Democrats who bridle against some community groups being granted privileged access to local authority decision-making bodies risk being portrayed for what they oppose rather than for what they uphold.
Waatea News, reporting on bizarre constitutional goings-on in Otago, illustrates the point.
The Otago Regional Council (a strong majority, anyway) has voted in favour of enabling Ngai Tahu to choose two iwi members, representing four Otago rūnanga, to sit on its policy committee.
The appointees will have voting and speaking rights and join 12 elected councillors at the table.
Before the vote, Cr Michael Laws signalled his intention to oppose the proposal.
Laws said this was an “assault upon democracy” and was “so privileged, and so obviously racist, that it calls into question the fundamental principles of democracy in Otago.”
The decision would empower an “unelected minority’‘.
The report said:
Otago regional councillor and former Whanganui mayor Michael Laws doesn’t want to share a seat on council committees with Māori representatives.
Laws’ objection was to sharing a seat with unelected Maori representatives.
He told Point of Order he would sit at the council with any person elected by Otago ratepayers irrespective of ethnicity.
Waatea News went on:
He’s describing a proposal to appoint two iwi representatives to the policy committee as privileged and racist.
He says the recommendation from council staff an extraordinary assault upon democracy.
But is he wrong?
The two iwi representatives will not be elected, either by local Maori citizens or anyone else.
As to the “extraordinary assault upon democracy”, let’s go back a bit.
Late in 2017 the council is reported to have followed the advice of a council report and resolved not to create a dedicated Maori constituency for its 2019 election.
Local Maori organisations supported this.
The Otago Daily Times gave this account:
Council chairman Stephen Woodhead said it engaged with four local runanga groups about the proposal.
Otakou Runaka formally responded saying it was against the proposal, and the other three had informally indicated they thought similarly.
The ODT report quoted Otakou Runaka spokesman Tahu Potiki, who said there were many reasons for not wanting a Maori constituency.
”We’re not trying to stop anyone, we’re just not convinced a Maori constituency is the answer. A Maori seat means that you’re a minority voice at the table.”
According to the TV One report on the vote this week, Laws harked back during the debate to the rejection of a special Maori seat.
He said said appointed iwi representatives did not favour Māori, it favoured only those associated with the rūnanga.
“Eighteen months ago you rejected Māori wards – every single one of you around this table and you said one of the reasons was you can’t have racial preference.
“Bang. We are going to have two iwi representatives on the policy committee and they’re going to have voting rights and we’re going to pay them. There’s no logical consistency there.”
So where did the pressure for the two Ngai Tahu runanga appointments come from?
Point of Order understands the idea was aired at a workshop in March. Then two iwi representatives came to discuss it further, leading to the council vote yesterday.
There seems to have been no public consultation and this significant change to the council’s governance arrangements was not included in the draft annual plan that is currently out for consultation.
Don Brash, the former National party leader and now a spokesman for Hobson’s Pledge, said the council should have put the proposal to the people of Otago in a referendum.
“In our democracy, those who get to vote on council have put their credentials to the community and, by gaining a seat through the electoral process, can demonstrate they have the authority to act on behalf of their constituents.”
Fair to say, the iwi appointments to the policy committee will be valid for only two meetings this year. The issue will have to be revisited at the start of next council term.
But they have a foot (or two) in the door.
As to Laws’ supposed disinclination to share a seat with Maori representatives, let’s go back to the ODT report of the meeting where the idea of a Maori seat was scuttled.
Cr Michael Laws said it was no surprise local runanga did not want a dedicated seat, because it would diminish their own influence.
”They believe that allowing a democratic choice for Maori would go against their own voice.”
The council had a legal responsibility to act for all Maori, not just local iwi, he said.
”The ORC needs to engage much more with a group that is increasingly disenfranchised by local government.”
Cr Laws suggested a motion to investigate options to better engage Maori in its processes, which the council passed.
Laws was sticking to his guns before the vote this week, according to this ODT report:
Council chairman Stephen Woodhead said it must look at ways to enhance its partnership with iwi.
Runaka members signalled they may appoint representatives with Resource Management Act experience, which would greatly help the council with its work, he said.
“We will still be consulting the wider community including all Maori, we are not excluding anyone.”
Cr Laws said it was an issue for a new council and the move would give power to runaka, but not Maori in general.
Ngai Tahu had “no problem” accessing the council already, he said.
The ODT quotes Cr Bryan Scott as saying the principle of having iwi at the table was “exciting”.
“My personal view is we always need to strive to do better with iwi and this is a way of doing that.”
They would represent two seats out of 14 and all decisions would have to be ratified by the full council, he said.
“Ideally, they can add value and we can discuss things face to face. The outcomes will be better for our community.”
But can’t they discuss things face to face now?
And let’s not forget that Ngai Tahu was one of several groups, including Canterbury councils, that asked for government intervention to replace Environment Canterbury’s elected councillors in 2010. The changes resulted in the councillors being sacked and replaced by a government-appointed commission.
Ngai Tahu subsequently were given seats among the appointees and was keen to hold on to them. Hence it submitted against the restoration of a full democratically elected system.
“The proposal to return to a fully democratically elected model does not provide sufficient recognition towards the Treaty partnership,” its submission says.
“It is considered that the proposal would be a step backwards for Canterbury as a number of other regions have moved towards equitable representation for iwi at a governance level.”
The iwi supported continuing a mix of appointed and elected councillors after the 2019 elections, proposing to incorporate three Ngai Tahu appointed commissioners alongside three appointed by the Governmen
Ngai Tahu more recently supported the Canterbury Regional Council (Ngāi Tahu Representation) Bill to Parliament.
This was a local bill intended to guarantee representation to Ngai Tahu by allowing them to appoint two members to the Canterbury Regional Council.
At No Right Turn, Malcolm Harbrow pointed out the gross over-representation this would have created: Ngāi Tahu would have had two councillors (12.5% of representation) for 15,375 people (3% of the population at the 2013 census).
Moreover, he noted the obvious conflict of interest issues this would create on a council while regulates resource use. Ngai Tahu has major investments in the dairy industry which it is expanding.
It also has substantial businesses, many of them rural and reliant on access to large quantities of water, in Otago.
Cr Michael Deaker was another to argue in favour of the new governance arrangements on the Otago Regional Council. He noted there had been a “steady progression over the last 20 years of this council building a relationship with Ngāi Tahu”.
We can only wonder where this steady “progression” will take the relationship – and governance arrangements – over the next 20 years.
Bob Edlin is a veteran journalist and editor for the Point of Order blog HERE.