At the risk of being called a sore loser, I think it’s useful to outline in more detail than the couple of lines possible in a newspaper story why I support the establishment of Māori wards for Gisborne District Council.
While the majority of Gisborne District councilors rejected the option last month, it is exciting to see that both Waikato Regional Council and Nelson City Council (unanimously) have followed Bay of Plenty Regional Council and chosen to establish Māori wards.
There seem to be two or three main reasons people don’t like the idea of Māori wards for Gisborne District Council.
The first is the suggestion that Māori wards will mean less representation for rural residents. The argument goes that the wards will be so large it will be hard for elected members to get around. By all accounts, BOP Regional Council’s very successful Māori wards arrangement has at least one ward larger than the whole Gisborne District. Our GDC staff proposal was to have two or three Māori wards, thereby keeping the ward sizes small enough.
In addition, the proposal would mean that rural residents have twice as many councilors responsible for their area as there would be two not one councilor covering every rural area. This would result in more choice of councilors to contact and twice as much representation for both Māori and general electors. There is also a strong argument for what is currently Matakaoa ward to be considered isolated which would mean at least two general wards on the coast and one Māori.
Another criticism of Māori wards is that it doesn’t guarantee people with mana whenua (ancestral connections) to the area would be elected. The last census showed however that 90% of Māori residing in the district have affiliations with at least one iwi within Gisborne District Council boundaries and if Tūhoe and Te Whānau-a-Apanui are included it rises to around 99%.
So, it is highly unlikely that anyone standing for a Māori seat would not be connected to local iwi and boundaries for wards have been suggested as running along the Waimata River that usually demarcates the boundary between Ngāti Porou and Turanga iwi.
One of my main concerns with the GDC decision was that Māori in particular, but also the wider public, had not been properly consulted on the intention to reject Māori wards. Under the Local Government Act there are some pretty clear rules for ensuring proper consultation on these kinds of decisions. A number of Māori groups were informed that Council intended to make a decision but the information exchange was minimal. Māori certainly had little, if any, opportunity to take the proposals back to their communities to discuss and have input on the final decision.
Of course, really motivated residents could organise another petition and collect the necessary 1,517 valid voter signatures by the end of February. I’m not sure however that enough people think this issue is a priority to give up their summer holidays for. As the saying goes, we get the government we deserve and I can live with that if others don’t think it is a priority.
A final argument is that Māori wards are divisive, unfair and even racist. Of course over the last 40 years much progress has been made at a national level in recognising the special status of Maori as indigenous peoples. International acknowledgment of the value of protecting the unique cultures of human civilization has enabled national legislation and policies designed to ensure indigenous peoples maintain customs, language and some semblance of control over natural resources. These have been required as for hundreds of years settler societies have imposed majoritarian systems of decision-making and resource allocation. These settler systems have usually overlooked or dismissed the interests of indigenous peoples who by design, tradition or choice have remained on the margins of local governance systems.