Rotorua Council's Māori ward restructure sparks co-governance debate

Rotorua Lakes Council's Māori ward restructure has sparked another co-governance debate, with an ACT MP claiming it "does nothing to solve" the city's problems. 

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 resolved to introduce Māori wards on May 21, 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.

But the change would require a special law passed in Parliament because 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. This is the only formulation that can achieve parity between the wards in a manner which is legally compliant.

But it's not the arrangement the council wanted, so the Government 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," Rotorua-based Labour MP Tāmati Coffey said in Parliament this week as the legislation went through its first reading. 

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

"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."

ACT MP Simon Court, in contrast, said the legislation "will do nothing to solve the problems that Rotorua faces".

"Co-governance does nothing to solve the problems that Rotorua and deprived communities in places like parts of Rotorua face," Court said. 

"It doesn't solve the problem with infrastructure funding and financing that's led to water quality in Rotorua being severely affected by wastewater for decades and decades. It doesn't solve the problem of how to get more homes built.

"It's quite clear that solutions to wastewater and environmental and other problems require good science and good data rather than co-governance to solve."

The National Party also voted against it. 

"Rotorua should be working within the limitations of the Local Government Act for their governance arrangements. It is not appropriate, in this instance, for them to be trying to take a nuanced approach," said National MP Simon Watts. 

ACT leader David Seymour with ACT MP Simon Court (left) and Mark Cameron.
ACT leader David Seymour with ACT MP Simon Court (left) and Mark Cameron. Photo credit: Getty Images

Te Pāti Māori co-leader Rawiri Waititi urged the Opposition to not be "afraid" of allowing Māori voices at the table. He accused the Opposition of "scaremongering propaganda of co-governance".

"The council voted in favour of this proposal. With respect, this House should support it without hesitation."

Māori co-governance has become a heated political issue, with ACT leader David Seymour declaring that a referendum on Māori co-governance - which he likened to an "unequal society" - was a bottom line for any coalition negotiations in 2023. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has confirmed that public consultation on co-governance will begin later in 2022. 

The debate stems from the controversial He Puapua report, a think-piece document commissioned by the Government in 2019 that sets out a roadmap to co-governance between the Crown and Māori by 2040. 

The report was commissioned as a response to the former National-led Government signing New Zealand up in 2010 to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP).

In July last year, Māori Development Minister Willie Jackson announced plans to consult with Māori on He Puapua before engaging with the wider public. The engagement with iwi and Māori organisations is now complete. 

Cabinet is yet to discuss the next steps on the development of the draft Declaration plan for UNDRIP.