This week Tauranga City Council made a historic decision to establish a Māori ward. The issue is expected to go to a poll instigated by opponents to the Māori representation. But the issue is not new. Bay of Plenty Regional Council has had Māori ward seats for nearly 20 years. Kiri Gillespie looks at why the regional council continues to embrace Māori wards and what regional councillors have to say about them.
Every time Matemoana McDonald walks into a Bay of Plenty Regional Council meeting, she says she carries with her the voices of thousands who would otherwise remain silent.
McDonald is one of three Māori ward representatives on the council and is serving her second term in the Mauao seat. She is joined by Toi Kai Rākau Iti serving the Kōhi constituency and Te Taru White who serves the Ōkurei constituency.
The Māori ward seats were the first in New Zealand, and were first filled in 2004 through specialised legislation produced by the Bay of Plenty Regional Council - formerly known as Environment Bay of Plenty.
Sixteen years on, McDonald says she "absolutely" believes in the need for the seats and would like to see them on all Bay of Plenty councils.
"I think it's crucial that if the Māori perspective is to be expressed, I believe it has to come from Māori.
"It is not a criticism of non-Māori councillors ... it's just that we know we have a different view of the world."
McDonald, the third councillor to hold the Mauao seat, says the creation of a Māori ward allows a Māori voice at the council table and fully involves Māori in decision making. Such a move has strengthened the regional council and helps carry out the Treaty of Waitangi partnership, she says.
"You will always find one or two people who think 'everybody is the same', 'everyone has the same opportunity', and 'we don't need Māori ward seats' but the majority of Māori would say that's not quite true.
"We are still coming from a place where colonisation has impacted us hugely and had a lot to do with where Māori sit in those poor stats we all know about. This includes the loss of voice in the decision-making process."
In recent weeks, the regional council has led in the commissioning of a Māori consultancy group to investigate the Bay's Māori economy. The council, and partners, has also commissioned a Wellington law firm to research and investigate potential effects from air pollution affecting Māori living near Whareroa Marae in Mount Maunganui.
For McDonald, these developments are a "turning point" and reflects the benefits of having Māori ward seats. The role involved a lot of work but it is worth it, she says.
"It takes a lot of time explaining ... You have to convince your councillors. We are not looking at separatism in any way. We are just looking at Māori, through a Māori lens. And what's good for Māori is good for everyone."
McDonald says the role made her "a voice for the people".
"What I like about that is these are my people. I was raised here. I go into that room with all of those people behind me. I already know how they think, how they feel, what they want to see."
Tauranga's spiralling growth, which has transformed former farmland into residential suburbia, was an example of Māori concern.
"Through that process, we saw the loss of our land, the encroachment in our community of non-Māori where for some of us the community became predominately Pakeha and our voice was lost in that process," McDonald said.
"Now I get to sit at that table and question 'how are you going to provide for Māori in this?', 'Where is the Māori voice with what you are proposing to do?'."
Fellow Māori constituency councillor Te Taru White says he enjoys his role and the ability to be part of discussions and decisions that affect Māori is invaluable.
White says he believes other councils should adopt the ward seats because they work.
"The reality is the tyranny of democracy; Often many Māori miss out but they have a very important voice to bring to the table. They come from statistics that aren't that great but it's a voice that needs to be heard in order to make a difference right across our community."
Councillor Iti says such roles offer a skill base with experience "just like other councillors".
"You can be talking about business with a CEO and there are those around the table who have more experience who drill down into the data and ask pertinent questions that help us fulfil our role as quality governance. They come to the table with that experience. We come to the table with the experience of te ao Māori and the complex political landscape that it is."
Iti says the onus is on local government to ensure a robust, healthy relationship with tangata whenua and believes the regional council is an example of this.
How it all began
In 2004, Raewyn Bennett, Tiipene Marr and Tai Eru were sworn in as the inaugural councillors for the new Mauao, Kōhi and Ōkurei seats. They were the first Māori ward councillors in New Zealand.
The historic moment was made possible by the Bay of Plenty Regional Council, which in 1998 appointed Judge Peter Trapski to report on the proposal of establishing dedicated Māori seats. He listened to more than 300 submissions.
The Bay of Plenty Regional Council (Māori Constituency Empowering) Bill was created and put to Parliament by MP Mita Ririnui in 2000.
In his speech to Parliament, Ririnui said the bill was important to ensure the views of 35 iwi and some 200 hapū were represented on a key decision-making authority. The Bay of Plenty comprised of regions with up to 58 per cent of the total population being Māori.
Judge Trapski told Parliament at the time he believed the bill would make the Bay of Plenty and the regional council "a more representative and more effective local authority".
"There will be more balanced views on the Treaty and there will be partnership in decision making. The council will also have a better understanding of its statutory responsibilities."
