Attorney-General David Parker deems Rotorua Council's proposed Māori ward restructure discriminatory

The Attorney-General has deemed that Rotorua Lakes Council's proposed Māori ward restructure is discriminatory. 

The Rotorua District Council Representative Arrangements Bill, prepared by the Rotorua Lakes Council, would give 21,700 Māori roll voters three seats, the same number as the 55,600 General roll voters. 

The proposed law was brought to Parliament by Rotorua-based Labour MP Tamati Coffey and was supported by Labour at first reading. But Labour's own Attorney-General David Parker is now ringing alarm bells. 

"The proposed arrangements in the Bill would make the number of council members for the Māori ward disproportionately higher than the number of council members for the General ward in comparison to their respective populations," Parker wrote in his legal analysis published on Friday

"As the disadvantaged group is those on the General roll, changing representation arrangements away from proportional representation therefore creates a disadvantage for non-Māori as they cannot in future elect to change rolls."

Parker concluded: "The Bill appears to limit the right to be free from discrimination affirmed in s 19 of the Bill of Rights Act and cannot be justified."

National MP Paul Goldsmith said on Friday it would be a "constitutional outrage" if the legislation went ahead in what appeared to be a breach of the Bill of Rights Act. 

"If they don't drop the Bill, the Prime Minister, or at least the Minister of Justice, should front up and explain why they think it's no longer appropriate that all New Zealanders should have equal power in deciding who governs them."

Rotorua-based Labour MP Tāmati Coffey.
Rotorua-based Labour MP Tāmati Coffey. Photo credit: Getty Images

ACT leader David Seymour said Labour has no choice but to vote against the proposed law at the second reading in Parliament. 

"Liberal democracy matters. Every adult New Zealander gets one vote. Superficial characteristics like race, sex, sexuality and religion are not relevant to our rights. Being the first in the world to achieve that is New Zealand's greatest political achievement," he said on Friday. 

"ACT is appealing to the Government to make openness and inclusion the non-negotiable condition for work on our country's constitutional future."

How did it get to this point?

It goes back to when the Government in early 2021 announced plans to scrap the ability for Māori wards (local electoral subdivisions) to be overturned by a local poll, thus upholding council decisions to establish Māori wards.  

Only voters on the Māori electoral roll can vote for a Māori ward councillor. Those who are not of Māori descent can only enrol on the General electoral roll. But everybody, regardless of electoral roll, can vote for candidates standing for at-large seats.

Rotorua Lakes Council decided to introduce Māori wards on May 21 last year, and in November announced plans to change its 10 at-large seats governance structure, to three Māori ward seats, three General ward seats and four at-large seats.

The change would require a special law passed in Parliament because, as the Attorney-General has highlighted, the law limits the number of Māori ward seats proportionate to the number of people on the Māori and General rolls within an electorate.

Because the model was not permitted under the Local Electoral Act, the council voted in favour (nine for and two against) of pursuing the preferred governance structure via a special law change. 

In the meantime, the council has adopted an interim governance structure consisting of one Māori ward seat, one General ward seat, and eight at-large seats. 

But it's not the arrangement the council wanted, so Labour's Coffey introduced the Rotorua District Council Representation Arrangements Bill to Parliament, which would give the council power to implement its preferred governance structure. 

"This is partnership. This is what we want. This is what Māori have always wanted," Coffey said in Parliament earlier this month as the legislation went through its first reading. 

"It's part of a larger conversation, because there are councils all around the country right now that are talking about the idea of co-governance. It's a very important kaupapa."

In a statement on Friday, Coffey said: "This is a Local Bill, so the changes are being requested by the Rotorua District Council, not the Government. As such, the Rotorua District Council will need to consider the implications of the Bill of Rights analysis, alongside the select sommittee."