Tauranga City Council is expected to vote today on whether to establish a Māori ward in the city ahead of the 2022 elections. But even if the council backs the idea, others in Tauranga are gearing up to try to overturn it.
In this morning's meeting, the council will also consider giving voting rights to tangata whenua representatives appointed to four council committees.
The proposals, backed by the council's tangata whenua/Tauranga City committee and a group representing 17 iwi and hapū in Tauranga, follow a review of Māori representation on the council.
Carlo Ellis, manager of strategic Māori engagement at the council and one of the leaders of the review, said it had been more than two decades since Tauranga elected a person from the Māori community to the council.
Maria Ngatai served on the then-Tauranga District Council from 1992 to 1995. She died in 2017.
Tauranga's population make-up would allow for one Māori ward, according to a staff report for the meeting.
The council could establish a Māori ward either by resolution or via a poll of voters.
A resolution, however, could be overturned. If 5 per cent of electors demanded a poll on the issue, the council must hold one and the result would be binding for the next two elections.
This method - which only applied to Māori wards - has defeated attempts by other eight councils to introduce Māori wards, including Western Bay of Plenty District Council and Whakatāne District Council in 2018.
Only three councils, including the Bay of Plenty Regional Council, have Māori wards.
Matire Duncan, independent chairwoman of Te Rangapū Mana Whenua o Tauranga Moana Partnership, a collective of 17 hapū and iwi in the Tauranga council area, said the "racially-based provisions in the legislation" that allowed the polls discriminated against Māori.
She wanted to see the Government address it but did not expect that to happen until after the election, so it may be too late for Tauranga.
She said the support from Te Rangapū for the representation proposals reflected the aspirations of tangata whenua in Tauranga to establish a Māori ward in the city.
She said a Māori ward councillor and giving voting rights to tangata whenua representatives on standing committees would "give mana whenua and tangata whenua a voice".
Having representatives without voting rights was not in the spirit of the Treaty of Waitangi partnership and was, in her view, "just ticking the box".
Should the council back the ward proposal, she expected a poll would follow.
"There is going to be some resistance."
The debate, however, was worth having.
She said it was not hard getting Māori candidates to run for Tauranga City Council, but "people just need to vote for them".
"Josh Te Kani came very close as an at-large candidate [in the 2019 election]. It is also about getting more Māori to enrol and vote."
In some city wards, established or long-serving candidates had a big electoral advantage, in her view, making it even harder for new candidates - including Māori - to get a look in.
She encouraged Tauranga's mayor and councillors to "vote with an open mind and leave the racially biased stuff to the side".
Western Bay of Plenty District councillor Margaret Murray-Benge, who opposed her council's bid to introduce Māori wards, said she was still opposed to the idea.
She said it was an issue of equality.
"Māori have got to be like the rest of us and stand for election. A lot of good people stand and win and a lot of good people stand and lose.
"You can't come through the back door of being appointed or pretending that by creating a Māori ward you are doing Māori a favour, because you're not."
Murray-Benge, who lives in Tauranga, said that if the council supported bringing in a Māori ward "we would petition the council and force a poll".
"I think this is the sort of issue that is so significant, the whole community should vote on it."
Wairakei MP Tāmati Coffey said the long-time lack of Māori representation on Tauranga's council was a problem.
"I think that the lack of Māori participation in local body elections probably speaks to the fact that Māori feel quite left out by the process. In the last TCC elections, we had some good Māori put their names down and obviously didn't make it through."
He said some would want a system based on merit alone, but as a minority population with significant land holdings in Tauranga, Māori needed "some sort of guaranteed representation at council level".
"Democracy doesn't always work for minorities. What we see around elections every time is that unless there is some kind of structural, guaranteed way for Māori to have a voice, they will continue to be outvoted by the majority."
He said Māori were past "tokenistic" committee appointments and advisory groups without having an equal voice at the table.
Tauranga City Council has three existing general wards - Pāpāmoa/Mount Maunganui, Welcome Bay and Pyes Pa - as well as seats for at-large councillors and the mayor.
Voters could only vote in one ward but all can vote for at-large candidates.
The decision on introducing a Māori ward will kick off a wider representation review that must take place before the next local government election.
Tangata whenua representatives sit on the council's committees for: Finance, Audit and Risk; Policy, Projects, Services and Operations; and Urban Form and Transport Development.
Results of polls held in 2018 over introducing Maori wards.
Western BOP: 22 per cent for, 78 per cent against
Whakatāne: 44 per cent for, 55 per cent against
Palmerston North: 31 per cent for, 69 per cent against
Kaikoura: 20 per cent for, 80 per cent against.
Source: Tauranga City Council