Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Compromise worst of both worlds

Following public criticism of the controversial Maori representation on the Auckland Council, councillors voted to halve the proposed budget. Photo / The Aucklander
Following public criticism of the controversial Maori representation on the Auckland Council, councillors voted to halve the proposed budget. Photo / The Aucklander

First it was the seabed and foreshore legislation, now it's Maori representation on the Auckland Council. In trying to be too clever by half, the Government has managed to upset not just its heartland supporters, but its new Maori Party confreres as well.

Prime Minister John Key rejected the concept of two elected Maori seats on the Auckland Council as being undemocratic, but somehow thought it would be fine to have one or two unelected Maori representatives on an unspecified number of council committees.

It was a contradiction just waiting to blow up in everyone's faces, and it has, at the first hurdle. On the definition of what is "reasonable" when it comes to charging Auckland ratepayers for the running costs - legal, office, consultants, mileage, you name it - for the government-appointed Maori Statutory Board and its committee appointees.

Last week, councillors agreed unanimously to fund the board for the 20 month period to June 2012, for a sum agreed between council officials, politicians and the board, of $5,501,000.

Following public criticism, the majority of councillors had second thoughts, and on Monday halved the proposed budget to $2,850,000. Now the board's off to the High Court - at ratepayers' expense - to persuade the judge that councillors are being unreasonable in the level of support being offered.

I pity the poor judge or judges. The judiciary shouldn't be dragged into a political battle over the interpretation of flawed and vaguely worded legislation.

This is a mess created by the National Government and its Act Party ally, Minister of Local Government Rodney Hide, to keep yet another ally, the Maori Party, sweet, and it's up to them to fix it.

Preferably by scrapping the concept of un-elected appointees sitting and voting on Auckland Council committees.

Mr Hide tried to escape culpability in a letter last week to Mayor Len Brown, in which he started off: "I write to clear up any confusion there may be over the appointment of members to Auckland Council committees by the Maori Advisory Board."

Even in that opening paragraph he just added to the confusion by referring to the "Statutory" board as an "Advisory" board. Mr Hide's term implies giving advice, not having voting rights.

He then says he always opposed "dedicated Maori seats on the Auckland Council" but that he was ultimately outvoted by Cabinet and eventually Parliament.

He notes the legislation provided for appointees to committees "that deal with the management and stewardship of natural and physical resources" and says "In my view, Cabinet and Parliament did not anticipate that the council would decide it needed Maori Advisory Board appointees to 11 committees."

He also expressed surprise at levels of staffing and resources the council had initially agreed to provide adding it is up to the council to decide "what each committee is responsible for, what decision-making powers are delegated to them, and which committees it wishes to ask the board to appoint members to".

If I was of a devious mind, I'd be seeing that as a nudge nudge, wink wink, that the council could get around "the problem" by isolating and neutralising board delegates in a few committees which just don't seem to have been given delegated powers.

He concludes by saying it's up to the council "to decide and take responsibility for deciding the levels of support and staff provided to the board". By tripping off to the High Court, the board thinks otherwise.

Mr Hide highlights the board's right to have representation on committees dealing with "natural and physical issues" but that's just part of the board's functions.

Complicating the picture is that the legislation states the "purpose" of the board is to "assist" the council by "promoting cultural, economic, environmental and social issues of significance for mana whenua groups and mataawaka of Tamaki Makaurau and ensuring that the council acts in accordance with statutory provisions referring to the Treaty of Waitangi ..."

To do this it has "to develop a schedule of issues of significance" to Maori, "give a priority to each issue" and "keep the schedule up to date".

So in Mr Hide saying it's up to the council to decide its level of support, he's conveniently avoiding all the additional functions his legislation refers to, along with the requirement that "to enable the board to carry out its purpose, perform its functions and exercise its powers, the Auckland Council must meet [its] reasonable costs ..."

The Super City legislation allows the mayor to set up his own shadow court of advisers and bureaucrats at a cost of around $4 million a year.

Unnoticed until recently by most was the provision for a similar, stand alone, Maori court. At least the mayor is an elected official who can be despatched every three years.

The Maori court is different. Appointees of a college of electors, itself appointed by Government. Local Maori ratepayers and residents have no say.

Disappointed backers of having two elected Maori seats on the council argue that this compromise is better than nothing. In truth it's the worst of both worlds. An undemocratic sore that will fester on until Parliament corrects its mistake.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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