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  • Ethan Rogacion

“It’s nonsense”: Government Bringing Back Māori Ward Referendums


Despite everyone telling them that it is anti-democratic and a bad idea (so nothing new, really) the Government are forging ahead with plans to reinstate referenda for Māori wards on local councils.

Since 2021, councils that have wished to create a Māori ward have been able to do so by a simple resolution, rather than the binding referendums that the Local Electoral Act 2001 had previously required. The explanatory note for that bill cited that the previous requirement, for at least 5% of all of a city’s eligible electors to vote in favour, was “an almost insurmountable barrier to improving Māori representation in local government.”

However, not all saw this development as positive—including Dancing With The Stars loser and alleged democracy fan David Seymour. “The decision of whether councils should establish Māori wards ought to lie with the communities themselves, not Wellington,” he asserted in a press release. This is despite councils being democratically elected by and accountable to their communities.

Earlier this month, Local Government Minister Simeon Brown announced that, “The Coalition Government will reverse the previous government’s divisive changes that denied local communities the ability to determine whether to establish Māori wards.” 

“The Coalition Government’s view is that any decision to establish or disestablish a Māori ward is one that should remain with communities. This does not affect councils’ responsibilities to consult with mana whenua on issues that affect them.”

Importantly, this would mean that councils that have already established Māori wards—including Wellington City Council—would be required to hold a referendum on whether to keep their wards at the next local elections in 2025.

Nīkau Wi Neera, councillor for Te Whanganui-a-Tara Māori ward, told Salient, “The concept that it's restoring some lost democratic input is preposterous. No other representation change whatsoever requires a referendum, except to grant Māori the representation guaranteed to them under Te Tiriti o Waitangi.”

“We could restructure the entire Council to be 16 seats for Grenada North and we still wouldn't need a referendum—yet Māori participation is still viewed as a usurping of democracy on our own land. It's nonsense.”

Criticism has also come from academics, who have questioned the policy’s democratic implications. Law lecturer Professor Dean Knight said that “[b]inding referendums on the establishment of Māori wards reflects out-of-date and unjust thinking, where the rights and interests of a minority are only realised if the majority allows.”

“It’s also important to remember that the principle of one person, one vote remains; Māori wards merely recognise communities of interest for iwi, in a similar way to how general wards geographically group ratepayers in different communities of interest, such as clustering rural voters together.”

Professor Knight also noted that, at the same time as the Government are mandating that councils hold referendums on Māori wards, it is also rolling back proposals that would have allowed 16 and 17-year olds to vote in local elections “on the basis that doing so would be a costly distraction for local government.”

“[R]einstating local referendums for Māori wards will be even more costly and distracting—and unnecessary when those Māori wards have been democratically established by local communities’ elected representatives.”

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