Why one council is trying to change electoral law

A Rotorua Lakes Council meeting in July 2021. From left, councillors Merepeka Raukawa-Tait, Mercia Yates and Dave Donaldson. Photo / Andrew Warner / Rotorua Daily Post.

The make-up of who will sit on Rotorua's next council is in the hands of Parliament as the district's current council pushes for a law change for the district’s electoral rules.

But the composition the council is pushing for has been on a long journey from the governance model it first proposed, what it prefers and the stopgap model it agreed to.

So how did we get here and what could happen next? Local Democracy Reporter Felix Desmarais breaks it all down.

The representation review

Representation reviews are a way for the public to review its representation arrangements and potentially change them. They’re a six-yearly legislative requirement for councils.

Questions include how many elected members a council should have, and whether there are wards, or whether all elected members are elected at large – that is, not constricted by an electoral boundary.

For the last two elections, Rotorua Lakes Council had 10 councillors and a mayor, all elected at large. The council also has the Lakes Community Board and Rural Community Board with four members and a chairperson elected and one councillor appointed.

Representation reviews can change this, but there was a spanner in the works this time: the introduction of Māori wards.

When the council agreed to adopt a Māori ward on May 21, it changed the future structure of the council. Instead of electing all councillors at large, now at least one councillor had to be part of a ward.

The initial proposal

First, council officials considered eight representation models, and whittled them down to three, which were floated to the public during an “awareness phase” beginning on June 14 last year.

They were:

-Option one: Seven general ward councillors, three Māori ward councillors (7-3)

-Option two: Six general ward councillors, three Māori ward councillors and one councillor elected at large (6-3-1)

-Option three: Four general ward councillors, two Māori ward councillors and four councillors elected at large (4-2-4)

The council decided early on it would keep councillor numbers at 10.

All models would elect the mayor at large. Officials settled on option three as the initial proposal and presented it to councillors for approval.

Māori roll voters would be able to vote for six candidates, and general ward voters would be able to vote for eight.

On August 31 the council agreed to put the 4-2-4 model out for public consultation from September 8 until October 8.

Te Arawa, including Te Tatau o Te Arawa chairman Te Taru White (centre), haka following the adoption of Māori wards in Rotorua in May 2021. Photo / Ben Fraser / Rotorua Daily Post.

The submissions

The council received 159 submissions on its initial proposal. In a response analysis provided to elected members, officials broke down percentages based on how many people responded to each question, rather than the overall number of submitters.

It stated 39 of 80 respondents identified equity or equality as an issue for consideration. Twenty-five of 55 responses favoured the 7-3 model, and 18 wanted a model with a Māori ward and a rural ward.

Two of 55 supported the council’s initial proposal.

At the representation review hearing on October 19, some submitters, such as Federated Farmers, argued for a rural ward.

Others, such as Ngāti Whakaue’s Ana Morrison said the hapū wanted iwi co-governance.

Te Tatau O Te Arawa chairman Te Taru White told the council at the hearing co-governance was “always on the table” but in the meantime Te Arawa whānui wanted three guaranteed Māori ward seats.

Other submitters said the proposed structure was undemocratic, favoured Māori and created "fake" at large wards.

After the hearing, a closed-door workshop was held, where elected members discussed the submissions and hearing feedback and directed council officials on its next steps.

The “interim” model and the “preferred” model

In a report prepared for the November 16 Strategy, Policy and Finance Committee meeting, council district leadership and democracy deputy chief executive Oonagh Hopkins pointed out a lack of “parity” with the initial proposal – the 4-2-4 model - for Māori roll voters, as they would only be able to vote for six candidates while general roll voters could select eight.

"This outcome may be seen as unfair to Māori, as it reduces the influence [of] those voters on the Māori Ward roll ... which is contrary to the concept of parity.”

Hopkins’ report also identified themes from the submissions and hearing, including the concept of equality and equity, iwi/Māori co-governance aspirations, the Treaty of Waitangi and equal suffrage.

It also discussed the role of the Rotorua Township (Fenton) Agreement, with Ngāti Whakaue gifting land for the original township in the spirit of reciprocity and the “bicultural intent of the agreement as an equal relationship”.

With that in mind, she said the council’s new preferred model was one with three Māori ward seats, three general ward seats and four at large seats – 3-3-4.

It allowed voters on both wards the same number of seats to influence and equalised the number of Māori ward and general ward seats.

However, the model was unlawful under the Local Electoral Act as the law has a strict formula that limits the number of Māori ward seats based on population sizes.

There were 21,700 people on the Māori roll and 55,600 people on the general roll in Rotorua, her report said.

As a workaround, council officials devised a new, “interim” model: one Māori ward seat, one general ward seat and eight at large seats.

“The implications of this spilt, is that it does not deliver a significant number of Māori ward councillors … but it does achieve parity,” Hopkins’ report said.

“Staff acknowledge that this option is not [the] council’s preferred outcome, and will continue to seek legal remedies to achieve the preferred 3-3-4 representation model.”

The committee agreed – narrowly - to recommend the council adopt the interim model, after a split vote that was broken by chairwoman Merepeka Raukawa-Tait's casting vote.

The local bill

At the council meeting later the same week, the recommendation was trumped by a five-part motion introduced by councillor Mercia Yates. Some parts had sub-parts.

The motion:

-Confirmed the council’s commitment to a Māori ward;

-Stated the council’s commitment to voter “parity”;

-Affirmed the role of the Rotorua Township (Fenton) Agreement and the principles of te Tiriti o Waitangi in Rotorua’s electoral system;

-Agreed the preferred model as 3-3-4;

-Noted that model was unlawful and instructed the chief executive to pursue statutory reforms to enable it as soon as possible;

-Adopted the interim – 1-1-8 – model; and

-Stated the interim model fell short of the preferred model but achieved “voter parity”.

