Māori seats explained

25 Nov 2020, 12:16 PM

Northland Regional Council (NRC) Chair Penny Smart is keen to set the record straight on the role those elected to the local body via dedicated Māori seats will play.

Councillors last month (October) agreed to formally introduce Māori seats from the 2022 local body elections guaranteeing Māori a voice around the council table in a move seen as an important expression of the NRC’s commitment to tāngata whenua.

The move will bring the council into line with the approach being taken both by central government and an increasing number of other local bodies around New Zealand, including currently three of Northland’s four councils.

Chair Smart says given more than a third of Northland’s population is Māori, the proposed change – which had received considerable media and public attention – will only strengthen the existing Māori/council partnership.

“It will also support and enable council to better reflect Māori values, issues, priorities and aspirations as they relate to council roles and functions and help us better reflect the needs and aspirations of our entire community.”

However, Chair Smart says there appears to be confusion in some quarters as to the role those elected via Māori constituencies would have.

“Councillors are elected to represent all Northlanders. Once elected councillors sign an oath to represent all Northlanders and this is reflected in council’s vision ‘Northland Together We Thrive - Ko Te Taitokerau, Ka whai hua tātou’.

“Maori elected to designated Maori seats will sign the same oath as other councillors; at the decision table they will represent and make decisions for the good of all Northlanders, not just tangata whenua.”

“Similarly, all councillors are elected by constituents to make democratic decisions using robust, well-considered information.”

“This means as elected representatives we must all come to the decision table with no pre-determination, willing to listen, contribute to good debate and then support the outcome of the vote.”

Chair Smart says from time-to-time individual councillors will find themselves at odds with a position or decisions the council eventually collectively adopts.

“That’s simply the democratic process at work, however, it’s worth reiterating that once decisions have been made councillors have a duty to support them as part of their collective responsibility.”

She says councillors make many important decisions day-in and day-out as part of their roles. “Councillors have a duty to seek all the facts, listen to all the debate, and then collectively make the decision they feel is best for the region as a whole.”

Legally five percent of electors (just over 6000 people) have the right to demand a poll on the regional council’s intention to create Māori constituencies.

Chair Smart says while a demand for a poll is currently being sought by some in the community, there is an important difference between community consultation and a poll.

“The two are not the same thing. Polls are a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote with no consultation and in the case of Māori representation, a poll is binding, which means that council has to abide by the result for the next two electoral cycles (six years).”

Polls were not cheap and if required, would cost ratepayers about $240,000.

When that was added to the roughly $80,000 it would cost for a byelection to replace former Whangarei-based councillor John Bain – who resigned in protest over the Māori representation issue – the combined total was equivalent to a one percent rates increase.

As far as meeting the salaries of those elected to represent Maori constituencies, Chair Smart says remuneration for councillors comes from a fixed pool of money independently decided upon by central government’s Remuneration Authority.

“Regardless of the number of councillors the total pool amount does not change, meaning that there would be no extra remuneration expense to ratepayers if Maori constituency seats are established.” (The NRC currently has nine councillor positions, but if the number of councillors goes up as a result of Maori seats, all councillors will be paid less.)

Lastly, Chair Smart says regardless of which electoral roll a person is on they are only able to cast one vote at local body election time.

“If Māori are enrolled and vote on the Māori roll, they cannot also enrol and vote via the general roll. One person equals one vote.”

Chair Smart says setting up Māori constituencies would also require a review of the council’s overall representation arrangements, which covers the number of councillors overall, existing constituency names and boundaries.

If opponents of the move were unable to secure the roughly 6000 signatures required from Northland’s 120,500 electors to force a poll, the council would then develop an Initial Representation Proposal setting out the proposed new constituencies, names and boundaries by 31 August 2021.

“This would be followed by a period of formal consultation, including the opportunity for public submissions.”

There would be a further objections/appeals period before a final determination would be made by the Local Government Commission by early April in 2022.

That determination would then apply to both the October 2022 and 2025 Northland Regional Council elections.