Legislation to entrench Ngai Tahu representatives on Environment Canterbury – these would be guaranteed appointments, to spare them the bother of pitching for popular support – failed to pass its first reading in Parliament in 2019.
On that occasion, New Zealand First’s Shane Jones featured in scuttling a bill which would have entitled Ngai Tahu to appoint two representatives to sit with elected councillors after the local elections later that year.
It seemed that was the end of a bad Bill – but hey: a few weeks ago the regional council announced it was again promoting a Bill that will provide “for mana whenua representation around the Council table”, by empowering Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu to appoint up to two members of the Council. This will be in addition to the elected members.
The aim – in other words – is not necessarily to bat for Maori generally. It’s to guarantee two decision-making seats at the council table for “mana whenua”, or the local tribal elite.
Under the current arrangement, introduced last year, two tribal representatives can “observe” regional council meetings.
The extent of public support for the proposed change is hard to gauge, but it is clear that some Cantabrians are troubled by what their regional council (known as ECan) is doing.
According to a report on Stuff:
Calls to open the debate on a bill that would entrench Ngāi Tahu representation at the Environment Canterbury council table continue to grow.
South Canterbury Federated Farmers’ president Greg Anderson’s letter to Environment Canterbury urging public debate on the bill follows Waimate District councillor and historian Tom O’Connor’s letter to ECan last month, encouraging them to debate the issue in an open meeting.
Anderson told The Timaru Herald he was concerned about the lack of information proffered by ECan.
“It’s simply undemocratic,’’ he said.
“They’re not Māori wards, which is something different, but non-democratic appointees to the ECan table.’’
Anderson said he was not against Māori wards, as they were democratically elected, but felt that entrenching Ngāi Tahu’s representation on the ECan council was against the principles of democracy.
“Who is going to have a say on these appointments?”
Anderson has petitioned ECan on the issue but – he says – learned the council had not discussed the petition in an open meeting.
O’Connor said ECan is keeping regional ratepayers in the dark ‘’and cooking up special deals behind closed doors and that is simply unacceptable.’’
O’Connor, a Waimate District Councillor and former journalist, formally wrote to ECan councillors on September 10, as a private citizen, asking for the issue to be reconsidered and for proper public consultation.
“That letter was withheld from them by staff until just before their September 30 meeting, and it was not included on the agenda. That is at least improper if not illegal,” he said.
“I have since been informed that my letter was considered and a decision made to decline my request at a closed workshop. Local government bodies are not allowed to make decisions at workshops, and they know that.”
The Ardern government has (a) a majority of MPs in Parliament and (b) a track record for giving Treaty “partnerships” priority over the preservation of democratic institutions. When the Canterbury regional council’s Bill to further empower Ngai Tahu is debated in Parliament, therefore, it is unlikely to be derailed as it was in 2019.
At that time, according to Mirage News, New Zealand First welcomed the restoration of regional democracy to Canterbury. It also recognised that Ngāi Tahu members made valuable contributions to the council’s governance and operations – but it baulked at special arrangements.
“There is nothing stopping members from standing for election just like everyone else,” says New Zealand First Māori Affairs spokesperson Hon Shane Jones.
“They need to receive a mandate from the region they wish to represent and should not get special treatment.”
This should have been the end of a long and shabby story.
The Key Government had sacked the regional council in 2010, replaced the elected councillors with commissioners and promised new elections in 2013.
In 2012 it extended the commissioners’ remit till 2016.
A public discussion document in March 2015 foreshadowed something less than the restoration of a full democratic system of governance. It outlined a hybrid model of seven elected members and six members appointed by the government.
Environment Minister Nick Smith confirmed the mixed model in July 2015. Seven councillors would be elected in 2016 to sit alongside six appointed commissioners.
A fully elected council would be restored in 2019.
The Environment Canterbury (Transitional Governance Arrangements) Bill, the legislation intended in 2016 to pave the way to introduce seven elected councillors, allowed for, but did not guarantee, a return to full democracy in 2019.
Just 15 of 1169 written public submissions were in support.
This negligible support included a group comprising 10 of the region’s mayors and Ngai Tahu, who already had one of their representatives among the Government’s seven appointees.
But one wasn’t enough for Ngai Tahu. They wanted three appointees.
Moreover, in 2015 they had said restoring full democratic elections would be a “step backwards” for Canterbury.
A select committee in Parliament upheld the bill’s most controversial aspects, including extending the reign of the commissioners and restricting the right to appeal decisions to the Environment Court.
It also included a clause requiring two of the commissioners be nominated by Ngai Tahu.
