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Māori wards and the real face of division

This week’s announcement about councils around New Zealand that brought in Māori wards without polling residents and will now need to hold a referendum on the issue or scrap the wards has been contentious and divisive.

The decision will have re-opened recent wounds across the region. Last year, Carterton District Council [CDC] and South Wairarapa District Council [SWDC] voted on the issue with different outcomes.

CDC narrowly voted not to have a Māori ward. SWDC’s vote went the other way.

After the SWDC vote, the council chamber erupted joyfully as people hugged one another. Tears were shed.

The CDC vote was met with angry words, and some in the public gallery walked out in protest.

The SWDC vote did not come without previous pain. In mid-2021, pro-Māori ward activists took their campaign to SWDC offices after a hīkoi through Martinborough.

The peaceful protest saw campaigners marching around the town waving the Tino Rangatiratanga flag.

The council’s then chief executive fronted dozens of Wairarapa activists at the council chambers, and then he sang them a waiata.

SWDC promised to consult the community on the issue, which it did. Thorough consultation took place in meetings, both formal and informal over many months, although there was no formal referendum. The community appeared to overwhelmingly want a ward, and the council voted accordingly.

RNZ reported Local Government Minister Simeon Brown’s announcement this week, quoting him as saying it reversed previous “divisive changes that denied local communities the ability to determine” whether to establish the wards.

The previous government had abolished the need for councils to hold referenda on Māori wards, saying rural and other wards did not need that. Local Government New Zealand [LGNZ] supported the move.

Now we see Brown’s announcement, apparently aimed at preventing division, causing division. Criticism has been swift. LGNZ was one of the first to oppose the move. In a media release on Thursday, LGNZ president Sam Broughton described it as “complete overreach”.

“The Coalition Government is removing decision-making from councils by mandating polls be run on Māori wards and constituencies alone,” he said. “Empowering local government to make decisions about their own communities is what this government campaigned on and is not being delivered today.”

Broughton said it is a distraction from work on delivering infrastructure and addressing the pressure on rates rises.

There are real questions to be asked about the timing, necessity, and practicality of this move.

Brown has said the government’s requirement for referenda to take place at the same time as next year’s local body elections will be cost-effective. “We’ve been advised it’s going to be a minimal cost if any,” he reportedly said.

This is a difficult question for local bodies to be dealing with right now. Already struggling to manage the delivery of essential services and keep rates affordable, now those that recently introduced the wards must decide what to do.

Either they hold the referendum next year, funded by resources that are already scarce, or they don’t. Either way, the outcome will probably be divisive.

It’s arguably far more impactful [and divisive] to give something and then take it away than it is to deny it in the first place.

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