Three Whakatane women who led the charge for Maori wards in the district are ecstatic legislation change has been signalled.
Toni Boynton, Mawera Karetai, and Danae Lee say they are stunned and excited to hear that Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta has made removing the poll provisions on Maori wards one of her top priorities.
The three have never given up on their desire to create Maori wards on the Whakatane District Council and were in the midst of planning a petition, when the news came through on Tuesday.
Ms Boynton says it's incredibly unfair how their fight for Maori wards unfolded in 2018 and, although they hadn’t given up, this announcement provides hope that fair representation will happen sooner rather than later.
“It’s not a race issue, it’s an injustice, and it blocks out the voice of a treaty partner within local government.
“This is about recognising privilege in a system built for you by you. I am so happy to see we are moving to a more positive place.”
Maori wards are the only wards in which five per cent of voters can call for a binding poll to overturn a council decision to implement them.
There are no sections within the Local Electoral Act that give voters the same rights to demand a similar poll when a decision is made to create other wards, such as rural.
In late 2017, the Whakatane council voted six to five to implement Maori wards.
However, this decision was overturned in 2018 by a binding poll in which less than 50 per cent of the voting population took part.
The three women campaigned hard during this time and felt the outcome was the “tyranny of the majority over the minority”.
Even if all registered Maori voted “yes” in the poll, or in a council election all Maori voted for a Maori candidate in their ward, they simply wouldn’t have the numbers to get it passed.
Ms Boynton says on hearing about the proposed legislative change, she felt a sense of relief that other districts wouldn’t have to go through the same “David and Goliath” battle that Whakatane did.
Kaipara and Ruapehu district councils voted recently to establish Maori wards, while Northland Regional Councillor John Bain resigned and walked out of an October meeting during a debate over Maori wards.
He says he could not support a “broken democracy”.
Ms Lee says the idea that Maori should be, and could be, elected on merit is based in racism and ignores the fact that Maori did not begin on a level playing field with Pakeha.
She says it's inappropriate that white men are overly represented in local government and the motto should be “nothing about us, without us”.
“Everyone is born into a racist society and it’s up to us to overcome it,” she says.
“Unless you’re being actively anti-racist, then you are passively upholding racist systems. You have to be actively challenging those systems that keep minorities down, to dismantle them. That can be a tough conversation to have with yourself but it’s one worth having.”
Ms Karetai says it's also worth noting that the first-past-the-post system used for council elections favoured the incumbent and did not allow for minority views to be represented in the same way that MMP did.
“It’s been well documented that people vote for the familiar,” she says.
“If we have more Maori representation on council, then they are actively decolonising that space just by being there.
"By being present other people are forced to think further about the discussion and decisions that are being made; people have to check themselves.
"There are only benefits to having Maori at the table, no disadvantages. Seeing more Maori faces in decision making places will also encourage more to get involved.”
While there are deeper levels to the fact that Maori struggle to be elected, there is one simple theme and that is racism – something both Ms Karetai and Ms Boynton say they experienced when they ran in the last election.
However, Ms Boynton is now feeling more optimistic about the future and said people only needed to look to the Bay of Plenty Regional Council, the first council to introduce Maori wards, to see a real success story.
She says the community has nothing to lose and everything to gain by introducing Maori wards.
The women remain committed to their planned petition, so it is clear to Government that there is community support.
In the meantime, they would like to mihi all those who helped with the Maori ward fight in 2018 and are looking forward to travelling to Wellington sometime in the future to see the legislation signed.
Maori electorates have been a feature of national politics for more than 150 years, but at a local level just three of New Zealand’s 78 local authorities have Maori wards – the Bay of Plenty and Waikato regional councils and Wairoa District Council.
The Bay of Plenty Regional Council was the first council to introduce Maori wards and Kohi Maori constituency councillor Toi Iti has welcomed the move to make them easier to introduce.
“I mihi to the minister for her proposed amendments to the Local Electoral Act,” he says.
“The sections in question are unfair, inconsistent, and discriminatory against Maori. They always have been.
“This change has been a long time coming and is indicative of the reforms that this new Government will be rolling out across the local government sector.”
Mr Iti says though Maori wards are not a “fix-all panacea”, it's a start to get more Maori around council tables before the real mahi begins.
“The mahi is working with the whole community, including councillors and staff, to navigate councils towards being fit-for-purpose organisations that can provide essential services, infrastructure and resource management for the wellbeing of all our communities, Maori and non-Maori alike.
“We will still have to overcome many challenges to get to that place, especially with the shifting-seas we operate in but this is certainly the kind of step-change needed to get the waka in the water.”
Last week, the legislation around Maori wards was raised in the Whakatane District Council chambers by Mayor Judy Turner, who voted in favour of Maori wards in 2017.
Councillors Andrew Iles, Gerard van Beek, and Nandor Tanczos also voted in favour three years ago while Julie Jukes and Alison Silcock voted against.
Whakatane has held two polls on Maori wards, the results of which show favour may be growing in the district.
In 2018, 55 per cent voted against Maori wards while in 2007, 70 per cent voted against.