Ngai Tahu man in Parliament champions Bill to bypass the ballot box for council seats (and says it’s not a special privilege)

Rino Tirikatane, Labour MP for the Maori seat of Te Tai Tonga, had the job – just before Christmas – of championing a retreat from democracy in his home patch by moving that the Canterbury Regional Council (Ngāi Tahu Representation) Bill be read a first time in Parliament.  

He did so without a blush, arguing that the bill

“… reinstates mana whenua representation on the Canterbury Regional Council in the form of two Ngāi Tahu councillors from the 2022 local body elections”.

Yep.  It aims to reinstate councillors appointed by tribal leaders and cocoon them from voters who might have their own ideas about who should best represent them. 

But let’s not forget the tribe has extensive business interests and the potential for conflicts of interest arises, as Malcolm Harbrow has highlighted on his No Right Turn blog.

Allowing Ngai Tahu to directly appoint two members to the Canterbury Regional Council, he insisted,

“… 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.”

Hobson’s Pledge made the same point. 

Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu appointees are appointed to represent the interests of Ngai Tahu members but the runanga is the governance organisation of a billion-dollar (charitable) enterprise, holding farming, forestry and aquaculture interests, commerical and residential buildings as well as other businesses such as Go Bus (2/3 owned by Ngai Tahu) which are regulated by the regional council.

Tirikatane did not address those sorts of considerations and – in his first reading speech – went back into history.

Initially, he went back only 10 years or so to a time when a National Government sacked the council’s elected representatives and appointed a bunch of commissioners in its place.

He said:

” This arrangement of Ngāi Tahu councillors was first put in place by the National Government in 2010, when it installed commissioners on the council.

“The introduction of Ngāi Tahu councillors proved truly insightful and I commend the National Party for its foresight in doing so.”

Those remarks compact a great deal of politicking and controversy.

In April 2010 Environment Minister Nick Smith and Local Government Minister Rodney Hide announced the appointments of seven commissioners to replace the elected councillors and their terms of reference. 

One of the sevem was Donald Couch, Pro-Chancellor of Lincoln University and a member of the Lincoln University Council who had served as Deputy Kaiwhakahaere, Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu.

The announcement said:

“Mr Couch is the ideal person to guide the Commission on any issues concerning Ngai Tahu and has the support of Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu in this capacity. He also brings a wider experience of resource management law from his time spent in Canada in the 1970s and 1980s.”

Some six years later the Environment Canterbury (Transitional Governance Arrangements) bill  introduced seven elected councillors to join six government-appointed commissioners and allowed for (but did not guarantee) a return to full democracy in 2019.

A Parliamentary select committee which considered public submissions 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.

But it did recommend a clause requiring Ngai Tau to nominate two of the commissioners.  

The tribe wanted more – and brought the canard of a Treaty partnership into play:

In its submission to the committee, Ngai Tahu asked that three commissioners be appointed by the iwi, reflecting an equal partnership with the government.

Nevertheless, Ngai Tahu chief executive Arihia Bennett said the iwi was pleased with the new clause.

“Although we would have preferred three appointments to properly reflect the Treaty Partnership, we believe two appointments on the recommendation of the iwi is a good step in the right direction,” she said.

But let’s go back again to 2010 to check out Labour’s howls of outrage when the Environment Canterbury (Temporary Commissioners and Improved Water Management) Bill was rushed into law.  

Hansard recorded Labour’s staunch opposition:

BRENDON BURNS (Labour—Christchurch Central) : Labour is opposing this bill. It is a constitutional outrage on a whole number of levels. This bill replaces Environment Canterbury’s elected councillors with Government-appointed commissioners….

This bill will absolutely disenfranchise the voters of Canterbury for the next 3½ years. It is not a quick fix; it is a long-term assault on the democratic model, which we on this side of the House happen to believe is quite important constitutionally.

Hon RUTH DYSON (Labour—Port Hills) : “Stepping in” is one way of putting the Government’s intervention in our democratically elected regional authority; some people might say “stomping all over democracy”.

Hon GEORGE HAWKINS (Labour—Manurewa) : When the National members are dealing with legislation that takes away democracy, they do not want to talk about it very much. That is what that Government is all about.

PHIL TWYFORD (Labour) :  This Government has form when it comes to riding roughshod over our nation’s democratic traditions. That is what is happening here tonight in this House as the elected representatives of the people of Canterbury are sacked by Nick Smith and Rodney Hide.

In his speech last month, Tirikatane reminded Parliament that the legislation he was championing  had been preceded by an attempt in 2019 to entrench Ngai Tahu influence on the Canterbury Regional Council through a local bill.  It aimed to continue mana whenua representation on council before the 2019 local body elections,

“… but unfortunately that was defeated at first reading.”

