Rotorua Mayor Steve Chadwick

The future of legislation to allow the Rotorua District Council to create three Maori wards on its ten member Council is now in doubt after Attorney General David parker last Friday said the legislation did not comply with the Bill of Rights.

Friday also saw two Maori Affairs Committee subcommittees wading through scores of submissions on the Bill.

Though many dealt with the constitutional aspects of the legislation, many struck right into the heart of the debate on Maori Crown co-governance.

And so, while the legislation may die, the debate it has engendered is likely only to intensify.

The constitutional argument for the proposal is relatively simple; the Council has ten seats. Three are to be voted for by voters on the general roll; three on the Maori roll, and the remaining four are to be voted for by all voters in a so-called “at large” ward.

However, there are only 21,700 on the Maori roll for the three Maori ward seats but 55,600 on the general ward for the general seats.

Parker found that the proposal he Bill created a disparity in the number of people represented by each ward Council member.

“The proposed representation arrangement would make the number of Council members for the Māori ward disproportionately higher than the number of Council members for the general ward, compared to their respective populations,” he said.

“This discriminates against electors who are on the General roll.”

Complicating the debate further is the unique history of Rotorua, which was established in 1880 with a formal partnership, the Fenton Agreement, between the Crown and local iwi.

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Initially, until 1890, the Rotorua Town Board had an iwi representative.

Ngati Whakaue has been particularly influential in developing the proposal that includes the Maori wards.

Their submission to Friday’s Committee said the proposal reflected a transformative and future-focussed expression of Te Tiriti o Waitangi because it provides for two wards of equal membership, “that we consider a reflection of Articles One and Two of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, in that it expresses partnership between Māori and the Crown”.

“And it provides for four at large seats that we consider reflects article Three of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, in that it provides for tangata whenua and tangata Tiriti to come together as a cohesive group to progress equity and wellbeing for all.”

Ngati Whakaue Entities Chair, Hemi Rolleston, told the Committee the Bill and the proposal were not about co-governance.

“We aren’t speaking about co-governance here or shared decision-making rights,” he said.

“It’s about ordinary, fair and effective representation within the local government construct.

“It is not an issue of co-governance related to this bill.”

But other submitters saw broader ambitions in the Bill.

Robin Grieve, a former ACT candidate and well known libertarian commentator, said the Bill was underpinned by the philosophy that Maori people were entitled to rights and have virtues that others do not have.

“I believe that to be insidious.

“What sort of society will we have where such racial rights exist?”

“Society consists of millions of personal interactions every day, and it is naive to think that changing or continuing to change from a society in which the Government regards all people of all ethnicities equally to one where racial ancestry is of paramount importance will not have a significant impact on our personal interactions as well.

“I don’t think there’s been a successful society in history where people are given legal rights based on their ancestry.”

A much more extreme take on what was claimed to be Maori privilege came from the controversial political ad man, John Ansell, the author of National’s infamous “iwi/kiwi” billboards from 2002.

In a remarkable outburst, Ansell accused the Government of being racist.

“It’s completely pointless making this submission, except to put you on notice that this is a racist government and this Rotorua thing is a sham, and this consultation is a sham,” he said.

“You do not consult.

“The Government does not consult. The government insults.

“That’s what you’re here to do; to insult us, with a smile, of course, that this is somehow a democracy.”

Te Paati Maori co-leader Rawiri Waititi who had been called a liar by Ansell, interrupted to say he would not sit here in the meeting and accept that type of presentation.

“And if anybody else on this call accepts that presentation, then we’re kind of allowing this type of stuff to happen,” he said.

“If there’s talking to the Bill, I agree to that.

“But just the visceral insults to people, I don’t think it’s acceptable.”

The Committee chair, Shanan Halbert, also objected to Ansell’s manner and cut his time short.

The case for the proposal was put by Rotorua Mayor (and former MP) Steve Chadwick.

She appeared by Zoom from a Council room with the Fenton Agreement displayed prominently in the background.

Chadwick said the Agreement was a reminder of the principles on which the township was based; equity and partnership.

“We’ve got a large and growing Maori population,” she said.

“Forty per cent of our community identify as being Maori, and they are the predominant landowners in our community; they actually control our natural resources, our lakes, rivers and our mountains.

“They are part of us.

“They are who we are today.”

But the Mayor said Maori were also facing significant issues that were both social and economic.

“We’re talking about representation in the negative social metrics that are the challenges that face our town today, and simply without this bill, we cannot work together to overcome those challenges.”

Chadwick argued that if there was to be an equal representation, then that meant there had to be an equal number of members from Maori and general wards at the Council table.

“Effective governance can only be achieved when there’s a fair and equitable system of representation in place. Maori should be considered as individual voters, each with the right to cast a vote on an equal basis with all,” she said.

“It must be a system where, regardless of whether you’re Maori or Pakeha, other ethnic ethnicities must carry the same weight in terms of the number of elected members that you can vote for.”

She said that was what the Bill attempted to do.

“The construct of fair and equitable representation is the cornerstone of the Fenton agreement and the cornerstone of this Bill.

“We contrast the proportionate model under the Local Electorate act, which diminishes the Maori voice.

“It marginalises the Maori voice allocating seats to those who chose to sit on an electoral roll for the purposes of general elections, not local body elections.”

A Rotorua Councillor, Merepeka Raukawa-Tait, said the Bill was an opportunity for Te Arawa to sit at the Council table.

“It is quite disingenuous, I believe, for the council to believe that whether it’s our lakes, whether it’s our land, our forests or our geothermal or our water, they can continue to use our community resources without our voice being heard at the council table,” she said.

“This bill, through the creation of a Maori Ward, will allow those voices to be heard.”

The former co-leader of Te Paati Maori, Te Ururoa Flavell, cited the Fenton agreement as the main reason why the Bill should be supported.

His own iwi, Ngāti Rangiwewehi, was one of the original signatories, and he said the principles of the Agreement lived on in the hearts and minds of his people.

“They were declaring that our people wanted to be a part of the decision making processes of this town,” he said.

“That seems absolutely reasonable since they owned the land, and they outnumbered the settlers.

“But the fact that iwi and Crown are seen to be together is a huge symbol of what they were after.

“For our people, that desire to work together on an equal footing has not changed.”

Flavell also questioned the questions about democracy that had been raised during the hearing.

“Democracy, the right to vote is all well and good, but when the framework within which it works is biased, we cannot trust it because it never works in our interests,” he said.

But the Committee kept coming up against the principle of equal suffrage.

Professor Jack Vowles, a Victoria University of Wellington political scientist and leader of the New Zealand election survey and a writer on electoral systems said he strongly supported the concept of Maori wards.

“I strongly support the creation of Maori wards based on the Maori roll to the absolute maximum extent possible under the local electoral act,” he said.

“However, I strongly oppose the bill before this committee, and I do so because it simply violates the principle that all votes should have equal value.”

He said the most effective way to advance co-governance would be to convince more Maori to go on the Maori roll.

“And then instead of three seats on the council, you would have four or maybe even five, and that would be far more effective.”

This Bill encapsulates important issues and principles; their resolution will be an important guide to the future of the co-governance debate.