The reason urgency is being used to make establishing Māori wards easier for councils

The Government is scrapping the ability for Māori wards to be overturned by a local poll and is rushing through the law change before any more polls can go ahead before the 2022 local elections. 

Under the current Local Electoral Act, a council's decision to establish a Māori ward or seat can be overturned in a referendum. If 5 percent of ratepayers support having the poll, 50 percent must vote in favour. The policy does not apply to general wards, which is why it has been labelled unfair. 

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. 

The Government is rushing through the law change under urgency because March 22 is the deadline by which the legislation would need to be passed to avoid local referendums on Māori wards taking place for the 2022 local elections. 

The legislation was sent to the Māori Affairs Select Committee on Tuesday evening. Submissions opened on Wednesday and close on Thursday afternoon, allowing less than 48 hours for people to submit on it, which National says is unfair. 

"The Bill will be reported back on Monday February 15, meaning the committee has had less than a week to consider the Bill. This is appalling," says Shadow Leader of the House Chris Bishop. 

"The use of urgency for passing laws needs to be justified and despite being given ample opportunity Labour hasn't been able to give a good reason for its use here."

National leader Judith Collins has previously spoken out against Labour for not campaigning on the law change during the election, saying it might "upset" some people. 

The reason urgency is being used to make establishing Māori wards easier for councils

National's local government spokesperson Christopher Luxon - former CEO of Air New Zealand - has sent out an email urging supporters to make a submission on the legislation. 

"I'm not sure why this change is so critical and the most pressing priority right now with everything else that is going on in the local government sector," Luxon says. "Most importantly it is a shameful, arrogant and undemocratic process with no meaningful public consultation."

Luxon said National is "not opposed" to communities establishing Māori wards, but the people affected by the decision should have a say in it.

Local Government Minister Nanaia said in Parliament councils can still hold non-binding polls to test the sentiment of electors on a number of issues, including the creation of Māori wards.

Mahuta has argued that the current law is "discriminatory" and has impeded on local councils being able to establish Māori wards so that Māori can have better representation at a local level. 

"In taking into account public consultation, I have factored in 19 years of a provision which is discriminatory and several councils having local conversations with their communities around trying to establish Māori wards, which has often been divisive," she said in Parliament. 

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta.
Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

"I have taken on board the number of councils who have petitioned me to make a change to this legislation, and, while the select committee process is a short time frame, this issue has been around for a long time. These provisions are clearly discriminatory and need to be changed so that communities who want Māori wards can have them."

Mahuta referred to a letter from the past president of Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ), dated March 22, 2018, highlighting their request to remove the provision.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern came to Mahuta's aid in Parliament, saying: "If we are to truly support local democracy, we should listen to the request of Local Government New Zealand and remove a provision that is stopping local councils making decisions that they are elected every three years by their constituencies to make."

ACT leader David Seymour argued that if democracy means listening to LGNZ and certain councils, what about the will of electors in polls, who nearly always vote against the establishment of Māori wards?

"What we're doing is rectifying a discriminatory barrier that does not apply to the creation of general wards or constituencies. We're evening the playing field," said Mahuta. 

Nine councils have decided to establish Māori wards for the 2022 local elections, joining three councils who established them at earlier elections. The Government will support these councils' decisions.