This October, 52 more council seats across the country will be elected by the Māori electoral roll

Local councils can expect greater Māori representation after local body elections this October.

Decisions by the Local Government Commission have increased the number of dedicated Māori seats across a range of councils.

As a part of its six-yearly review of the representation of populations around the country within their local bodies, the commission has accepted proposals for 52 dedicated Māori seats across 27 district and regional councils.

These seats will be chosen by voters registered on the Māori electoral roll, and were determined based on the Māori population of each area.

The opportunity for Māori designation in local government was established by the Local Electoral Act 2001, which outlined a formula by which the number of Māori wards and seats should be calculated. A right that existed under that law for members of the public to be able to require a referendum on the creation of such seats was removed by this Government in March 2021.

The formula followed is the Māori electoral population of the district divided by the sum of Māori and general electoral population of the district, multiplied by the proposed number of councillors for the area.

But following some maths done by the commission earlier this month, many parts of the North Island will have councillors specifically elected by the Māori electoral roll come October 7.

The districts with the biggest changes are Gisborne District Council, with five of its 13 current seats moved to Māori wards, and Far North District Council, where the current crop of nine councillors will be expanded to ten, with 40 percent of them chosen by the Māori roll.

Far North councillor Moko Tepania said he was looking forward to a new swell of Māori local government politicians and said the seats would be transformative for the sector.

“It was really cool to see our proposal accepted,” he said. “We already have high representation in our local government, but I think having specific seats makes it different – it gives the role a specific lens.”

He said the seats could see more people of Māori descent moving to the Māori electoral roll, although at the moment people need to wait for the Māori electoral option – a period when people are allowed to move rolls, the next of which is due in 2024.

Far North councillor Moko Tepania said in the past there hasn’t been a strong enough approach to Māori representation when it comes to local government. Photo: Far North District Council

Just over half of the Far North are of Māori descent. However, the new way of doing things will see only 40 percent of the councillors determined by the Māori electoral roll.

Tepania put this down to people of Māori descent on the general roll, perhaps attracted over by candidates like Willow-Jean Prime, Labour’s MP for Northland.

Deputy mayor of Gisborne District Council Josh Wharehinga says its a big change for the district, and expects the country will be watching to see how it pans out.

“It’s huge, not just for Te Tairāwhiti but also for the nation,” he said. “It’s a big Māori ward with a lot of seats, so I reckon there’ll be a lot of eyes on here.”

The five Māori ward seats for Gisborne were suggested in a proposal made by the district council that went through a consultation process with the community over the past year.

Wharehinga was pleased to see the commission upheld the council’s suggestions when the review came back to him earlier this month.

“I was really stoked that the commission upheld it, as they get the final say on the play, and that could have changed,” he said. Instead, the proposal for Māori seats was the most unchanged element between the council’s submission and the commission’s final decision.

Wharehinga said this was testament to the support the seats had from councillors, and positive feedback from the community.

The council proposal followed a community survey which gathered 771 responses, and 25 neetings and hui with the public. After the proposal was publicised it received more than a thousand submissions, 21 presenting their case to the council last October.

The submissions found a narrow majority across both rolls didn’t support the single district-wide Māori ward. Of the Māori roll there was 69 percent support and from just general roll submitters, 22 percent support.

The final decision is that the district will be divided into Tairāwhiti general ward and Tairāwhiti Māori wards come October, with eight councillors elected by the former and five from the latter.

Gisborne District Council deputy mayor Josh Wharehinga said the dedicated seats had strong support from councillors and in terms of community feedback. Photo: Gisborne District Council

It’s a battle won for getting indigenous modes of thinking into the halls of power on a local level.

“What’s really great is these seats are going to have Māori thinking already embedded in these prospective new councillors,” Wharehinga said, pointing out cases such as the bylaw brought about last year in Gisborne, banning the practice of sending mortuary waste into the sea.

The practice was outlawed after long-term petitioning by local iwi due to the cultural taboo of such waste being discharged into Poverty Bay.

Wharehinga said the ban was a marriage of kaupapa Māori and local politics – something he considered rarely seen.

“It’s a very kaupapa Māori thing, however it is also a very regulatory thing,” he said. “It’s not common for our current ways of governance to fully understand that comprehending. The inclusion will help us to give more voice to those things prior to them become regulatory issues.”

Wharehinga stressed a point that was raised by local iwi partners during consultation – while representation within local government was a good thing for Māori, the seats must not be considered a replacement for engagement with mana whenua, iwi and hapū.

“We need to get into the perspective that under Te Tiriti, these seats are obligations of not only this council, but all councils,” he said. “However, it’s also a treaty obligation to have really good processes to engage with iwi, mana whenua and hapū in a meaningful, partnered way.”

Other districts with dedicated seats elected by the Māori roll include Hamilton with two, Northland with two, Rotorua and Whakatane with three apiece.

Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) said while it wanted to see more diversity in councils, the level of Māori representation within councils is something for the electorate to determine.

“LGNZ is actively working to try to encourage more diversity in councils, but this is ultimately for councils and voters to determine,” a spokesperson said.

On what this means for the whole country, Wharehinga said it was a step in the right direction but there was still a way to go.

“I feel like our nation is keen to paddle this wake forward in the right way,” he said. “But we can only go as fast as the majority of Aotearoa is willing to paddle.”

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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