Local Government Magazine
Local Democracy

Voices in Local Government

By Linda O’Reilly, partner, Brookfields Lawyers
A small article in the July issue of this magazine got me thinking about Maori representation in local government.  Far North District Councillor Moko Tepania referred to the consideration of Maori representation in his district and commented:

“I am a voice on council who happens to be Maori, not a Maori voice on council.”

The comment is relevant because the time is coming, as it does on a three yearly cycle, when local authorities will have the opportunity to  resolve that the district or region be divided into one, or more, Maori wards or constituencies for electoral purposes.

Since the next triennial local government elections are in 2022, the Local Electoral Act 2002 requires any such resolution to be made no later than 23 November of this year, if it is to come into effect at the next elections.

Alternatively, a local authority may, at any time, resolve that a poll be held on the question whether a district or region should be divided into one, or more, Maori wards or constituencies.

Given that there has been quite a lot going on this year, it would be unsurprising if few local authorities are giving too much thought to the creation of Maori wards or constituencies. But, while the spirit of change and re-examination of governance structures is upon us, it might be just the time to do so.

And if a local authority is reluctant to address this issue, it may be that the community forces its hand. The Act allows five percent of eligible electors in a district, or region, to demand that a poll be held on the question whether the district or region should be divided into one or more Maori wards or communities. 

A resolution by a local authority to create Maori wards or communities may similarly trigger a poll. The result of an election or poll will apply for the two following triennial elections.

If, by resolution or as the result of a poll, a district or region is required to be divided into one or more Maori wards or constituencies for the next triennial election, the local authority then has until 31 August 2021 to determine certain matters, including: the proposed number of members to be elected by the electors of one or more Maori wards or constituencies; the proposed name and the proposed boundaries of each ward or constituency; and the number of members proposed to be elected by the electors of each Maori ward or constituency. 

The Act contains specific criteria that apply to these determinations. The persons who may vote for a member of a Maori ward or constituency are those who are residents of that ward or constituency (or otherwise qualified as ratepayer electors) and are registered as electors of a Maori electoral district under the Electoral Act 1993.

Moves to create Maori constituencies and wards have not generally gathered electoral support. In 2018 Maori wards were proposed and rejected in five districts. Only Wairoa District Council has a Maori ward. 

By contrast Bay of Plenty Regional Council and Waikato Regional Council have three and two Maori constituencies respectively. But the dialogue is changing and there are concerted movements here and abroad that are demanding that voices hitherto ‘muted’ are heard. The Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements may not be directly relevant, but they are not occurring in a vacuum.  

It is not that there are no Maori elected members, or that Maori concerns are necessarily overlooked in local government.

Both the Local Government Act 2002 and the Resource Management Act 1991 contain provisions that require specific focus on issues of interest to Maori, but this may not be enough.  As councillor Tepania eloquently explains, a voice that happens to be Maori is not the same as a Maori voice on a local authority.

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