Since the Labour Government rushed through a law change at the beginning of February denying ratepayers the right to call for a referendum before a local government created one or more Maori wards, there has been a sharp increase in the number of local governments intending to do this – or at very least, considering doing so.
Indeed, there are now 20 such councils: Hamilton, Invercargill, Palmerston North, Tauranga, and Wellington City Councils; the Horowhenua, Kaipara, New Plymouth, Ruapehu, Gisborne, Whangarei, Taupo, South Taranaki, Waipa, Whakatane and Kaikoura District Councils; and the Hawke’s Bay, Horizons (Palmerston North), Northland and Taranaki Regional Councils. Nine of these councils decided to set up Maori wards before the rushed change in legislation, and 11 subsequently did.
But why? The public is overwhelmingly opposed to such racially-based voting systems. And we know this because in the five districts where referenda were held on this issue in 2018, voters overwhelmingly rejected Maori wards – mostly by majorities of close to 80%. Only in Whakatane, where half the population is Maori, was the opposition slightly more muted, at 56% opposed.
Astonishingly, in four of the 20 districts now considering the establishment of Maori wards referenda have explicitly rejected Maori wards within the last few years, but still councils press ahead, protected now by the Government’s decision to deny ratepayers any say in the matter.
Signatures calling for a referendum were gathered in the Northern Regional Council and in eight district councils. I don’t know how many signatures were collected in New Plymouth, but in the eight jurisdictions for which I have the results, 25,214 signatures calling for a referendum were collected against a required total of 18,737. The only district where signatures fell short of the required 5% to force a referendum (before the Government changed the law) was Gisborne.
There is in fact not the slightest justification for separate racially-based wards, something implicitly endorsed by a very large number of Maori: only Maori on the Maori electoral roll would be eligible to vote in a Maori ward, and almost exactly half of all Maori New Zealanders have chosen not to be on the Maori roll.
The argument for a racially-based franchise would be weak even if Maori New Zealanders had difficulty getting elected to local government. To the best of my knowledge, nobody has yet suggested one or more wards reserved for Asian New Zealanders, and in some parts of the country (like Auckland) Asian New Zealanders far out-number Maori New Zealanders.
In fact, Maori New Zealanders have no difficulty being elected to local governmen without Maori wards. The latest figures from Local Government New Zealand suggest that 13.5% of elected officials in local government are Maori – corresponding quite closely to the share of Maori in the total population.
We also know that Maori New Zealanders have shown they are perfectly able to be elected to Parliament, with 20% of all Members of the current Parliament being Maori. A year ago, the Deputy Leader of Labour, the Leader and Deputy Leader of National, the Leader and Deputy Leader of New Zealand First, the Co-Leader of the Greens, and the Leader of ACT were all Maori, and nobody suggested this was strange or somehow inappropriate. Only one of those leaders depended on a Maori electorate to be in Parliament.
What about the Treaty, ask those who favour Maori wards? But there is absolutely nothing in the Treaty about voting rights, and on the contrary Article III of the Treaty guaranteed to Maori the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else. To suggest that the Treaty guaranteed racially-based voting systems for those who chance to have one or more Maori ancestors is a grotesque fabrication.
Moreover, even without Maori wards, current law already imposes on all local authorities special obligations to consult with Maori before doing almost anything, though why that is true has never been clear to me: it is not obvious that Maori New Zealanders should have a superior right to be consulted about, for example, the location of a library or the design of a road-way, the sort of issue which local authorities tend to deal with.
The absurdity of the current situation is well illustrated by the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council, which is currently contemplating the creation of one or more Maori wards. The Council already employs one hapu advisory officer, three Maori partnership group members, 10 iwi representatives who control the Regional Planning Committee, and 12 Maori social services nominees on the Maori Committee – and two of the nine councillors (or 22% of the total) are already Maori! Why on Earth would the Council feel that Maori voices are not being heard and that Maori wards are necessary?
Worryingly, while many of the councillors promoting the Maori ward cause are simply people who have swallowed the nonsense that the Treaty conferred on Maori New Zealanders some kind of superior constitutional status, there is some evidence that others have been intimidated by the threatening behaviour of groups of Maori who attend council meetings when the issue of Maori wards is discussed. There could well be a strong case for excluding members of the public when councillors vote on issues where tempers are expressed so openly. And of course there should be absolutely no tolerance for the physical intimidation which has confronted some of those opposed to Maori wards.
If he were doing his job properly, our Race Relations Conciliator would realise that conferring special legislative privilege on one race is precisely the sort of thing likely to stir racial hostility in New Zealand, something his office is meant to be working against.