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Ubuntu — representation respect

Opinion Piece

Ubuntu is an African concept meaning “I am because you are”. It embraces the idea that people cannot exist in isolation. We rely on connection, community and caring — simply, we cannot be without each other. This philosophy requires a conscious shift in how we think about ourselves and others, especially in times of uncertainty and fear.

Recent opinion pieces about the representation at council have made me reflect on what effective representation means and requires, and that the structure to date has created division rather than inclusion.

The Tairawhiti region as a whole continues to encompass strong rural communities and a growing population in the urban area. We have also seen a growth in semi-rural properties that are close to the city.

Periodic representation reviews give us an opportunity to look at how we can do better to ensure our representation model is fit for purpose and relevant to the current population's needs, as well as the future of our region.

It is obvious that for many the thought of changing the status quo is likely to be bad for them. I'm not so convinced.

As elected councillors we each sign an oath that we will “represent the whole region to the best of our abilities”, and we are “district councillors”. It is on all elected local government representatives to know the entire region's needs and aspirations, to understand the complexities and challenges and, taking all this into account, ensure we make the best decisions for the region.

Some rural residents believe they aren't getting influence at the council table — let me assure you this is not true. Since arriving at council I have learnt that unless you speak up, you simply will not be an influence or be heard; it was the rural councillors who taught me this.

I understand the ongoing complaints from rural lobbyists regarding representation goes back to the amalgamation of the borough councils and the creation of Gisborne District Council.

I can appreciate that rural ratepayers feel having someone who lives in their location and has shared interests gives them a stronger voice and better representation.

However, if everyone elected adhered to the oath to “faithfully and impartially and according to the best of their skill and judgement execute and perform in the best interests of the Gisborne district, the powers authorities and duties vested in, or imposed upon us as a councillor” there shouldn't be concerns that the rural communities won't have a voice at the council table.

Our debate around the representation at council was based on what would be best and fairest for the region. The representation review gives council an opportunity to look at how we can do better within local democracy.

We do have hard-working and effective councillors from our rural communities. Our change means rural voters have a stronger say in who they want to elect to represent them, no matter where they reside.

Candidates will need to demonstrate they don't have a bias towards the city or rural areas if they want to be elected. We need “Ubuntu” leadership for the whole region rather than maintaining the contrived urban-rural divide.

An option rejected by council was to establish community boards. We stuck with 13 councillors but if a city like Portland with over 600,000 residents can be effectively governed by six people, why not Tairawhiti? What Portland also has is a strong network of community associations. Tairawhiti could have another 20 elected representatives around the region if we established five community boards — three rural and two in the city.

Meredith Akuhata-Brown

  1. Alistar McKellow says:

    While I accept there are no absolute rights and wrongs, we do have an example of how an urban-orientated council will work.
    Look no further than the water levy imposed on rural dwellers with no connection to the city water supply.

  2. Alistar McKellow says:

    Your quote on the oath councillors take should by your reasoning mean there was no need to introduce Maori seats in local elections.
    Obviously, the oath was not adhered to as central government even entered the fray.
    So why are we asked to take the leap of faith for the rural sector when it has already been shown not to work for the Maori sector?
    The wheel is intact for rural representation.
    We would not at some stage in the future want to look back in reflection and try to reinvent it.
    It would seem that those councillors who voted for Maori seats yet oppose rural seats want a bob each way regarding their election odds.

    1. Ken Ovenden says:

      Hi Alistar, very well put. This need to demonstrate no bias is absurd when one has been voted in depending on what race one is, not what your area of expertise is or what area you have close knowledge of. Just how the rural people will have a stronger say when they can only vote according to what race they are remains a mystery that I doubt Meredith herself could even explain.

