By Craig Ashworth, Local Democracy Reporter
The group of candidates vying for New Plymouth's mayoral chains are among the country's strongest believers that Māori wards will boost participation in local elections.
Nine of the ten contenders responded to a national survey by Local Democracy Reporting, and eight said the wards were "an effective way to increase Māori participation" as voters and candidates.
It means 80 percent of the mayoral candidates believe New Plymouth's new Te Purutanga Mauri Pūmanawa ward will boost democracy - the fourth highest rate in New Zealand.
The New Plymouth candidates' endorsement is a turnaround since then-mayor Andrew Judd led a successful vote to set up a Māori ward in 2014.
A public referendum overturned the ward, and amidst abusive backlash Judd recognised he couldn't hold the chains and did not stand again in 2016.
In just three districts, 100 percent of mayoral candidates endorse Māori wards' effectiveness: Hastings' unopposed mayor, Manawatu's two candidates and Ruapēhu's four candidates.
In Hamilton, Gisborne and Tararua all candidates who responded believed the wards would be effective, but fewer candidates took part so the overall endorsement was 40 percent in Hamilton and 75 percent in the other two districts.
Nationally, 202 mayoral candidates took the LDR survey, with 49 percent agreeing Māori wards would be effective, 25 percent disagreeing, and 26 percent not sure.
Of New Plymouth's wannabe mayors, only councillor Murray Chong said Māori wards would not be effective.
"We were not allowed to hold a referendum to find out what the people of the New Plymouth District wanted."
In 2020 the council voted 12-2 in favour of the ward, without going to public consultation. The following year Parliament changed the law to remove the referendum option.
"The first step should have been asking if ratepayers wanted a Māori ward... We are now all one people."
Chong has sparked multiple controversies concerning Māori: he railed against funding of "dead" te reo, had to apologise for saying he was ashamed to sing the national anthem in Māori, voted against funding urupā upkeep, and asked on Facebook who else was tired of "so-called" Māori rights.
Mayoral candidate councillor Sam Bennett, who last year had to apologise for calling Chong racist, said on his council website profile that the Māori ward honoured the partnership between the Crown and Maori.
"I believe that the introduction of a Māori Ward councillor is an invaluable contribution to decision making."
The only Māori candidate for mayor, councillor Dinnie Moeahu, said all councils have a legal duty to ensure Māori participate in the local body decision-making process.
"Establishment of a Māori Ward meets those obligations. "
Current mayor Neil Holdom, who abstained when councillors approved the Māori ward without public consultation, also expected the ward would be effective.
"Those on the Māori electoral roll [can] vote for a candidate in the Māori ward, and to also vote for five candidates for the at-large seats, which we hope will improve Māori participation."
In South Taranaki, sitting mayor Phil Nixon was also positive.
"Yes, we are already seeing a lot more Māori participation in Vote 2022 than we have seen in the past."
His sole opponent Charles Walter did not complete the survey as he objected to the questions.
"No, they [the questions] are racist… You're asking what the Maoris [sic] want and all that."
Stratford mayor Neil Volzke, who has been re-elected unopposed, is undecided whether his district's Māori ward will be effective.
"Only time will tell the answer to this question. Māori Wards will provide the opportunity for improved participation in decision making, which is a clear requirement of the Local Government Act."
Stratford councillors had voted against a Māori ward for 2022, but Volzke called an urgent meeting on the last possible day to reconsider.
A strong turnout of iwi, hapū and the town's Whakaahurangi Marae all said they were united in support of a Māori ward, after which councillors unanimously voted in favour.
Voting papers must be returned by midday this Saturday.
If you're not enrolled, you can still vote: get special voting papers at council offices or call 0800 922 822.
Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air