The bill was enacted and Ngai Tahu’s representation was raised to two – at least until the local body elections in 2019.
But Labour’s MP for Te Tai Tonga, Rino Tirikatene, introduced the Ngāi Tahu Representation Bill to Parliament to permanently entrench Ngai Tahu’s right to appoint two council members.
This is the Bill that was scuttled by National and New Zealand First.
According to Radio New Zealand, Shane Jones at that time said Ngāi Tahu was a “powerhouse” tribe which already had the means to assert their voice in the region.
“We are talking about the most well-endowed, most powerful of all the Māori tribes of te ao Māori. They have the power, they have the historical and mana whenua associations to well and truly stand up for themselves.”
Jones told Morning Report the council should be capable of dealing with Ngāi Tahu without having designated seats for iwi representatives.
“There are a host of opportunities for diversity to be shown in the legislation that is administered by the council,” he said.
“The Resource Management Act is replete with a host of references identifying Māori rights, Māori interests and principles of the Treaty of Waitangi, the kaupapa… Who administers that piece of legislation, obviously not very well, but the Canterbury Regional Council.”
Ngai Tahu’s view that restoring democracy to Canterbury would be a step backwards – by the way – was reflected in the Christchurch City Council decision in February not to establish a Māori ward for the next local body elections.
Christchurch City Council head of community support, governance and partnerships John Filsell said it had decided against establishing a Māori ward after consulting with iwi and Papatipu Rūnanga (Ngāi Tūāhuriri as mana whenua) in October.
“Papatipu Rūnanga were comfortable with the current relationship and did not feel that it was appropriate for a Māori ward to be established in Ōtautahi-Christchurch for the 2022 local elections,” he said.
In other words, the tribal elite wanted the privilege of being spared the need to win electoral support from Maori from all tribes living in the city. The council was willing to grant it.
But a significant conflict-of-interest issue is raised when the commercial interests of the South Island’s largest business are brought into considerations.
As Point of Order reported in 2019:
The potential for this conflict of interest is palpable: Environment Canterbury’s job is to regulate activities which may have adverse environmental effects.
Ngai Tahu’s appointed councillors would be batting for their iwi and their runanga, the governance organisation of a billion dollar (charitable) enterprise. It holds farming, forestry and aquaculture interests, commerical and residential buildings as well as other businesses such as Go Bus (two-thirds owned by Ngai Tahu) which are regulated by ECAN.
Malcolm Harbrow, who blogs on the left-leaning No Right Turn blog, addressed this serious concern in a post which noted the bill would bypass the usual process for creating Maori wards and electing members and allow Ngai Tahu to directly appoint two members to the Canterbury Regional Council.
This, he said,
“… is both undemocratic – they should be elected, not appointed – and creates serious conflict of interest problems. We’d be horrified at the thought of Fonterra being allowed to appoint members to a council responsible for setting policy around water and pollution, but Ngāi Tahu’s dairy investments and ongoing conversions put it in the same boat.”
Harbrow supports guaranteed Maori representation on councils but says they should be democratically elected and proportionate to population.
Hobson’s Pledge raised further objections to the Bill that was scuttled:
- it contributes to the absurd notion that people with one or more Maori ancestors have an innate superiority over matters of environmental management.
- it contributes to a growing Maori Aristocracy, where New Zealanders with Maori ancestry have separate and distinct political and legal rights.
- Its discriminatory thrust breaches section 19(1) of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act and section 21 of the Human Rights Act: Prohibited grounds of discrimination including race, colour and national origin.
But let’s give the last word to the Green Party, which issued this statement back in June 2015:
Time to restore democracy to Canterbury
People in Canterbury should not be second class citizens having to live with second class local body representation, the Green Party said today.
The Green Party is concerned at the prospect of the National Government failing to restore a fully elected Environment Canterbury Regional Council (ECan) in announcements later this week about the council’s future.
“No other regional or local council in New Zealand has a mix of elected and appointed representatives,” said Green Party Canterbury spokesperson Eugenie Sage.
“It is high time for the return of a fully elected, democratic regional council in Canterbury.”
“Having appointed commissioners involved in making decisions on Council spending fails to honour the central democratic principle of no taxation without representation.
“When there was a fully elected regional council there was far more responsiveness to public concerns about the health and state of Canterbury’s waterways, biodiversity and natural environment.”
Labour’s Megan Woods seemed keen on restoring democracy, too, once upon a time.
Keep an eye on how Labour and the Greens handle the new Bill – and don’t hold your breath.