This was a sleight of hand by Labour. The party should have campaigned on Māori wards for the country's councils during the last election.
Just after the landslide they declared their hand on what is a significant change that shouldn't be underestimated. They’re removing the ratepayers’ right to instigate a binding referendum if they can drum up the support of five percent of their fellow voters to get it up and running.
Attempts in the past have shown there’s no ratepayer appetite for Māori wards. Since the Helen Clark Government passed a law almost 20 years ago making provision for Māori wards, 24 councils have tried to put them in place.
But the veto power of the ratepayers took over and just three of the attempts have been successful.
Still, it’s made no impression on this Labour Government. The democratic rights of ratepayers are being denied, despite what they say.
As some sort of justification the Minister sponsoring the bill, Nanaia Mahuta, crowed in Parliament about how many councils had made submissions supporting the Government’s moves. Time and time again she told the urgent debate on removing the veto that 21 councils made submissions on the bill and all were in favour.
Hardly overwhelming support for the move considering the country at last count had 78 councils: 11 regional councils and 61 territorial authorities (50 district councils and 11 city councils).
Former Air New Zealand boss and now National MP Christopher Luxon, who’s got the local government job for his sins, must be reflecting on how good corporate life was compared to this.
Luxon made the point that regional councils can have binding referendums on virtually anything, like the colour of the town hall, whether you are going to build a library or where you are going to put a swimming pool.
He says a binding referendum can be applied to anything but not to a Maori ward under Labour’s changes.
Luxon reckons if it’s just about representation, it’s already being achieved.
You only have to look at the biggest Māori caucus Labour has ever had in Parliament and in local Government people are getting elected to councils, he says, not because of the colour of their skin, but because they’re fundamentally equal.
The point is if Māori are interested in serving on councils, although given the state of most of them you would have to wonder why, then they should put their hand up along with the rest of us.
Barry Soper is a New Zealand political journalist, and has been featured regularly on radio and television since the 1970s. Currently, Soper's main role is political editor at Newstalk ZB, a radio network in New Zealand.
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