Who, exactly, wants Māori wards on local councils? Depends who you listen to - the Minister of Local Government, those who think they are desperately needed if local government is ever to be fair and inclusive, including the councillors who have voted to establish separate wards, or the electors who are in the process of having their right of veto removed.
They won't see it this way, but Minister Nanaia Mahuta and those who are cheering her on from the sidelines should take a strong message from the result of last week's by-election in the Northland Regional Council's Whangārei Urban electorate. There were eight candidates, seven of whom publicly stated their support for Māori wards, and one who publicly stated that he did not want them. Who won? The candidate who doesn't support them.
That result could be interpreted in a couple of ways. Did the anti-faction swing in behind Terry Archer, and succeed in replacing one staunch critic not of the concept of separate wards but the process by which they are to be introduced, without meaningful public consultation, with another? Or did the fact that seven candidates supported separate wards dilute the vote to the point where the solitary opponent prevailed? Would the result have been different had their been just two candidates, one pro and one anti?
Perhaps, but the salient figure from this by-election, as tends to be the case with local authority by-elections, was the voter turnout of just 20.8 per cent. Almost 80 per cent of voters couldn't be bothered taking part.
Hardly a burning issue then, for those who support Māori wards or those who, for whatever reason, oppose them.
And who knows how those who did vote made their choice. Terry Archer, who won the seat vacated by John Bain, is well known in the electorate and had impressive credentials. Those who voted for him might well have chosen him because of his view regarding Māori wards, and they might not. They would have had plenty of other valid reasons for giving him their vote.
So where is this burning desire to level the local government playing field, as Mahuta tells us she is doing? And how much support does it have?
We are told that there is a groundswell of public support for Māori wards, but that was clearly not true even before this by-election confirmed it, at least in one regional council electorate. Mahuta has referred to an 11,000-signature petition calling for separate wards. Wow. That's a lot of signatures, isn't it? Well, actually, no it's not. Anyone with a modicum of organisational skills could garner that sort of support for any whacky idea. To tell us that that is a sign of strong public support for anything, let alone a paradigm shift in how we elect our councils and how they function, insults our intelligence.
And isn't it telling that, if there is such strong public support, Mahuta and Co clearly believe that the only way they are going to achieve their goal is by changing the law? If a great mass of New Zealanders wanted Māori wards, the current system would suffice. There would be some who didn't want them, of course, and if five per cent of them put their names to a petition they could force a binding poll, but why should anyone fear that if public opinion is so strongly in favour?
The inescapable conclusion is that Mahuta and those who support her in this issue know that if it came to a poll, the great majority of councils that supposedly wanted to introduce Māori wards wouldn't get them. Hence the need to change the law.
Meanwhile John Bain isn't alone in taking up arms against what can only be seen as an egregious assault on the democratic process by which we elect those who govern us, not because it proposes to increase Māori participation in local government but because of the way in which it is being done. There is a very big difference between opposing separate wards because of fear, ignorance or some sort of anti-Māori sentiment, what is now, sadly, lumped together as racism, and opposing them because of the process.
Mahuta and the Northland Regional Council clearly share the view that what they are doing is good for us, whether we like it or not. Like parents who force their children to take their dose of cod liver oil. We won't like it, but we will be better for it.
The new law will allow the council to conduct a referendum, and should do so, if only to vindicate the position it has taken. The result won't be binding, but it is going to be invited to conduct a poll. Whose got a dollar to say it won't?
The pity of all this is that a good case could be made for greater inclusion within local government of te ao Māori, as former Northland Regional councillor and Labour Cabinet Minister Dover Samuels says (see page 4). The way he sees it, Māori have a great deal to contribute to local government processes, and he is undoubtedly right, despite the fact that, as has been pointed out many times, Māori candidates have no difficulty getting themselves elected to councils from one end of the country to the other.
Therein lies another problem for Mahuta. The fact that Māori have achieved proportionality, - we are told that 13.5 per cent of councillors right now have Māori ancestry, while Māori comprise 13.7 per cent of the country's adult population - obviously isn't enough for the Minister. So what is she trying to achieve? Māori are already fairly represented in terms of their population, so do some of them not count, because while they have Māori ancestry they don't have the desired Māori world view? Are they too wrapped up in hum drum things like roads, footpaths, water and sewerage to be sufficiently transformational?
If 13.5 per cent of councillors with a claim to Māori ethnicity isn't enough, what figure does she have in mind?
Mahuta can have absolutely no doubt that what she is doing does not have popular support, either from those who perhaps fear a greater Māori influence in local government, those who resent the process she is using or those who simply can't be bothered voting in a by-election. We know that because neither she nor any other member of her party mentioned a word of this in last year's general election campaign. Why not? Did it slip their minds? Did they not think of it until after the election? Or did they think it would cost them votes?
The fact is, the government could not have done a worse job of selling what actually might be a good idea, or at least one worth discussing, if it had tried to, and there might be good reason for that. For some it is becoming increasingly difficult not to see the Māori wards issue as part of a much broader agenda. Mahuta and her government need to persuade us that it is not, and that will take some doing now. Or, it is, they must give us the whole picture. Many people are getting the uncomfortable feeling that we are being herded like sheep towards a destination that only those who are doing the driving know about.
Democracy, perhaps, is not so much under attack as on life support. And the plug is about to be pulled.