All parts were carried with a division noted only on the last. Councillors Reynold Macpherson, Peter Bentley, Tania Tapsell, Raj Kumar and Sandra Kai Fong voted against.

The pursuit of a law change to enable the preferred model resulted in the drafting of the Rotorua District Council (Representation Arrangements) Bill.

Rotorua-based Labour list MP Tāmati Coffey. Photo / Andrew Warner / Rotorua Daily Post.

Rotorua-based Labour list MP Tāmati Coffey is the bill’s sponsor. It seeks an exemption from the Local Electoral Act’s requirements preventing the 3-3-4 model.

If the bill becomes law before June 1, the 3-3-4 model will replace the 1-1-8 model.

While Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick indicated with a public comment on March 23 the bill may or may not go through a select committee process, a council statement on March 2 said it would.

It was publicly notified and now awaits introduction to Parliament for its first reading and referral to the select committee. The select committee then prepares a report and makes recommendations to Parliament, including possible changes to the bill.

Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick. Photo / Andrew Warner / Rotorua Daily Post.

The bill is then read a second and third time – with votes to pass or block the bill from becoming law.

If the bill passes its third reading, it must receive royal assent via the Governor General – generally considered a symbolic process – then it becomes law.

The law change would apply to at least the next two local elections following its passing.

So far, pursuing the law change has cost the council $46,500 in legal fees.

The appeals

While the council pursues the law change to enable the preferred model, to all intents and purposes, the interim model is the one that will be implemented in this year’s local election.

However, all representation review decisions are able to be appealed by submitters to the Local Government Commission, and the council received 12. The Commission can overturn the council’s decision.

Hearings for the appellants were held over Zoom on March 23, and the Commission's decision on Rotorua’s governance arrangements is due by April 10. If the local bill fails to pass through Parliament before June 1, that will be the final representation arrangement for at least the next election – a postal ballot which will close on October 8 this year.


May 21, 2021 - Rotorua Lakes Council adopts Māori wards

June 14, 2021 - The council’s representation review “awareness phase” floats three representation models

August 31, 2021 - The council adopts its initial proposal (4-2-4) for public consultation

September 8 – October 8, 2021 - The representation review consultation period

October 18, 2021 - A hearing from representation review submitters

Between October 18 and November 16, 2021 - A closed door workshop on the representation review

November 16, 2021 - At a committee meeting, officials publicly reveal the council’s preferred model (3-3-4), that it is unlawful, and offer an interim model (1-1-8)

November 19, 2021 – The council decides to adopt the interim model (1-1-8) and pursue a law change to achieve the preferred model (3-3-4)

March 2 – 23, 2022 – The Rotorua District Council (Representation Arrangements) Bill is publicly notified

March 23, 2022 – The Local Government Commission hears objections and appeals on the council’s representation review

By April 10, 2022 – The Local Government Commission will decide on representation arrangements for the Rotorua district

By June 1, 2022 – The Rotorua District Council (Representation Arrangements) Bill must pass by this date in order to be in effect for the October 2022 local election.

-Local Democracy Reporting is public interest journalism funded by NZ On Air.

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Posted on 07-04-2022 08:44 | By R. Bell

Your endorsement is flawed simply because it is dependent on a candidate meeting your specific needs. You make no concession to the needs of our treaty partner, needs that cannot be met by non Maori. Perceived abilities are only valid if you recognise the Maori right to self representation. It is not too difficult for a Maori candidate campaigning on Maori issues, to get elected. IT IS IMPOSSIBLE.

@Robin Bell

Posted on 06-04-2022 11:27 | By Let's get real

Your rebuttal makes no sense... I will never support a system that establishes a privilege based on racial identity. However, I will happily endorse anyone from any ethnic background if they have the skills and experience needed to fulfil all of the challenges of the role they are endeavouring to gain. Removing the ward system would allow for a fair election of the best people for the job, irrespective of race, religion or gender. If you’re claiming that I or anyone else is racist when it comes to deciding who the best candidates are, you do yourself and all of Maoridom no favours. Look at Parliament and tell me which members are only there because of their racial identity and which are there because of their perceived abilities. Put up a strong candidate and relinquish the back door. Too difficult...?

Actually L.g.r.

Posted on 06-04-2022 08:52 | By R. Bell

there is nothing disgraceful in this article. You contradict yourself when you claim that ’ you always advocate for the best person for the job" If that was truly the case then you would support Maori wards. History has shown repeatedly that Maori have not been best served by non Maori. No Maori representing Maori issues has ever been elected by non Maori. No matter how " excellent" a candidate. You are wrong to describe Maori wards as race based, the are treaty based, remember. The oft repeated " back door " is nothing but simple minded deflection from prejudice. I truly hope this helps L.g.r but I doubt it.


Posted on 04-04-2022 17:01 | By Let's get real

It’s no surprise for regular readers that I will always advocate for the best person for the job... That said, I regularly hear the usual rebuttal to opposition to setting up wards based on race alone "what are you worried about, it will be good for everyone" Well let’s turn that on its head and ask Maoridom what are they worried about if they’ve got excellent candidates...? The total removal of a ward system should ensure large voting blocks the result that they desire. Let’s have some honesty and a quality council without the need for having to discriminate or open any back doors.

At least...

Posted on 04-04-2022 15:04 | By morepork

... under both the models, they are talking about ELECTING, not APPOINTING. If it really needs a Law change, then I hope they get it. At least they have been open and transparent about it and there has been considerable discussion. Well Done, Rotorua! (Tauranga Commissioners, please take note...)

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