Labour’s support of Rotorua council’s bill to change electoral rules for the district could be floundering, after the Attorney General found it was not consistent with the Bill of Rights Act.
However, Waiariki MP Rawiri Waititi says he backs the “brave and progressive” bill and wants to make it easier for Māori to change electoral rolls.
A public law expert says he does not believe the bill will pass in time for the 2022 local election.
Last week, Attorney General David Parker’s report about the Rotorua District Council (Representation Arrangements) Bill – currently before the Māori Affairs select committee – found the bill was discriminatory against general ward voters.
Parker’s report stated the bill “would lead to disparity in representation between the Māori ward and the general ward” and “discriminates against electors on the general roll”.
It said the number of elected Māori ward members and general ward members would not be proportionate to their respective Māori and general roll populations. There are 21,700 people on the Māori roll and 55,600 on the general roll in the Rotorua district.
On Tuesday, standing in for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Finance Minister Grant Robertson told RNZ’s Morning Report he acknowledged the bill had “fallen foul” of the Bill of Rights Act.
He said it was general practice to vote in support of a local bill at its first reading in order to look at it in more detail.
Robertson said the bill had “significant issues that … would make it difficult to support”.
On Tuesday, Local Democracy Reporting asked Robertson if his comments meant he would not support it at its second reading, and whether he believed the bill’s issues could be resolved at select committee.
Robertson said as it was a local bill, changes were requested by the council not the Government.
He said the council and select committee would need to “consider the implications of the Bill of Rights analysis”.
The bill needs to pass by June 1 to be enacted in time for the 2022 local election.
Te Pāti Māori co-leader and Waiariki MP Rawiri Waititi said he found it “ironic” Parker had the “caucacity” to call the bill discriminatory.
Caucacity is a slang term combining “caucasian” and “audacity”.
Waititi said the bill gave equal representation to tangata whenua and tangata Tiriti.
“He and his mates of the same ilk wouldn’t know discrimination if they fell over it. He has the absolute cheek.
“Pākehā should stay away from using the term ‘discrimination’, especially when it comes to Māori seeking equality when it comes to representation in their own country.”
Waititi said he believed rules restricting the Māori electoral option to every five to six years was discriminatory and had a private member’s bill to change it.
“Rotorua’s electoral bill is brave and progressive. This is an exciting opportunity for our country to learn from Te Arawa. This is the sort of equality of governance that our tīpuna signed up for when they gave consent to Pākehā coming here. It is what is promised in Article Three of Te Tiriti o Waitangi and Rotorua’s Fenton Agreement.”
Parker did not wish to comment in response.
Public law expert and lawyer Graeme Edgeler said he viewed the bill as “wholly unnecessary” as three seats was already achievable under current law.
In his opinion: “The purpose isn’t to ensure Māori representation on the council, it’s to diminish non-Māori representation on the council.
“The current law does allow for fair representation.”
He said following the attorney-general’s report, the bill was “unlikely to pass in its present form”.
He believed Parliament would be hard-pressed to pass the bill before its June 1 deadline due to the upcoming Budget.
“This is not passing in May.”
Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick said she looked forward to continuing to work on the bill with government officials.
“While the Bill is going through the select committee process I won’t respond to individual commentators.”
The bill’s sponsor Tāmati Coffey said the bill was “not dead in the water”.
He said the Attorney General’s report made it clear more information may be needed to clarify if the bill was consistent with the Bill of Rights.
Asked if he continued to support the bill, Coffey said he had “support for the council to run this bill as a local bill” and he hoped the council would work with the Ministry of Justice to “fill the gaps” of information.
He said it was “not unheard of” for a bill to fail a Bill of Rights vet, and it was possible for them to be “worked through”.
Coffey said there was “never any certainty” the bill would pass before June 1.