Audrey Young: Labour kept plans on divisive Māori wards under wraps

The Government has made a strong case for abolishing local voters’ ability to overturn a council’s decision to establish a Māori ward.

The veto was designed to increase a Māori voice in local decision-making which has been woefully lacking in local government for many years.

The Māori ward policy passed by Helen Clark’s Labour Government was intended to address that deficit, but it hasn’t worked as hoped.

What the present Labour Government has announced is an important policy and highly controversial.

It is unforgivable, therefore, that Labour did not put it in its election manifesto for the 2020 election.

It is not in the section on Māori policy and it is not in the section on local government policy which begins: “Labour will uphold local decision-making in the democratic institutions of local government.”

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta foreshadowed the move in November, very soon after the October election.

It was clearly on Labour’s agenda all along. It may be a divisive issue but there is no excuse for Labour having hidden it at the election.

No doubt Labour feared it could strengthen the arm of Act or, more importantly, of New Zealand First and did not want to take the risk of saying what it wanted to do in case it cost them votes.

The party’s best chance of success and an outright majority rested on making it a Covid-19 election.

While there is no justification for Labour being underhand, there is justification to change the law around Māori wards.

Not only has the current law not achieved what it was meant to, but the effective veto on Māori wards by Pākehā voters gives Māori a greater sense of marginalisation.

It has made matters worse and there is every reason to change it.

The current law allows councils to establish Māori wards for voters on the Māori roll – and it also allows a petition of 5 per cent of electors to trigger a binding referendum to confirm or overturn the decision.

Since 2001, a total of 24 councils have attempted to establish Māori wards through the law and only two have succeeded – in Wairoa, where the council initiated a poll, and Waikato, where no poll was held.

In all cases where a poll has been initiated by electors, the Māori ward has been overturned.

Adding to the controversy is the fact that nine councils just last year resolved to establish Māori wards for the 2022 local government election. Any veto of that through polls triggered by a petition against their decision will not now go ahead.

The Māori wards will be established, with the right to challenge removed.

Those councils are the Kaipara District Council, Gisborne District Council, New Plymouth District Council, Northland District Council, Ruapehu District Council, South Taranaki District Council, Taupō District Council, Tauranga District Council and the Whangārei District Council.

Act opposes Māori wards and believes the answer is to extend the current veto on Māori wards to remove any councillor.

Don Brash’s Hobson’s Pledge says the imposition of Māori wards is one step closer to dictatorship.

The National Party has been quiet. Leader Judith Collins today said the caucus had yet to reach a position on the veto. It would find it difficult to oppose Māori wards, per se, given it has just decided to overturn its own policy of not standing in the Māori parliamentary seats.

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