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Push for Maori wards

EQUITABLE REPRESENTATION is having the “hearts and minds of Maori” at the council table, Gisborne councillors have heard before a vote on whether to establish Maori wards in Tairawhiti.

Indigenous rights advocate Tina Ngata made a submission at a hearing on Thursday asking councillors if “distinct representation” for Maori mattered, if it was being achieved by the council and whether non-Maori could “best determine the interests” of Maori.

“Representation matters and diversity at the table matters,” she said.

Ms Ngata spoke to a submission endorsed by numerous hapu and marae, in which she said Maori had the right to distinct representation as the Treaty partner.

She raised the “elephant in the room” — the council's decision on the Endeavour models last week.

“I can say confidently that there was general discontent and concern from Maori in Turanga around whether or not we were represented in that decision,” Ms Ngata said.

“Maori across the region, on Ngati Porou and across Turanga were very clear with you that we did not want those replicas up at all.”

While the council's vote to gift one model to Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti in Tolaga Bay was widely accepted, a decision to gift the other model back to the community group which fundraised for its construction was more divisive.

It means the model might still be erected in the city. Tairawhiti Museum refused to accept the model.

“That is a clear, immediate example of the failure to truly represent the broadly expressed interests of Maori,” she said.

“It would be an egregious miscarriage of representative justice for those voices to be spoken over today and to say that they are actually well represented in this system when they say that they are not,” Ms Ngata said.

Gisborne district councillors heard from 19 submitters about whether the voting system should be changed to establish Maori wards, where only those on the Maori electoral roll vote for the candidates, in time for the 2022 election.

This followed a consultation period which ran from August to November in which the council received 293 responses.

While 68 percent of submissions said they would like to see Maori wards, those in opposition cited concerns about racism and divisiveness, with some responders likening it to apartheid South Africa and Nazi Germany.

The council received 18 formal submissions representing more than 60 organisations, family trusts, iwi, hapu, marae and kura, with all but one of the formal submissions in favour of establishing Maori wards.

Gisborne lawyer Gordon Webb made that outlying formal submission and spoke to it at the hearing.

“There is existing and adequate opportunity for Maori to contribute to GDC decision-making processes without the need for special wards,” he said.

“There is no evidence that GDC's decision-making processes have in recent times been incorrectly made or made without due consideration for the relationship of Maori and their culture and traditions with their ancestral land, water, sites, waahi tapu, valued flora and fauna and other taonga.”

Mr Webb said the Treaty of Waitangi gave “no justification” for the creation of Maori wards.

“Those who stand for election to council should be judged on their merits and their own abilities, not by what race they are. They should not stand unless they are capable of representing the interests of all New Zealanders,” Mr Webb said.

As councils across the country simultaneously consider Maori wards, the issue is particularly pertinent for Tairawhiti, which has the highest proportion of Maori in New Zealand.

More than 50 percent of Tairawhiti's population identify as Maori, compared to 17 percent nationally, but this is not reflected in the composition of the council. Four of the 14 elected representatives are Maori.

Ngati Oneone chair Charlotte Gibson described Kaiti, which is about 70 to 80 percent Maori, when they were delivering kai to families during Covid-19 lockdown.

Blacked out windows, homes without power, some without water. Sixteen rangatahi in a house who hadn't seen parents for three months.

“We know our people intimately. We know what's really happening in the homes and lives of people who live in Kaiti,” Ms Gibson said.

“We know what's happening there. You don't,” she told councillors.

Ms Gibson strongly advocated for Maori wards and asked councillors to consider a Maori ward for Kaiti.

Former Indigenous Rights Commissioner Karen Johansen and social scientist Dr Jill Chrisp spoke in support of the system which they believed would result in “more equitable” representation of Maori in local government.

Ms Johansen, who is Rongowhakaata, noted “anomalies” under the Local Electoral Act, like a provision for councils to go ahead with polling if 5 percent of registered electors demand they do so via a petition.

Polling results are binding on councils and consistently overturn Maori wards. This has happened with all but one of New Zealand's most recent nine polls nationally.

Dr Chrisp said the high Maori population in Tairawhiti had not resulted in achieving fair and effective representation.

“Treating people the same does not equate to achieving equitable results.

“Structures and systems are developed in our own image and who are we? At the moment, we are those who most predominate in decision-making roles.”

This system created structural barriers that were difficult to break through, she said.

“And sometimes, affirmative action, or positive discrimination is required. In this case, I believe that is definitely so.”

She also believed it was in the region's best interest to have tangata whenua leadership at the table.

Federated Farmers Gisborne branch president Toby Williams submitted, saying they did not want to see rural representation diminished, but supported Maori wards.

Although Maori electorates have been a feature of national politics for more than 150 years, only three of New Zealand's 78 local authorities have Maori wards — Wairoa District Council and Bay of Plenty and Waikato regional councils.

Submitters acknowledged the “likelihood” that the council would be petitioned to revoke a decision in support of Maori wards, and reminded the council of its commitment to an anti-racism journey.

The anti-racism working group, which was established after council voted to make an anti-racism commitment on August 13, made a submission saying the council's written commitments to Maori wellbeing through the Tairawhiti 2050 plan and the long term plan could not supplement the presence of the hearts and minds of Maori at the table.

Councillors will make a decision on Maori wards at an extraordinary meeting on Monday.

caLLING FOR MAORI WARDS: Ngati Oneone chair Charlotte Gibson (fourth from right) and Aubrey Ria (third from right), who submitted in support of the establishment of Maori wards in Tairawhiti, backed by the Whaia Titirangi crew. Picture by Alice Angeloni/LDR

  1. Frank Newman, Whangarei says:

    Rather than force the issue on the community, just put it to a vote at the next local government election. The article says “More than 50 percent of Tairawhiti’s population identify as Maori” so surely a referendum would succeed if it is indeed what those who identify as Maori want. Make it a debate about democracy. Democracy unites communities, identity politics divides communities.