National's Judith Collins describes plan to abolish veto of Māori wards in councils as 'quasi-constitutional'

National leader Judith Collins has described the Government's plan to abolish the ability to veto Māori wards in local councils as "quasi-constitutional", and questioned why Labour didn't campaign on it.  

National is yet to form a consensus view, but Collins provided some clues about what she thinks about the Government's plans to introduce legislation that puts in place measures that uphold council decisions to establish Māori wards. 

Under the current Local Electoral Act, a decision to establish a Māori ward can be overturned by a local poll with 5 percent support from ratepayers. The policy does not apply to general wards, which is why it has been labelled unfair. 

But Collins says it's unfair that Labour plans to change the Local Electoral Act when it didn't campaign on it, which she said might "upset" some people. 

"This hasn't been campaigned on by the Labour Party. It's not something that we'd naturally support when there's already a democratic solution there. We're just not quite sure what the Labour Party's trying to achieve," Collins told reporters on Tuesday. 

"Some people may be very upset about that, because we saw how we had two referenda at the last election - one on cannabis and the other on euthanasia.

"I would've thought that these sort of changes around who can vote wards taking away a referendum right sounds awfully like... it is quasi-constitutional and I would have thought that might have gone to a referendum."

The term 'quasi-constitutional' refers to laws that are considered more important than others or those that have special status, often seeking to entrench certain individual rights. 

ACT leader David Seymour says New Zealand's electoral system should focus on common interests and treat voters equally. He says Labour's plan for Māori wards would take New Zealand down a "divisive" path. 

"ACT believes in the inherent dignity of each and every individual," Seymour said. "Making laws that give people different rights based on who their great-grandparents were is fundamentally divisive."

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".

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta said the original policy was fundamentally unfair and hopes that New Zealanders will understand the Government's justification for stepping in. 

"This is about a fair system. Let's be really clear: in our legislation, you cannot have a citizens' initiated poll to overturn the creation of general wards or constituencies, but you can for Māori wards and constituencies. On that front alone, it's very discriminatory."

Collins' remarks on Māori wards come ahead of her first trip to Waitangi as National leader. Last year her predecessor Simon Bridges was accused of politicising the event, but Collins says she expects the celebrations to be mallow. 

"I think quite a lot of what's happened in the last year; I mean gosh the country's been through COVID lockdowns, everyone's been through a really tough time... Waitangi is certainly going to be very slimmed down," she said. 

Collins said she hasn't been invited to Te Tii marae, where politicians in the past have infamously been ambushed by protesters. Former National MP Steven Joyce was pelted with a dildo in 2016 amid tension surrounding the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. 

In 2018, following ongoing politically-motivated protests at Te Tii marae, all of the political talks were moved to the more neutral Te Whare Rūnanga or 'upper marae' at the Treaty Grounds.

"I guess that's up to the people of Ti Tii marae," Collins said. "I don't want to tell other people what to do in their own marae any more than I want them to tell me what to do in my own home or my area of influence."

National's deputy leader Shane Reti, who has deep Northland roots, will give the whaikōrero, a formal speech made during the pōwhiri at the upper marae, when politicians are welcomed to Waitangi on Thursday. 

"This year I'll be representing the National Party," he said. "It will be a message of humility and hope."

Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations Minister Andrew Little visited Te Tii marae on Tuesday along with Labour's Māori caucus, where he announced a $150 million investment fund for the benefit of Ngāpuhi as the Government continues settlement negotiations with the Northland iwi. 

Collins questioned the timing of the announcement. 

"There's still no settlement in Ngāpuhi is there?" she said. "I think it may have something to do with Waitangi Day coming up possibly - that's if I was being a little cynical."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern missed the pōwhiri at Te Tii marae on Tuesday as her flight had not yet arrived in Kerikeri.