Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta’s intentions were plainly proclaimed soon after the Ardern Government began its second term. She was determined to remove legislative machinery that enabled public polls to be conducted when councils attempted to create Māori wards.
The headline on an RNZ report summed up her commitment: Mahuta vows to clear obstacles to creating Māori council wards
She has been dismayingly successful, from the perspective of citizens anxious to buttress democratic electoral and governance arrangements against the fast-spreading erosion when special provisions for Maori are introduced.
First, she led the charge in ramming the Local Electoral (Māori Wards and Māori Constituencies) Amendment Bill through Parliament under urgency.
As National MP Nick Smith recalled at the time of the bill’s rapid passage into law, Mahuta had been in Parliament in 2002 when the law that allowed referendums to be conducted on Māori wards had been passed in 2002.
Mahuta had spoken in the third reading,
“ … strongly supporting the law that she today says is racist. So I say to the Minister: ‘How can a member in one breath, in one speech to the House, say this is great law and then come round a number of years later and say it’s racist law?’…
“If it is a racist law, she should have the courage of her convictions, stand up in this Parliament, and apologise for the previous Labour government, of which she was a part, for passing it.”
Graham Adams, a journalist and columnist, noted how Mahuta tackled such questions in an article for the Democracy Project.
Her explanation of her shift seems effectively to be that the 2002 law allowed voters to vote the “wrong way” — ie, against the creation of separate Māori wards — so the law needs to change.
Alarming lurches in logic don’t appear to worry her either. In introducing the bill this week, she asserted she was “not thwarting any democratic process” because “this is a debate that has been around for a very long time.”
This is a spectacular non sequitur. Many contentious issues have “been around for a very long time” but principled governments wanting to legislate on them observe democratic conventions rather than ramming legislation through Parliament under urgency.
They certainly don’t condense select committee oversight from the usual six months to less than a week — and especially not when it involves electoral law. Or, for that matter, allow less than 48 hours for public submissions to be made.
Adams drew attention to the expert advice Mahuta received from her own department.
Internal Affairs officials noted in a Regulatory Impact Assessment of the bill:
“Changes to democratic processes for local government should be accompanied by an opportunity for consultation with the general public, and in this case, specific consultation with local authorities (elected members and staff), electoral officers, and iwi/Māori.
“This view was endorsed by the Ministry of Justice because of the constitutional nature of electoral processes. This consultation has not been possible within the timeframes.”
Adding insult to democratic injury, Adams pointed out, Labour didn’t campaign on changing the law on Māori wards. Nor was this mentioned in its manifesto.
To the contrary the manifesto promised:
“Labour will ensure that major decisions about local democracy involve full participation of the local population from the outset.”
But what happened to this pledge when eight Wellington City Councillors – given the critical constitutional choice of Treaty partnership or democracy – voted last week in favour of granting voting rights to representatives appointed by Maori tribes to sit on council committees?
Forget about full participation of the local population from the outset.
When Mayor Andy Foster proposed a delay (to allow the significant change to be put out for public feedback before going to a council vote) he was derided by supporters of the change.
Cr Jenny Condie said the proposal did not require formal public feedback because it would be “rectifying an injustice”.
She further said she was opposed to allowing the public to have their say because some of their opinions might be racist.
But not one letter to the editor – either in support of the council decision or in opposition – has been published by the Dominion-Post. This suggests Wellington citizens are profoundly indifferent to the way they are governed and the attenuation of accountability arrangements.
Within days, Mahuta could claim another success. She had replaced the democratically elected Tauranga City Council with four commissioners.
This week her appointees imposed a Maori ward on the city in defiance of the views of 6000 residents who had petitioned for a vote.
But under Mahuta’s legislation there can be no vote and since it took effect in February around 20 councils have been considering or resolving to introduce segregated voting by establishing Maori wards or constituencies for next year’s local body elections.
As Hobson’s Pledge points out, nine of those councils simply ignored the signatures of their ratepayers who petitioned for the right to vote on the matter, which previously had been permitted under the Local Electoral Act 2001 until February 1.
Hobson’s Pledge goes on to point out:
Councils try to justify racially segregated voting on local councils as giving effect to Section 4 of the Local Government Act 2002, guaranteeing a seat “for Maori” at the top table, reflecting the Treaty of Waitangi, and increasing Maori participation in local government.
However, the Local Government Act 2002 does not require Maori wards. Maori representation on local government overall is already proportional to population percentage, and there is absolutely nothing in the Treaty about voting arrangements.
Mahuta glibly invoked pro-democracy rhetoric while snuffing the public’s right to object to and overturn the creation of race-based constituencies.
In Parliament Nick Smith asked her:
“Does the government expect councils to respect ballot-box decisions where communities have recently voted against creating separate Māori wards; if not, why not?”
“The ballot-box decision that electors make every three years, which is to choose their leaders of council, to choose their councillors, is overturned by a five per cent discriminatory provision. Even if those councillors around the table who have been elected to represent their region want Māori wards, it can be overturned by a five per cent poll, and that’s discriminatory. We need to even up the playing field.”
As Graham Adams pointed out in his article, these assertions are completely untrue.
Councillors can’t be thrown out by a “5 per cent discriminatory provision”.
And the process of overturning a council decision setting up a Māori ward only begins with at least five per cent of voters petitioning for a binding referendum. It then requires a majority of participating electors to vote against a Māori ward being established for the veto to be effective.
That the Minister of Local Government doesn’t appear to understand these basic facts — or at the very least can’t articulate them coherently under questioning in Parliament — is worrying.
Mahuta further professed to be a champion of democracy when she said during the first reading debate of her bill:
“We are not thwarting any democratic process. This is a debate that has been around for a very long time. What we’re enabling is for councillors who are elected to represent the interests of their electorate to not be thwarted through a discriminatory 5 percent poll provision that could overturn their resolution at the council table. It’s an idea whose time has come.”
But she has sacked the democratically elected (albeit dysfunctional) city council in Tauranga and appointed the commission.
And now her appointees have introduced a race-based ward contrary to significant public opposition.
Here’s hoping the indifference of Wellington’s citizens to the way they are governed has not infected citizens elsewhere.