Referendum system for Māori wards to stay

Five planned Māori wards on local councils have been rejected after disgruntled residents forced referendums on the issue, but the system looks likely to remain in place

Changes to prevent Māori wards being voted down by referendums are off the table. 

Minister of Local Government Nanaia Mahuta earlier signalled she would consider legislation to prevent Māori wards being overturned by referendums, but she now believes such a change is not possible within the coalition.

“I have said to the sector that currently our coalition arrangements don’t allow us to change the legislation. It’s not that easy.”

Currently councils can vote to create more wards during a representation review - mandated to take place once every six years - and their decision can only be appealed to the Local Government Commission. 

But for Māori wards a different standard applies. After councils vote to create a Maori ward five percent of voters can petition for a referendum to be held on its existence. 

Those referendums have proven a death knell for Māori wards, with five being voted down in referendums held last year where voter turnout averaged 40 percent according to Radio New Zealand.

Rawiri Taonui, an independent writer and researcher on indigenous issues, said he was disappointed at the announcement.

“Something needs to be done because it’s obviously discriminatory to allow a referendum which essentially boils down to pakeha majority to expunge proposals to have Māori wards.”

Only two councils in New Zealand have managed to hold onto their Māori wards. One is the Bay of Plenty Regional Council  - which has held onto its Māori ward for over a decade - the other is Waikato Regional Council.

Mahuta earlier pledged to explore a change if councils and mayors expressed a will for it. 

Since last year, Local Government New Zealand, a body representing all councils, has asked the Government to remove the ability of people to petition to repeal Maori wards via referendums.

Asked if opposition from NZ First was preventing such a change Mahuta said: “It’s not something that we’ve absolutely tested but I am clear that right now those [coalition] arrangements wouldn’t allow us to test that as a matter of our relationship at the moment.”

Mahuta said she remained hopeful that changes councils were making to increase iwi representation within sub-committees would provide more of a voice for Māori within local government.

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