The question of how best to encourage Maori representation in local government is a complex and often heated one.

It's an issue that shouldn't be considered as a political afterthought and certainly not something that can be addressed with quick-fix solutions.

With this in mind, I was surprised at outgoing Hastings mayor Lawrence Yule's suggestion that this year's byelection for a new mayor could be combined with a referendum on Maori wards.

The establishment of Maori wards are a highly contentious issue, as witnessed by the treatment former New Plymouth mayor Andrew Judd received after unsuccessfully trying to establish one on his council. Mr Judd, who won the mayoralty in a landslide in 2013, was ostracised, spat on and abused for his efforts, leading to him stepping down after just one term.

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The abuse Mr Judd suffered was an unpleasant reminder of just how far we still have to come when discussing race relations in our country.

There is no question in my mind that boosting Maori participation in local government is a challenge worth taking on.

The Human Rights Commission and the United Nations Human Rights Committee have both highlighted this problem, and in 2013 the Constitutional Review Panel recommended the Government develop a national approach to Maori representation in local government.

About 15 per cent of people in New Zealand are Maori, and Maori are a growing, youthful population who will continue to make up a larger proportion of new voters. The Treaty of Waitangi also guarantees Maori certain rights and local government legislation contains responsibilities for co-operation between councils and Maori.

For these reasons alone Maori participation at a local government level is a necessary part of representative democracy in Aotearoa.

Maori wards are believed by some to be the right tool to address issues of low Maori participation.

In Hastings we are fortunate not to have this problem.

There is strong Maori representation in council with Henare O'Keefe, Adrienne Pierce, Jacoby Poulain and Bayden Barber all making valuable contributions at the table.

It's also debatable whether Maori wards will increase participation. If they're more about ensuring a kaupapa Maori perspective, then we also need to look at whether Maori wards are the best way of ensuring this, compared with the likes of a Maori Statutory Board or something akin to the Te Arawa partnership model in Rotorua.

There's no doubt the Local Electoral Act 2001 process for establishing Maori wards isn't working. No councils have been able to establish a Maori ward under the act. There's also a question of fairness, because the establishment of Maori wards in local government can be put to a referendum, whereas general wards are decided by councils alone.

However, in my own experience as a Maori politician and through mentoring other Maori with similar aspirations, I believe the biggest stumbling-block to increased representation is a lack of knowledge and confidence around campaigning.

For many Maori, it just doesn't come naturally to put ourselves out there and turn out voters to support us.

We are brought up to diligently work behind the scenes supporting each other, our whanau, hapu, iwi and communities - and this ethic can sometimes conflict with the idea of promoting ourselves as someone to vote for.

Before looking at the divisive issue of Maori wards, I'd love to see our councils leading the charge around engaging and mentoring our Maori men and women who aspire to these roles, whether this takes the form of a nominated mentoring system, or some kind of proactive outreach into our communities.

To see our people make progress in this area, we shouldn't get bogged down in divisive arguments, but instead take steps to encourage discussion.

The Government hasn't published information on Maori representation in local government since 2007, when survey results put elected Maori numbers at only 8 per cent.

I sense the figure has improved since then, but we need to undertake analysis of the results of last year's local elections to clarify where we are at now.

If the Government made those figures available, we could then have a national discussion on the best way to support our people as candidates, councillors, and mayors of the future.

Meka Whaitiri is the MP for Ikaroa-Rawhiti and the Labour Party spokeswoman for local government.