Maori seat poll valid

THE response from iwi leaders has been cool, but the Far North District Council's plan to gauge the entire community's attitude towards the addition of Maori-only seats to the council table is a valid one.

The mood amongst iwi has hardened over recent days, perhaps thanks to the Waitangi Tribunal's finding that Ngapuhi signatories to the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 did not cede sovereignty to the Crown. This clearly has some believing that iwi have gained greater political status, a view expressed today by Ngati Kuri Iwi Trust Board chairman Harry Burkhardt, who claims that the council is tied to the high-level partnership between iwi and the Crown.

Whether signing the Treaty granted iwi any form of partnership role remains a moot point, albeit one that has gained in popularity over recent years. But whatever might come of that discussion, the fact is that any proposal to establish council seats that are reserved for Maori is one that every voter in this district has a right to help determine.

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Mr Burkhardt, Te Runanga-a-Iwi o Ngapuhi chairman Sonny Tau and others might well have a point when they bemoan the lack of consultation by the council with iwi before announcing its plan for what will effectively be a referendum, albeit a non-binding one, but this is a not an issue simply for iwi and those who won seats on the council last year. Nor should it be accepted that adding Maori-only seats to the council table would necessarily provide the best means of the council engaging with Maori.

There is no question that the Far North District Council pays much greater heed to things Maori now than it once did, and certainly much greater attention than that paid by its predecessors. That is a good thing, and should be regarded as progress. It is accepted, however, that Maori have traditionally not been well represented at the council table in numerical terms, although the council, and the Far North, have benefited from the contributions made by some fine Maori councillors in the past, and continue to do so.

The fact that Maori have not been more prominently represented is not the council's fault, or the wider community's. Some very well-qualified Maori candidates have offered themselves in the past, and have been spurned, in a district where the proportion of eligible voters who identify as Maori isn't far short of 50 per cent.

It might well be that many Maori who are entitled to vote do not do so because they have no faith in the local government system, but that is a poor excuse. Indeed, if Maori went to the trouble of enrolling and voting the Far North District Council might well be pondering special Pakeha seats to provide some sort of ethnic balance.

The provision of Maori-only seats could also be fraught with difficulty in a community where multiple iwi and even more numerous hapu could be expected to seek direct representation. If the election, or appointment, of say two or three Maori councillors was to be dominated by iwi/hapu politics, we, Maori and Pakeha alike, could find ourselves worse off than we are now.

It would also be reasonable to look at the Maori seats in Parliament for some idea as to how effective Maori council seats might be. The traditional primary role of the Maori seats in Wellington has been to bolster the number of MPs elected for the Labour Party.

It could be argued that the advent of the Maori Party improved the effectiveness of Maori as a voting bloc, but there is no future in Maori being marginalised by a system where the majority rules, and always will. The future lies in everyone involved in government recognising Maori issues, values and aspirations, and working to achieve what is best for everyone, Maori included.

Special seats in Parliament have rarely been anything more than tokenism, and the Far North will not benefit by replicating that on a local level.

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Mayor John Carter has made no secret of the fact that he does not favour Maori wards, but has undertaken to seek the entire community's guidance on an issue that clearly has the potential to cause deep divisions. He has made it clear that the decision is not his, or the council's, to make.

Neither he nor the council plan to campaign for or against the proposal prior to next year's poll, but say they are committed to providing unbiased information for voters to consider, and to engaging better with Maori in the future.

Mr Tau was probably right, however, when he said he could "pretty much" predict the outcome of any poll "at this stage". It's dollars to doughnuts that the district will reject a Maori seats proposal however well the council or anyone else presents the case for and against, but that would be no bad thing. As already said, the future surely lies in Maori playing a full part in the existing system, and, if that system is flawed, changing it from within. Edicts from any sector, Maori included, will not sit well with most of those who live in this district, and special Maori seats could well end up doing more harm than good.

Ngai Takoto leader Rangitane Marsden has said that iwi are looking for ways of moving Northland forward, but did not have to be voted on to the council to achieve that. The iwis' position was that they could sit at the council table as of right, and were only waiting to be invited.

That would seem to be predicated on circumventing the democratic process altogether, which would be an innovation too far for most. It could also be taken as meaning that Maori are hoping to participate by way of some sort of unelected advisory board. That too would be ineffective, not to say patronising. Maori deserve much more than an advisory role, and there is no reason why they cannot achieve much more than that.

Mr Carter sees the issue not as one of getting Maori to the council table without bothering with the vagaries of the electoral system, but of how the council, and the community, engages with Maori, who he clearly believes have much to offer, not only in terms of achieving Maori aspirations but of advancing the Far North in its entirety. He also makes the point, however, that the council must engage with all manner of sectors, citing the examples of Federated Farmers and local business associations. Should seats also be reserved for them?

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The Far North has some big challenges ahead of it, and will only meet them effectively if everyone plays their part.

That includes the people who maintain the district's economy, the people who believe that economic development must go hand in hand with protecting the environment, and those who believe their culture and values should underpin what is done to ensure that progress does no harm, and really does lead to betterment for all.

Te Runanga o Te Rarawa chairman Haami Piripi has said many times that if anyone can forge a community where everyone works together the Far North can. He's right. And the discussion we are about to have on the subject of Maori representation in local government should reflect that philosophy. We can benefit immensely by working together in pursuit of a shared vision. That will not be achieved by giving special electoral status to one part of the community, however well intentioned that might be.