Hard on the heels of support for democracy in Hong Kong, Mahuta welcomes acceptance of New Caledonia governance vote

Just as we were encouraged yesterday by Nanaia Mahuta’s railing against the undermining of the democratic electoral system in Hong Kong, today we are encouraged by her acceptance of a referendum outcome in New Caledonia.  

Mind you, there is nothing like the Treaty of Waitangi in Hong Kong or New Caledonia to temper her zeal for good democratic processes.     

In today’s waving of the flag for democracy, Foreign Affairs Minister Mahuta has welcomed the fact the referendum process to determine the future status of New Caledonia had been calm and secure.

“We support the right of all peoples to self-determination, as expressed under international law,” Nanaia Mahuta said.

And when a majority of voters have determined what should happen?

Mahuta says the people then should live with the result

“Aotearoa New Zealand now encourages all parties to participate peacefully and constructively in the post-referendum transition process in the spirit of the Nouméa Accord.”

Reuters says final results of the independence referendum in the French territory of New Caledonia show almost two-thirds of voters abstained or returned blank or null ballots after a call for a boycott by supporters of independence.

The referendum result showed 96.5% of those who did vote on Sunday opposed independence, after a big drop in turnout due to the boycott call. 

The indigenous Kanak population, who largely favour independence, had called for non-participation in the vote after France declined a request to delay the ballot to allow for a traditional mourning period following a September surge in coronavirus infections. read more

France’s decision to hold the vote against the wishes of Kanaks drew condemnation in neighbouring Pacific islands where sensitivities over colonisation are high.

Point of Order – heartened by Mahuta’s statement on the New Caledonian result – winkled out this definition of “referendum” from the Electoral Commission website. 

A referendum is a vote on a question.

 A referendum can be started by a citizen or by the government. If you are enrolled to vote, you can vote in a referendum. Referendums are an important part of New Zealand’s democracy.

Let’s echo that.  Referendums (in this country, at least) can be started by citizens and they are an important part of New Zealand’s democracy.

There was a time (until early this year) when the law allowed citizens to muster support for local referendums to veto decisions by councils to establish Māori wards.

These referendums had demonstrated that establishing Maori wards was generally unpopular. 

The NZ Herald reported on February 1:

Since 2002, when the law was changed allowing councils to establish Māori wards, 24 councils have attempted to establish them but only two had been successful – Waikato Regional Council and Wairoa District Council. (The Bay of Plenty Regional Council has Maori wards set up under special legislation).

Five per cent of electors could petition for a binding referendum to challenge a council decision.

But – it is true – the rules were unfairly different for challenging the establishment of Māori wards and the establishment of general wards. 

Councils can vote to create more wards during a representation review – mandated to take place once every six years – and their decisions can only be appealed to the Local Government Commission. 

So fair enough – let’s get rid of the discrimination and have the same process for both Māori and general wards.  Citizens should be able to petition to challenge proposals for general wards in the same way as they can with Maori wards. 

But that’s not what Mahuta meant when – no longer needing the support of coalition partners, as had been necessary from 2017 to 2020 –  she rushed to level the playing field.

In February she announced the government was about to introduce legislation to ensure council decisions to establish Māori wards were upheld.

The Government proceeded to have the law changed under urgency, to ensure Māori wards could be introduced without challenge for the 2022 local government elections. 

The legislation was sent to the Māori Affairs Select Committee on a Tuesday evening. Submissions opened the next day and closed on the Thursday afternoon, allowing less than 48 hours for people to submit.

The Bill was reported back on Monday February 15, which meant the committee had less than a week to consider legislation which: 

  • Extended the deadline for councils to consider Māori wards to 21 May 2021, providing councils with a fresh opportunity to make decisions on Māori representation and enabling Māori wards to be established in time for the 2022 local elections;
  • Removed the ability for electors to bring a petition requiring a poll on the introduction of Māori wards. Māori wards can not be established only if a council resolves to undo its decision;
  • Provided that past polls, or council resolutions to hold binding polls, on whether to establish Māori wards cease to have any effect.

And so, as Stuff reported, the changes meant petitions to overturn Māori wards around the country weren’t worth the paper they were signed on, as the changes kick in ahead of the 2022 council elections.

The democratic process was short-circuited in communities such as Whakatane.

 In late 2017, the Whakatane Council had considered and voted in favour of introducing Māori Wards in the district.  Later it received a petition demanding a poll of electors be undertaken on the decision, which triggered a referendum in 2018 when 55 per cent voted against Māori wards.

But as the council’s website explains:

An announcement in February 2021 on Māori representation from the Hon Nanaia Mahuta, Minister for Local Government, gave councils the opportunity to revisit decisions made under legislation in 2020.

On 20 May 2021, Whakatāne District Council unanimously voted to introduce Māori wards for the 2022 and 2025 local body elections.

The ability to govern without coalition partners was the key to Mahuta’s rushed reform. 

During Labour’s 2017-20 term in government, she had signalled she would consider legislation to prevent Māori wards being overturned by referendums, but she was stymied by Labour’s coalition partner, New Zealand First.

Asked if opposition from NZ First was preventing such a change Mahuta is reported to have said:

“It’s not something that we’ve absolutely tested but I am clear that right now those [coalition] arrangements wouldn’t allow us to test that as a matter of our relationship at the moment.”

The advice of officials was ignored when Mahuta was given a free run to make changes.  

Newsroom reported officials had warned that skipping a full policy development and public consultation process could prove controversial and undermine progress on the changes.

In a November 2020 briefing to Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta, obtained under the Official Information Act, the Department of Internal Affairs cautioned the Government against trying to change the Māori wards process in time for next year’s local body elections.

Such a fast-tracked timetable would “prevent full policy development being completed to identify the best alternative to the current poll option, rule out any substantive external consultation, including with tangata whenua, prior to introduction of the bill, and mean the legislative stages would need to be completed under urgency without any select committee scrutiny”, officials said.

“If the process for this significant change to the local democratic process has no opportunity for consultation and public scrutiny, it is likely to be very controversial and the criticism could undermine progress on these changes.”

Instead, the department suggested either enacting changes within the current term of Parliament but not having them come into effect until 2023 (meaning any newly established Māori wards would be in place for the 2025 local elections) or reviewing the Māori wards process as part of broader, longer-term local elections reform.

ACT leader David Seymour, whose party voted against the law change, said he agreed with officials’ concerns and believed the fact they were ignored “shows a mania on the part of the Government to do reforms without worrying about the long-term political and policy consequences”.

There were two reasons why it was important to get this right, he said.

“One is that any kind of change to the plumbing and wiring of our democracy should be done by consensus: you shouldn’t be able to change the way that democracy works on the basis of having won one election …

“But the second thing I’d say is that I think a lot of people over the last couple of weeks have become quite uncomfortable about the amount of race discussion in our politics – I would count myself amongst them – but the reason for that is that the Government is unleashing an avalanche of initiatives with race at the centre.”

Chris Luxon, then National’s local government spokesman, said his main concern with the Māori wards legislation had been the way the Government had disregarded numerous pieces of advice arguing for a more thorough consultation process.

“From my point of view, you know, irrespective of what you think about Māori wards, good idea, bad idea, the key issue was this is serious constitutional reform and change.

“You had a series of things…that actually all just said, ‘Hey, listen, take your time, actually go away, think about it, build the case, spend your political capital, make your arguments to the New Zealand people, and actually engage them around it’ and that just didn’t happen.”

We wonder what he makes of Mahuta’s statements on democracy in Hong Kong and referendums in New Caledonia. 


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