'We've got to do this' - Gisborne District councilor

By Te Kuru o te Marama Dewes

Gisborne District Council has voted to establish one or more Māori wards. The council voted unanimously in favour, although a number of councillors expressed concerns about losing their own power at the table.

In the Tairāwhiti Gisborne region, nearly 50% of the population identify as being Māori, which is not now reflected in the composition of elected members.

“I'm elated,” deputy mayor Josh Wharehinga said. “This is a Te Tiriti (o Waitangi) based decision, this is a honest and genuine decision, this is the right decision voting for Māori wards in Te Tairāwhiti.

In 2002 the Local Government Act was passed, allowing councils the power to create Māori wards.

The Local Government Act 2002 recognises the Crown's responsibility to take appropriate account of the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi and to maintain and improve opportunities for Māori to contribute to local government decision-making processes.

'Time to get on with it'

Councilor Tony Robinson spoke in support of the decision, “Our system doesn't fairly represent Māori voices at the table, and this legislation has been around as I said for almost two decades and it's just time to get on with it."

“The reality is that throughout the motu (country), only one council has succeeded in doing that. Why has it taken 20 years for that to happen? The simple answer is that people in powers of control, and institutions don't want to see change. They want to support and maintain the dominant culture, which is not the Māori culture", Robinson said.

Māori wards establish areas where only those on the Māori electoral roll vote for the candidates. They sit beside the general ward(s), which also cover the whole district.

A small group of councillors expressed concerns about losing their own seats, particularly those representing rural wards.

Green Party MP Elizabeth Kerekere of Ngāti Oneone said, “I think it's stepping in and really making sure that we all show that we're prepared to work together to make a really good solution for the whole of the Tairāwhiti because when people talk about 'oh we might lose some rural wards or we might lose some city wards,' because of introducing Māori wards, it's actually this is a combined group of people that will represent us, Māori still represent rural and urban.”

To be overturned?

But as has been seen with other councils around the country, the decision isn't final, and a petition may yet overturn the decision.

Under the Local Government Act 2002, a poll on the issue must be held if 5 % of the electors of the district request it via a petition (poll demand). The result of a poll is binding on the council for at least two elections.

“There's going to be a lot of fear and misunderstanding in our community, and people opposing it, but it's our job to do the hard mahi and really educate and bring our community along on this journey, ” Robinson said.

A long-time advocate for Māori representation on the council and its committees, Mr Wharehinga said, “It's about including Māori perspectives in the council, that's the main idea regarding the Māori wards it's about representation for the whole region of Te Tairāwhiti.”

“It's a win-win situation,” Robinson said. “Sharing does not detract from your position. We're going to do a comprehensive review and really make sure people's voices are heard but the bottom line is legislation empowers us to do this, there's an obligation on the  council to facilitate and enable Māori to be at the decision-making table, so we've got to do this.”