Rotorua Council's Māori ward restructure halted after Attorney-General deems it discriminatory to non-Māori

Rotorua Lakes Council's proposed Māori ward restructure is being suspended after the Attorney-General deemed it discriminatory against non-Māori.

The Rotorua District Council Representative Arrangements Bill, prepared by the Rotorua Lakes Council, would have given 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 said it could breach the Bill of Rights Act

"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."

The Rotorua Lakes Council decided on Thursday to pause the process. 

"This will allow council officers to work with legal advisors, parliamentary and government advisors, on strengthening the policy work of the Local Bill," Rotorua Mayor Steve Chadwick said following the council's confidential discussion on the matter on Thursday morning. 

"I will now be writing to the committee clerk seeking the pause, but given the public interest in this process, I am making the decision public now."

Labour's Coffey said he supported the decision. 

"I support the Rotorua District Council's decision to press pause on their Bill in order to review the Bill of Rights analysis," he said in a statement on Thursday. 

"As sponsor of this Local Bill, I will be seeking the support from the Maori Affairs Committee to suspend submission hearings while possible amendments are being considered.

"Labour would not have supported the Bill further in its current form. The pause allows for the council to work through the options and decide whether the Bill could continue in an amended form."

Waiariki MP and Māori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi said on Wednesday he would defend the proposed law after the Attorney-General's legal analysis. 

"I find it ironic that Mr Parker has the caucasity to call a Bill discriminatory that otherwise gives equal representation to Tangata Whenua and Tangata Tiriti. He and his mates of the same ilk wouldn't know discrimination if they fell over it," Waititi said. 

"Pākehā should stay away from using the term 'discrimination', especially when it comes to Māori seeking equality when it comes to representation in their own country."

National MP Paul Goldsmith said on Tuesday the number of Māori wards should remain proportional to the population so every vote has equal weight. 

"Reasonable New Zealanders will be rightly asking what this will mean for general election voting rights down the line."

He wrote on Twitter: "Scrapping this Bill is the right thing to do. Canterbury Regional Council should follow suit. Their Local Bill also deviates from equal suffrage."

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.