Why rural wards are important
by Pat Seymour QSO, OBE
The purpose of local government “is to provide for democratic and effective government that recognises the diversity of local communities” (Part 1, Local Government Act 2002).
Why would the Local Government Commission or any thinking people believe that 13 councillors elected at large across this geographically extensive region meets that requirement?
Some history: the 1989 reforms of local government across NZ gave this region Gisborne District Council. From the amalgamation of Waiapu County, Cook County, Waikohu County, Gisborne City Council, Gisborne Harbour Board and the East Cape Catchment Board, Gisborne District Council — with unitary functions of conservation and harbourmaster — was formed on November 1, 1989. The first council had eight elected councillors from the city and eight from the rural areas.
From the 8/8 scenario of the 1990s the council went down to 8/6 and at the review in 2012 to 9/4, the ratio we have today.
Democracy entitles the residents of the small townships on the East Coast and on the west, pastoral farmers and forestry landowners, to be able to vote and for their vote to have value.
Under the initial representation proposal, the potential for any rural community to be able to elect their preferred candidate to the council is slim; election “at large” will favour the largest population base.
With the introduction of Maori wards for election 2022 it is proposed to have five Maori Ward councillors elected in a configuration that best meets the needs of mana whenua. That may be at-large or in a scenario of two councillors in a Maori Ward/s covering the rural areas and three councillors elected to a Maori City Ward.
It makes sense and was the second most preferred scenario of councillors who voted 6/8 on the day that the district General Wards have two councillors elected across all the rural area of the region and six from the city ward. The preferred scenario of the four rural ward councillors, the Mayor and Dep Mayor at present is to see rural wards retained.
What is important is for the rural communities on the East Coast, on the west and south, to ensure that residents can have true value from their vote. These small communities need access to a rural councillor who understands rural issues and is committed to ensure that issues raised are supported, and solutions sourced. Governance should be able to go to the people, and that it is not just a formal council meeting. It is the regular access and accessibility that the community value a councillor for.
It is worth noting recommendations from the Local Government Commission when it considered the at-large scenario promoted by GDC at the last review and overturned it on appeal. Having listened to many submitters and considered the evidence, the commission said at point 37:
“The primary concern expressed by objectors was that the election of the council through an at-large system risked rural areas having no representation on the council and that, as a result, a rural perspective would be lost. It is speculative to predict where councillors might be elected from under an at-large election. However, we agree with objectors that from a statistical point of view this must be a possibility.”
And point 49:
“We have concluded therefore that: effective representation in Gisborne District Council will continue to be best provided by a ward system; the existing ward structure enables effective representation by reflecting communities of interest; effective representation is provided by the current number of 13 councillors.”
I strongly believe in the right of the rural communities to have a voice at the council table and retain the right to elect and replace their representation.