    2. Meredith Akuhata-Brown says:

      Kia Ora Alistar, Ken and Toby,

      Apologies, initially I did add comments about Maori wards but had to remove them due to word limit. SO with Maori Wards the issue was historically only land owners could vote, so of course for Maori who had land confiscated, stolen and removed under the Public Works Act, they were ineligible to vote. This created intergenerational non-voting and low voter turnout for Maori. So Maori Wards were created to encourage Maori voters to participate but of course when the legislation was written it included a poll that meant 5% of the population could overturn the decision if councils chose Maori Wards. Central government changed this legislation due to the number of councils wanting to become better Tiriti partners and show more inclusivity and fairer and better representation. The reason I voted for Maori Wards is that I could see a real benefit to our representation as historically Maori lived rurally and carry generations of knowledge about the whenua/land – plus, it’s promoting participatory democracy. Our oath to serve to the best of our abilities isn’t about race, it’s about passion for community and ensuring everyone has an equal voice at the council table. I am not saying that rural seek more influence, I am stating that all councillors should understand the challenges faced by everyone in the region, including rural ratepayers. No one opposes rural voices, in fact we are trying to ensure they have more say. I have family and friends who live rurally and often get invited to rural meetings. I am very supportive of our productive, hard-working communities. We work within a triennial election, so continuity depends on the voter – so the challenge, and for me the imperative, is on elected councillors knowing the concerns and challenges that our rural ratepayers raise, and debate them accordingly. The local government reform has already had other councils discuss removal of rural wards as they see the benefit of a general ward, because rural ratepayers can vote for more people in the local elections. The rating system continues to be a blunt tool that we use to make the best decisions around who pays – it’s not perfect and it certainly doesn’t please everyone. Roads and water are major infrastructure we all use to different levels, however this government is looking at reforming the Three Waters, so perhaps this will allay issues for rural wastewater costs. Thanks for your comments – keeps me accountable!

      1. Ken Ovenden says:

        Hi Meredith, your quote “our oath to serve isn’t about race” and “ensuring equal voice” becomes rather false, don’t you think, when the wards are to be race-based and one can only vote accordingly. You appear to want your bread buttered on both sides. The past system worked and was fair – ie stand for Council on merit, not race. It supported rural and city fairly equally (well as best as possible) – and still no apparent comment from GDC to ratepayers as to why change is even needed. Perhaps your main worry is more about re-election and which side of the fence you are going to sit on.

      2. Alistar McKellow says:

        Hi Meredith,
        You and I have chatted at length on a whole variety of subjects.
        As you know, nothing is personal. Each individual views the world through their own eyes.
        My role is to highlight inconsistencies in thought process and to point out conflicts of interest.
        Maori wards will ensure the Maori voice is heard. By having dedicated seats this is not left to chance.
        The same respect could be afforded to the rural voice without leaving that to chance. The proposed change does not guarantee that. It should.
        The district is the sum of many parts. Gambling on the outcome was one of the reasons to have dedicated seats, so representation was not a lottery.
        I urge all councillors to follow logic, even-handedness, and retain rural seats – in the interests of the entire district, and in accordance with the oath you take as councillors.
        Pop in for another chat. I won’t keep you as long this time!!!!!!!!

  3. Toby Williams says:

    Meredith, in your piece tonight you state that rural people are seeking to have more influence on the council. Sorry, but this is not correct. As a rural person we want people on the council who understand our areas, our challenges, to make sure that we have continuity on our issues rather than a different councillor every time.
    Also, at the last review in 2018 you voted for an at-large ward and this was then overturned by the Local Government Commission. That was only three years ago – and the same reasons that the last decision was overturned still exist! Our communities have not changed much in the past three years. The addition of guaranteed Maori seats does not change our communities, it only changes how some of the seats are voted on. This does not remove the need for rural voices at council.

  4. Dave says:

    If you are to tax people in rural areas, they deserve representation from that area. It’s hard enough to get the council to listen to ratepayers at the best of times – I would imagine that will be worse if they don’t have anyone that comes from the area. Don’t add representation for one group at the cost of removing it from another.