Judge Trapski said the bill did not seek to disadvantage or oppress as does an apartheid regime. Rather, it sought to ensure tangata whenua of the Bay took part in local government matters they had previously been precluded by. The bill was passed in 2001.
Progress since has been slow.
However, this week Tauranga City Council voted 6–5 to establish a Māori ward, prompting tears, hugs and haka among those in the public gallery. The council now sits in the limbo between casting the vote and the inevitable poll that will go out to residents to have their say.
Previously, local Māori had tried twice to have the council vote for ward seats but these attempts never made it past the voting stage.
Division in the vote
Tauranga mayor Tenby Powell supports Māori wards, which he says represents one-fifth of the city's population "who currently do not have a voice at Tauranga City Council".
Powell says every time he includes iwi in council conversations, he always has a better understanding of what is needed, processes and impacts on the wider community "than I ever do in isolation without iwi".
"When people talk about this being divisive I see it as being the opposite. I see it as bringing us closer together. We are all in this waka together and I truly, truly believe that we are better together going forward to Tauranga Moana."
Not everyone agrees.
Tauranga city councillor Andrew Hollis opposes the vote, saying to do so is patronising to Māori.
A move for Māori wards does not align with the original Treaty "that gave us all the ability that we have the same rights together", he says.
"I'm against any sort of quota system for diversity. Whether that be for women, minority groups, if you haven't earned the right to be at the table, you shouldn't be there. It shouldn't be a given. You have to fight for it."
City councillor Steve Morris also voted against the move. He says he'd prefer smaller wards and more councillors.
"That way, we achieve the objective or Māori representation without having to go to separate Māori wards."
Councillor John Robson voted against the Māori ward in Tuesday's council meeting and told the Bay of Plenty Times it was because he did not believe the proposal was good enough for Māori.
"Our engagements at the moment are not engagements were hapū and marae are adequately resourced to engage as partners, and that is a bigger issue than this one seat at the table."
Robson says the issue is regarding Māori representation, but he says the report presented to council is "shallow", and the lack of quality debate, does not address the concerns of council properly. "It is more complex and more expensive than simply allowing someone a seat at the table.
"If we are truly interested in diversity and the power to engage then why are we focused on this one seat, at one table. Then what, is our work done?"
Robson believes Māori wards are not successful, and central government highlighted it best.
He says after many years of Māori representation, Māori outcomes are still bad.
Councillor Kelvin Clout also voted against the ward, however, he says his vote is from a "unique position".
"I actually am in favour for a Māori ward, but what I was voting against was the timing of it."
Clout says because of the likelihood of the poll, which could result in a binding referendum, plus the cost of it, meant a referendum at the 2022 election is the better option in his mind.
"I'm pretty confident there will be a poll. I'm not one of these people against the ward because I can see the benefit in terms of making sure there is representation of tangata whenua at the table.
"I'm conscious, as anyone is, that we haven't had Māori representation in over 20 years."
"The way forward"
The regional council is not just a trailblazer, being the first council to establish Māori wards all those years ago, but a rarity as the only Bay of Plenty territorial authority with such seats. However, it is not without trying.
In 2017, Western Bay of Plenty District Council voted 9–3 for Māori wards but a petition that prompted a $70,000 binding poll saw the vote thrown out.
In recent years the council has been joined by others – Whakatāne, New Plymouth, Palmerston North – to have voted for Māori wards only to have them abolished by public referendum.
Mayor Garry Webber has made no secret of his support for Māori wards, saying such representation was a "great initiative".
"It's still one person with one vote - if you are in a certain ward, you can't vote for another. So if you create a Māori ward, what's the difference between ethnic wards and geographical wards?
"It's the way forward."
Western Bay council works with the Tauranga Moana and Te Arawa ki Tai Partnership Forum as its main vehicle for tangata whenua to engage with the council on issues. The council also has hapū management plans in place.
Rotorua Lakes Council also works in partnership with Te Arawa who offer Māori views and perspective on committees. Local iwi vote for who they want on the Te Arawa board which then appoints a person to sit on two key council committees. They have voting rights but are not elected by the general public.
Last month the Resource Management Review Panel released a comprehensive report in which it specified the need for improving engagement with Māori in the resource management system.
The report's recommendations included: "Those involved in the administration of the legislation should give effect to the principals of Te Tiriti o Waitangi rather than taking them into account as currently provided in the RMA."
The panel also recommended that mana whenua should take part in decision making for proposed regional spatial strategies "in the making of combined plans at a local government level".
Wairoa District Council and Waikato Regional Council remain the only other territorial authorities in New Zealand to have Māori ward seats.
Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick said the partnership between Te Arawa and Council ''is hugely important to us and is enabling us to find better and more enduring solutions for our community''.
''I congratulate Tauranga – it's a landmark decision for them.''
A kaitiaki view
Like McDonald, Waikato Regional Council deputy chair and Māori ward representative Kataraina Hodge is serving her second term.
"On occasion, I do have a little bit of a run-in with people around the table, because I hold a Māori seat, they presume I look after all Māori but in reality, it is those other councillors who do. I represent the Māori on the Māori electoral roll but not all Māori are on that roll."
Despite this, Hodge says that as Māori, "every Māori is important to me".
Hodge said if there were no Māori seats, there would be no Māori representation, which was needed, particularly on environmental matters.
"We have a different way of being kaitiaki (guardian)."
Hodge references the five iwi who each have links to the Waikato River which the council regularly works with.
Hodge says such a connection to iwi, with the wards, was invaluable but she hopes there will be no need for such wards in the future.
"It's sad that we have to do it like that.
"I think in 50 years' time that's not how we want to think anymore. We want to be able to work in the community because we are part of the community, not just because we are Māori."
Embracing a Māori voice
At the Bay of Plenty Regional Council, chairman Doug Leeder says the council has a significant advantage by including a Māori viewpoint and voice.
"The differentiation is they can bring to the table an understanding of Māori culture that is relative to the wider community. It is a complementary viewpoint and if you don't have these Māori wards sitting around the table, it could be a loss."
Leeder says although the Māori wards worked well for the regional council, whether other councils should also adopt them was "horses for courses".
"Every circumstance is different."
However, in response to Tauranga's recent decision: "If the councillors have passed a resolution by way of granting those [Māori wards], the community should listen to them."
Councillor Matemoana McDonald shares this view.
While there is still plenty of work to do, she is proud to do it and hopeful Māori ward seats would make their way into other territorial authorities.
"I think the position has allowed for voices of people to be heard through me," she said.
There were times and decisions she felt were condescending from a Māori perspective but moments such as city council's decision to establish Māori wards gave confidence that other councils could see the value of Māori representation. Those moments, and the ability to do something for future generations spurred her on, she said.
"You can't give up. We are still moving in this space."
Bay of Plenty Regional Council elected members were asked what their views on Māori wards are, and the importance of such roles in local government:
Jane Nees, deputy chairwoman
"Representation of Māori around the council table through Māori wards has proven very helpful ... given the many iwi and hapū in the region and our very complex operating environment. It will become increasingly more important and valuable as Government moves to further strengthen legislative requirements to involve and consult Māori in planning and resource management.
Councillor Norm Bruning
"There are huge advantages in having Māori wards and representation at the council table. I enjoy the cultural and historical as well as the representation of Māori communities which brings a unique value to decision making. I call on the people of Tauranga to embrace the decision and rise up against the naysayers."
Councillor Lyall Thurston
"The success of the Māori seats at BoP Regional Council is well documented. We currently have three, strong, well informed, engaging and highly effective Māori colleagues at the table. Their views are pan-regional and are greatly valued as is their broader contribution and collegiality."
Councillor Stuart Crosby
"The use of Māori wards or constituencies in the governance of councils is only one of many tools available to strengthen the relationship with iwi, hapū and councils. My experience at the regional council who have Māori constituencies is that they add considerable value to the decisions and outcomes that impact on the whole community."
Councillor Paula Thompson
"Māori wards provide much needed and valuable representation and participatory opportunities for Māori in Bay of Plenty local government. Given the significant number of iwi and hapū [locally] this is one - but only one - way of ensuring Māori issues and ideas are heard and valued as part of local government governance ... I have learned so much from the ward councillors and the communities they represent."
Councillor Andrew von Dadelszen
"Ensuring Māori representation for our regional council has been positive, recognising the significant number of iwi and hapū within our region. That said, with the high percentage of Māori within the Bay of Plenty (and especially in the Eastern Bay) they should be able to elect members through the normal democratic process. As such, I have never favoured separate Māori ward constituencies as a principle ... That said, I do appreciate the perspective that our Māori councillors bring to the table."
Councillor Stacey Rose
"These seats have allowed for Māori to have a solid, powerful and valid voice around the council chamber ... provided all councillors the opportunity to learn, and to embrace Maoridom in more ways than ever before ... They are the way forward for te ao Māori, and a way to engage rangatahi Māori in the future and give them a voice."
Councillor David Love
"Given the deep divisions between the Māori iwi in the Tauranga constituency and their perceived inability to collectively agree to support one candidate in elections in open competition, the important need for the voice of 20 per cent of the Tauranga electorate to be heard is enabled by the dedicated Māori seat on the council."
- Councillors Bill Clark and Kevin Winters did not respond to requests for comment.