The Government intends to scrap the "fundamentally unfair" ability for Māori wards to be overturned by a local poll with just 5 percent support from ratepayers.
Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta said on Monday the Government will introduce legislation that puts in place measures that uphold council decisions to establish Māori wards or electoral subdivisions.
The first stage will make immediate changes that establish transitional measures for the 2022 local elections. The second stage will develop a permanent mechanism for local authorities to consider the establishment of Māori wards.
"Local Government has asked the Government to change the law to allow local council decisions to establish local wards to stand," Mahuta said in New Plymouth.
"The current system has a different set of rules for establishing Māori and general wards and that uneven playing field needs to change. The process of establishing a ward should be the same for both Māori and general wards."
While binding polls on Māori wards will no longer be available to councils under the new legislation, they may choose to hold a non-binding indicative poll to gauge community sentiment and inform future decisions.
It comes amid tension surrounding Tauranga City councillors voting to introduce a Māori ward for the city in August last year, but now a petition to force a referendum against it has gained enough support to put the decision in doubt.
A public meeting organised by Hobson's Pledge became heated, as spokesperson Don Brash - the former National and ACT leader - spoke out against Māori wards, calling them separatist, unnecessary and outdated.
"To my mind, having Māori wards - which would create wards where Māori only could vote - is a bad step," Brash said.
Iwi leader Buddy Mikare said there was a "different attitude" coming from youth, who tend to support the movement and agree that Māori should have more representation in local body elections.
Since the petition against the Māori wards in Tauranga has reached enough support, it could spark a referendum which will cost the city more than $200,000.
Hobson's Pledge in November called on Taupō councillors to vote against Māori wards, but in the end the Taupō District Council voted to introduce Māori wards for the 2022 and 2025 local body elections.
Mahuta congratulated the New Plymouth District Council on its decision last year to form a Māori ward, amid similar efforts to overturn the result via a referendum.
What is a Māori ward?
In local government, Māori wards establish areas where those on the Māori electoral roll vote for candidates standing in that area. It's a bit like the seven Māori electorates which Māori can choose to enrol in for the general election.
Essentially, if Māori wards are established, people enrolled on the Māori electoral roll will vote for candidates in Māori wards, while those on the general electoral roll will vote for candidates in the general wards.
Since 2002, 24 local councils have attempted to establish Māori wards using the process under the Local Electoral Act 2001. Only two have been successful so far.
Where polls have been triggered by electors, all have resulted in the council's decision being overturned. Only one council-initiated poll - at Wairoa District Council in 2016 - has resulted in Māori wards being established.
Nine councils have decided to establish Māori wards for the 2022 local elections, joining three councils who established these at earlier elections. The Government will support these councils' decisions "to improve Māori representation".
"Increasing Māori representation is essential to ensuring equity in representation and to provide a Māori voice in local decision making. It will also lead to greater Māori participation in the resource management process," Mahuta said.
"We know the importance of diversity around the council table and, as part of the Government's commitment to working to honour Te Tiriti o Waitangi, we need to do our part to enable councils to achieve fair representation. Like in Parliamentary elections, specific Māori seats can assist with this.
"Māori and non-Māori across New Zealand have been calling for these changes for some time, including the recent presentation of two petitions with more than 11,000 signatures to Parliament."
It comes as National Party leader Judith Collins pledged on Monday that her party will run candidates in the Māori electorates in 2023, for the first time since 2002.
Speaking to reporters in Wellington, Collins did not share her view on the issue of Māori wards because it has not yet been discussed at a caucus-level.
"We will still discuss that. It's a matter that we'll be taking to caucus because a policy decision like that is for caucus."