New Plymouth Councillor wants referendum on Māori wards

Murray Chong.
Murray Chong. Photo credit: File

By Robin Martin for RNZ

A controversial New Plymouth Councillor says he will spearhead a citizens-initiated referendum against the formation of a Māori ward in the city if no one else steps up to the plate.

The Councillor who initially proposed the ward however says it should not be for non-Māori to decide.

Last night, the council voted 12-2 to bypass community consultation and establish a Māori ward in time for the next local body elections.

New Plymouth has history with Māori Wards.

In 2014, former Mayor Andrew Judd was spat at in the street when the council tried to introduce one under his watch.

Judd did not stand for re-election after the Māori Ward was thrown out in a citizens-initiated referendum in which 83 percent of those who took part voted against it.

Now Murray Chong - who voted against forming the ward last night and in 2014 - said he was willing to go down the same road.

"I'm certainly going to seriously look at that. See if there's an appetite for a few people to help me with that, because I think someone needs to spearhead it.

"For the true democracy of New Zealand I think that's what we need to do because obviously the people aren't being heard, we didn't even go to consultation."

Chong was confident of getting the 4000 signatures - or 5 percent of register voters - required to overturn the decision.

"That [the referendum] I think - if it is similar to last time - that will prove that the majority of Councillors are not listening to the people and that's not a good look for our council.

"I think that the views are still strongly opposed and we need to treat everyone the same."

First term Councillor Sam Bennett moved the amendment that bypassed the community consultation process. He had no regrets.

"I don't believe that the people in our community that are non-Māori should be making a decision on that. This is a decision purely for Māori and that is why I didn't support consultation.

"We know that if we go to the community for consultation [on this] that it will get overturned in a binding poll so why go out to public consultation if you know it's only going to get voted down by a minority in our community."

Bennett had no qualms about Chong spearheading a citizens-initiated referendum, however, saying it was his right.

Former member of the council's iwi liaison committee Peter Moeahu said another referendum may be just what was needed.

"It's now an election year and if this gets turned down by a citizens-initiated referendum then I think the government has no option but to change the law because it just shows it's a racist piece of legislation."

Mayor Neil Holdom abstained from last night's vote.

Holdom said he and his deputy Richard Jordan - who voted against the formation of a ward - were not against a Māori ward per se, but upset at public consultation being circumvented.

"So when I was asked to abandon that process to simply make the decision without giving the community an opportunity to speak, it was my view that I could not in good conscience support that. I don't think it was good process."

The impending referendum also had him thinking about failings in the law.

"I think it highlights, really, there is a piece of unjust legislation. Why do you only need half as many people to turn this decision of council over than you do if we put in a geographical ward and I think that is a question we should be asking our political leaders."

Moeahu was quietly hoping community reaction to any referendum would be less incendiary than six years ago.

"We've been at this game for generations. Hearing some naughty words doesn't kind of deter us.

"It's just a matter of our society and our nation evolving, so I don't have any major fears about where we are heading. I think it's good for our nation and we'll see what the outcome is."

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta congratulated the New Plymouth council on its decision to form a Māori ward.

"Well done. There has been a long conversation among many councils but certainly in New Plymouth to have Māori representation. Andrew Judd in particular took on a responsibility to educate a great many New Zealanders about the importance of this."

A Department of Internal Affairs spokesperson said there was merit in looking at whether the binding referendum process struck the right balance between local democracy and representative participation.

"It has not been possible to progress reform this Parliamentary term, but we believe it is important to have Māori at the forefront of the decision-making process."