Maori council seats

Nine years ago, Maori MPs argued that because no Maori had been elected on the Bay of Plenty District Council for one of the previous four elections, "the system" had failed them.

Parliament was discussing (and eventually passed) the Bay of Plenty Regional Council (Maori Constituency Empowering) Bill, which established special Maori seats on the council, in effect changing our local body voting basis and representation by giving a special preference to certain electors on the basis of their chosen ethnicity.

Thus, with this minor local Bill, another step was made in the attempt to give tribalism a special, exclusive, place in local body government similar to that it has continued to enjoy in central government, particularly during the early years of the Clark government.

The Maori MPs reckoned that the "tangata whenua" had "been precluded" from participating in local government "in years gone by", and that separate representation was "guaranteed" by the Treaty of Waitangi, but they did not advance a reason much closer to the truth - that the apparent under-representation of Maori on local authorities in areas of high Maori population was a direct result of apathy among potential candidates and voters.

Rather, the sense of their arguments was that somehow Maori were either excluded by reasons of race or in some other prejudicial way precluded from achieving representation on district councils within the existing law: that is to say, by putting themselves forward as candidates and participating in campaigning.

Yet, oddly, all 35 iwi in the Bay of Plenty were able for the first time to unite on the single cause of separate Maori seats on the local council, surely proving Maori were - and are - quite capable of achieving collective goals.

There was nothing that particularly distinguished the eastern Bay of Plenty requiring the exceptional attention of Parliament and legislative authority for the superior treatment of voter representation.

The council had had either 11 or 12 councillors each three-year term for the previous four terms: on two of those, two Maori were on each council, on one, one Maori was elected, and on the fourth, none.

Some 28% of the population of the region described themselves as Maori and were consulted about the Bill, but the other 72% of the population were not, because the Bill, in effect, proposed Maori wards with only those registered on the Maori roll entitled to vote for candidates standing in those wards.

We are reminded of this precedent in our electoral history because of the attention being paid to similar arguments being advanced by Maori and others for separate Maori seats on the proposed greatly enlarged single Auckland council.

The provision of Maori constituencies in local government would not, in theory, disadvantage anyone, at least not in the short term, but this alone does not justify their creation, any more than would the creation of a constituency for Danish descendants in southern Hawkes Bay, Chinese descendants in Otago, or Tongan constituents in south Auckland.

Nor is the claim justified on the grounds that Maori find it difficult to get political representation; there are plenty of examples, even in Parliament, where Maori contesting elections succeed solely because they are regarded as the best candidates.

Anyone who thought a National Government would concede separate Maori seats on the Auckland council has not read the party's policy, which prevents them.

Furthermore, the Government's initial response to this proposal by the Auckland Royal Commission was to deny the concession, although the Prime Minister's subsequent wavering in the face of Maori protest must have given hope for change to some.

The Cabinet's decision, while a political one, is consistent with party policy, notwithstanding the difficulties it might pose for relationships with its Maori Party support partner, which must have been aware of the Government's policy, as indeed must have Rodney Hide, who seems to have been rather opportunistically treading a path of personal political aggrandisement in response to Mr Key's inconsistency.

That Maori believe they are entitled to separate representation because of the treaty is a claim not tested in law, though it may yet be; that seats should be provided for them piecemeal, council by council, as a "gesture" is patronising and scarcely credible.

What next? That each tribe should have a seat? The Cabinet decision may appear to have effectively pre-empted change, but the issue will doubtless return when Parliament debates the legislation. The Government should not retreat from its position.


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