Rotorua council has pressed “pause” on its controversial Māori wards bill, with Labour retracting its support.
Thursday’s announcement came hours after a fiery exchange in a council meeting that culminated in the resignation of Councillor Peter Bentley.
It also followed Attorney General David Parker’s finding last week that the bill would be in breach of the Bill of Rights Act if enacted.
The “pause” may not be the end of the bill – but Rotorua MP Todd McClay says the council should “throw it in the rubbish bin”.
The bill sought to change electoral rules for the district so those on Māori roll and general roll had an equal influence in electing councillors. The Local Electoral Act currently restricts the number of seats in a Māori ward based on population ratios.
In a statement on Thursday, Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick said the council’s decision to pause the Māori Affairs select committee process was a “sensible one”.
“This will allow council officers to work with legal advisors, parliamentary and government advisors, on strengthening the policy work of the local bill.”
The council had discussed the issue in a confidential section of Thursday’s council meeting – in a discussion that was at times fraught, with a councillor resigning in its midst.
Chadwick said she would write to the Māori affairs select committee clerk to seek the pause.
“Given the public interest in this process, I am making the decision public now.
“We have always said the bill is about the right way forward for Rotorua and have always been committed to working through the parliamentary process with central government.
“It is an important discussion and it is important that we get it right for Rotorua.”
She urged a review of the Local Electoral Act, saying it had “resulted in the confusion and anxiety some of our community is currently expressing”.
The bill had drawn controversy and criticism it violated equal suffrage and undermined democratic principles.
Chadwick said delays were “always anticipated” and the local bill stated if it was not passed in time for the 2022 local election the council would use the representation model approved by the Local Government Commission.
In April, the Local Government Commission overturned the council’s interim governance model and implemented one with three Māori ward seats, six general ward seats and one rural ward seat.
Chadwick said the pause “enables everyone to get the discussion around the bill right”.
“Rotorua is seeking a local bill for election arrangements here because we have moved on from what the Local Electoral Act provides for our community. We want all our votes to count towards representatives at our council table.”
In a release shortly after Chadwick’s, the bill’s sponsor, Labour list MP Tāmati Coffey, said he supported the council’s decision to “press pause on their bill in order to review the Bill of Rights analysis”.
He said Labour would not continue to support the bill in its current form.
“As sponsor of this local bill, I will be seeking the support from the Māori Affairs Committee to suspend submission hearings while possible amendments are being considered.
“As is standard with a local bill, which I was sponsoring on behalf of the Rotorua District/Lakes Council, a Bill of Rights analysis is not undertaken until the bill appears at select committee, as opposed to all other bills where it occurs before the first reading.
“Once receiving the advice from the attorney general, it was clear that more information was needed, and a suspension will now be undertaken to respond to the attorney general’s Bill of Rights analysis and consider other concerns this bill raises.
“Labour would not have supported the bill further in its current form. The pause allows for the council to work through the options and decide whether the bill could continue in an amended form.”
Rotorua MP Todd McClay said he viewed the bill as an “utter and absolute waste of time and money”.
“The council should not pause the bill, [it] should throw it in the rubbish bin as fast as [it] can.
“It is the most undemocratic piece of legislation that I have seen.”
He did not believe the bill had the support of Rotorua people and should be withdrawn from Parliament.
National Party justice spokesman Paul Goldsmith characterised the move as “a significant u-turn from the Government” and a “change of heart” from the council.
In his view, the bill represented a move away from equal suffrage and equal weight for voters.
“It was totally inappropriate.”
He said Canterbury Regional Council’s local bill had a similar effect in his opinion and he called on that council to take Rotorua Lakes Council’s lead and “do the same”.
Rotorua councillor Reynold Macpherson, who had been vocally opposed to the bill, said in his view the vote to pause the process “was meaningless”.
“What exactly is to be paused? No answer. I fear that the pause decision will be used to revise the local bill, and then ram it through.”
He said he believed it was “crucial that another means be found to stop this extremely divisive co-governance agenda”.
Te Tatau o Te Arawa manahautū Jude Pani said it was not clear what the bill being “paused” meant.
“We don’t really know what that means. There are a lot of unknowns.”
She believed it was “wise to take a broader look at electoral matters”.
Waiariki MP Rawiri Waititi was approached for comment.
Yesterday he said he backed the bill, saying was “brave and progressive” and he and Te Pāti Māori would “defend” it.