Professor Maria Bargh) and advocate for Māori interests as a community have struggled to get elected because the broader community of voters have different interests and perspectives.

Māori wards will address that, just as wards address the balance of representation for communities right across the country. Māori wards are, therefore, like any other ward: democratic and a privilege enjoyed by all voters using the ward system.

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