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Maori wards unanimous vote - 'Challenge now to get our community onboard'

Gisborne district councillors are gearing up to “get our community on board” after voting to introduce Maori wards for the 2022 and 2025 elections.

A crowded council chambers erupted in applause following a unanimous vote in favour of establishing Maori wards at an extraordinary meeting yesterday.

Elation, tears of joy and hugs were seen in the chambers following the vote — a moment of respite from the anticipated public poll which can be demanded by electors and has the power to overturn yesterday's decision.

The majority of councillors spoke in favour of the proposal, including Deputy Mayor Josh Wharehinga, who initially moved the paper, saying the decision was “very straightforward”, but later became emotional as he explained what the change meant to him.

“Everybody knows around the table that I'm first and foremost a father, and I got into this kind of mahi (work) because of my kids, who are largely female and largely Maori.”

When he started at the council in 2014, there were only two female Maori councillors in Gisborne, he said.

His daughters could now look to three strong Maori wahine representing them at a central government level, which he described as a “dream coming true”.

“Hand on heart I did not think I would see this day until my girls got older, in terms of representation.

“I love the fact that they have that at central government level, and Maori wards is our chance for representation for my young Maori daughters at local government level.

“If not us, then who, and if not now, then when?”

Councillors followed the staff's recommendation and resolved to establish one or more Maori wards, and to undertake a review of its “representation arrangements”.

They also directed the chief executive to undertake the statutory process to establish Maori wards, including notifying the public of its right to demand a poll.

Eight of New Zealand's last nine citizen-initiated polls have overturned these council decisions and in Gisborne only 1625 signatures are needed to require the council to go to a region-wide poll.

Cr Meredith Akuhata-Brown also shed tears as she explained to her colleagues it was the right thing to do.

“The time is always right to do what is right,” she said. “I believe that this isn't a racist discussion, it's a righteous one. It's time to do the right thing by our people.”

A number of submitters to the proposal had pointed out there were already Maori representatives on the council, she noted.

While she was proud to sit at the table, she was not the “spokesperson for every Maori or iwi in the region”.

“I need to be really clear. I've only claimed my Maori heritage in the last 12 years of my life. I wasn't raised Maori. In fact, I didn't know I was Maori until I was 11. I didn't know what Maori was. That's inherent in my upbringing. My Pakeha father told us we were not Maori. So, to represent Maori, for me, is actually hard work but it's a journey that I'm loving.”

Cr Tony Robinson said Maori wards would “add to the conversation” not “take away from it”.

“We have a massive challenge ahead of us because invariably there will be a poll — 1625 people will find the need to put their name on a bit of paper, to have a referendum, and then we're really going to have to deal with the muck.

Now facing challenge to ‘fight for this kaupapa’

“Over the next seven months we have a huge challenge to really fight for this kaupapa . . . if there's one thing that we do in our time here it is to ensure that this succeeds, that when we go out into our community and have these conversations, we really fight for this.

“Because it's the time. It has been overdue for 20 years. I really hope our community comes on board with us on this journey.”

Mayor Rehette Stoltz said she had been asking herself whether the current representation model was “fit for purpose”.

“I think the obvious answer is ‘no'.

“Our job now is to go out and get our community on board, tell them why this is good for us . . . this is our opportunity not only to address Maori representation but also to put our weight behind our rural councillors,” she said.

The public gallery had to be quietened early in the discussions as sounds of disagreement were expressed over councillor Pat Seymour's suggestion to go straight to the poll.

“I think that we have not heard from all of our community on this matter,” Cr Seymour said.

She believed the consultation process had not been undertaken as well as it should have done, to which staff said they were not required to consult publicly on Maori wards at all.

Rural councillor Kerry Worsnop expressed concern that a poll of electors might, by overturning their decision, set the introduction of Maori wards back another six years.

“That is broadly accepted to be quite a likely outcome,” she said.

“Simply charging ahead and going ‘oh look we feel good about this' — that's not good governance. We need to plan it better than that. We need to do better than that.”

She also raised concerns about the loss of rural representation.

“That is an enormous risk for myself and probably for all the other rural councillors here to support this. It's a big risk.

“We could lose our rural wards and we did not warn people about that.

“I take a bit of a leap of faith if I support this movement.”

East Coast councillor Bill Burdett said he was “a product of Maori voting for Maori”, but Maori wards were the “way forward”.

“Seven elections, still here. It can be done,” said Mr Burdett. “I believe sincerely in the electoral system we have but I also believe Maori wards are the future.”

Cr Shannon Dowsing said they were obligated to improve participation and to foster development of Maori in governance.

“This is absolutely an effective way to do that.

“Those two requirements of council, not options of council, those requirements are exactly why I'm in support of this.”

Cr Debbie Gregory said she supported the formation of Maori wards for a number of reasons, the main one being that the representation of Maori at the decision-making table was not there.

“I understand the thinking that there is every opportunity to get elected by any person of any ethnicity in a general election, but it's not true,” said Cr Gregory.

“There have not been the same opportunities in the past for Maori and Maori have not been engaging with the local body system for the last 250 years, and it's time for change.”

Just three of New Zealand's 78 local authorities have Maori wards — Wairoa District Council and Bay of Plenty and Waikato regional councils — despite legally being able to do so since 2002.

The council ran a consultation period from August to November in which 69 percent of the 293 responses said they would like to see Maori wards established.

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.

All but one of the formal submissions in favour of establishing Maori wards.

Yesterday was the last day councillors could pass the resolution to be effective in time for the 2022 election.

The council must now give public notice of its decision and of the right for electors to demand a region-wide poll on the matter.

TEARS OF JOY: An emotional Ngati Oneone chair Charlotte Gibson embraces Gisborne District Council chief executive Nedine Thatcher Swann after a vote in favour of Maori wards. Pictures by Alice Angeloni/LDR
Deputy Mayor Josh Wharehinga described the unanimous vote as 'a dream coming true'.