Disappointed, but not discouraged, the council worked with the Papatipu Rūnanga to explore other opportunities, Tirikatane said.

This led to the appointment of “mana whenua Tumu Taiao”— local tribal experts who were appointed in 2020 to advise councillors on the interests of mana whenua.

“However, the Tumu Taiao do not have the ability to vote at council meetings and, ultimately, legislative change is required to provide for the mana whenua voice at the council table.”

The new bill reflected Environment Canterbury’s commitment to securing Ngāi Tahu representation, Tirikatane said.

“I commend Environment Canterbury’s councillors for recognising the value in mana whenua representation and acknowledge that this benefits all ratepayers, not just Ngāi Tahu.”

Really? 

But check out what comes next.

The bill paves the way for Maori to be assured of an even stronger voice on the council:  Ngai Tahu will have guaranteed representation (without the need for the privileged appointees to vie for support at the ballot box) and voters on the Maori roll would elect representatives in Maori wards.

As Tirikatane put it:  

 “This bill explicitly provides that Māori wards are not prohibited, meaning that the council may still choose to introduce those in the future. However, Māori wards are not considered to amount to mana whenua representation, hence the promotion of this bill, which is very much a local solution for local issues.”

Tirikatane did not want Parliament to get the idea this might serve as a precedent for other local authorities.  He said:

“…this bill is a local solution for local issues and would simply reinstate what has previously worked exceptionally well. It is not a model that will work in all regions of Aotearoa New Zealand, but it reflects a tried and true arrangement in Canterbury that ensures the values and concerns of mana whenua are given full expression.

“Environment Canterbury is not urging this model be adopted by others, but it does ask this House that it be allowed to have a system that it believes is right for Canterbury.”

A party colleague, Paul Eagle, had other ideas laer in the debate:  

PAUL EAGLE (Labour—Rongotai): Tēnā koe e te Māngai o te Whare, and thank you for the privilege to speak on the Canterbury Regional Council (Ngāi Tahu Representation) Bill.

I want to just say it’s a good day because this really does set the benchmark for all local councils to look at how they enact the Treaty partnership. Fundamentally, it’s good for that reason alone.

Tirikatane reached much further back than 2010 in setting out the case for guaranteeing Ngai Tahu their special places at the council decision-making table. 

He apparently believes in the first-come-first-served principle being applied to the exercise of political power.  

Ngāi Tahu are the original people and kaitiaki of much of the council area, he argued, and have had an intimate connection with it since the ancient migrations of Waitaha, Ngāti Māmoe, and Ngāi Tahu.

“Generations later, the sense of kaitiaki responsibility that Ngāi Tahu has for the natural environment has not diminished. To the contrary, it remains vital and strong and increasingly relevant. Ngāi Tahu is increasingly recognised as a strategic partner in the Canterbury region.”

Tirikaane anticipated opposition to the bill would likely include “apparent concerns that it’s not acceptable to give Ngāi Tahu special treatment…”

He countered by contending

“… this bill is not about special treatment; this bill is about ensuring there is enhanced representation in an age where a mana whenua voice is critical, in which Ngāi Tahu councillors have previously demonstrated the value they have added to a range of Environment Canterbury’s work.

“To those who say this is a special privilege for Ngāi Tahu, I say: you’re looking through the wrong lens. This bill is about recognising the responsibility that Ngāi Tahu has as kaitiaki of the air, waters, land, and coast of the region and enabling them to perform that duty.”

Looking at things through the right lens – it seems – can be likened to putting a telescope to a Nelsonian eye.  

Oh, and let’s not imagine that other Maori will be entitled to special places on the council.  

“ That responsibility lies with Ngāi Tahu directly, not with Māori generally.”

Tirikatane had a response (of sorts), too, for those who say this bill will adversely impact on representation and democracy:

“This bill will ensure that more, not fewer voices will be heard at the council table, and because of that, it provides an enhanced additional level of representation informed by generations of knowledge and environmental awareness. There can only be advantage and value from such inclusiveness and mutual understanding. That is a fundamental element of this bill.”

This is instructive.  The more the merrier is his notion of a stronger democracy.

Let’s see how he responds if we were to suggest that every eligible citizen in Canterbury should be allowed to vote on every regional council decision…

Tirikatane concluded his remarks, of course, by describing himself as as the member for Te Tai Tonga, covering the vast expanse of the Canterbury region, “and a proud whakapapa member of Ngāi Tahu myself”,

Did anyone imagine he might fault with “this modest request from the Canterbury Regional Council…”?

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