No Māori wards for councils without referendum - Local Government Minister Simeon Brown

Councils soon won't be able to introduce mandated Māori seats at the table without putting it to a referendum first, the Government says. 

Local Government Minister Simeon Brown said this wouldn't affect councils' responsibilities to consult with mana whenua but the Coalition's view was "any decision to establish or disestablish a Māori ward is one that should remain with communities". 

Brown said affected councils would be required to hold a referendum alongside next year's local elections.

"The Government will introduce a Bill in the coming months that will restore the ability for communities to petition their councils to hold binding polls on Māori ward decisions. This will include holding binding polls on wards that were established without the ability for local referendums," he said in a statement. "The Coalition Government will reverse the previous Government’s divisive changes that denied local communities the ability to determine whether to establish Māori wards." 

It's a move being backed by Coalition party ACT, which previously pledged to scrap Māori wards. Instead, the party's Coalition agreement with National outlined the requirement of the establishment or ongoing use of Māori wards to be put to the public.

"Labour attempted to force undemocratic Māori wards on communities that do not want them. They removed New Zealanders' democratic voting rights because they believed voters couldn't be relied on to vote the right way," ACT leader David Seymour said. 

"The decision of whether councils should establish Māori wards ought to lie with the communities themselves, not Wellington. 

"This Government is determined to stop dividing New Zealanders along superficial lines. We must celebrate the common humanity that unites all people and stop seeking ways to divide us with group rights and collective identity." 

NZ First, the Government's third Coalition party, also backed the move.

"We will reverse Labour's undemocratic changes that denied local communities a say in the change that led to Māori wards, without referenda, unmandated, unheralded and not part of any Labour manifesto commitment in 2020," leader and deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters said.

"The legislation that will be brought in by the Coalition Government will ensure that local voices are heard and that the true democratic process is restored."

Labour in 2021 introduced legislation to abolish the veto of Māori wards in local councils. At the time, then-Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta said there was "a different set of rules for establishing Māori and general wards and that uneven playing field needs to change".

Meanwhile, Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) has called out the Coalition Government for "complete overreach" in the decision. 

"The Coalition Government is removing decision-making from councils by mandating polls be run on Māori wards and constituencies alone," LGNZ President Sam Broughton said.  

"Empowering local government to make decisions about their own communities is what this Government campaigned on and is not being delivered today." 

Broughton said the decision is a "complete distraction from the hard work to deliver infrastructure and the pressure on rates rises". 

"We have long asked that Māori wards and constituencies be treated like all other wards and the decisions be made at the council level," he said. 

"Currently, councils can make decisions about the establishment of Māori wards and constituencies for themselves. No one is forced, it's a choice by communities' elected representatives." 

He described the announcement as a "skewed version of democracy that isn't used to determine any other wards or constituencies, just Māori ones". 

"We say the Government needs to either apply them to all wards or none at all". 

Broughton added that the decision "risks the mana of our Māori elected members and their rightful, elected place on councils". 

"We now have the highest representation of māori elected members in local government ever." 

"Claims that Māori wards and constituencies give Māori more votes than anyone else are wrong and politicians should think carefully before inflaming these important conversations with misinformation," he stressed.