Te Arawa representative organisation Te Tatau o Te Arawa has recommended Rotorua Lakes Council establish Māori wards for the next council term and the deadline to make a decision is looming.
Te Arawa Lakes Trust chairman Sir Toby Curtis says the establishment of Māori wards will provide more equity between Māori and Pākehā, while Rotorua District Residents and Ratepayers member Glenys Searancke says Rotorua's council is already diverse.
Similar to Māori Parliamentary seats, Māori Wards establish areas where only those on the Māori electoral roll vote for the Māori Ward candidates.
On March 1, the Local Electoral (Māori Wards and Māori Constituencies) Amendment Bill received Royal Assent and became law.
This removed a significant barrier to councils wanting to establish Māori wards. The law change means local polls with 5 per cent or more can no longer overturn a council's decision to introduce Māori wards.
Since then Te Tatau o Te Arawa has been seeking feedback from Te Arawa about whether to establish Māori wards locally.
Te Tatau o Te Arawa was established in 2015 as a partnership between Te Arawa and Rotorua Lakes Council. It has voting members on council committees but not at the council level.
Last week, Te Tatau o Te Arawa privately presented the findings of its Māori Wards consultation to the council.
Based on consultation and feedback from Te Arawa, the report recommended the council establish Māori wards, that Māori wards be in place for the next triennium 2022-2025, and that Te Tatau o Te Arawa be retained alongside Māori wards.
According to the consultation summary, 236 pieces of feedback were in favour of establishing Māori wards and keeping Te Tatau o Te Arawa, 14 supported establishing Māori wards and disestablishing Te Tatau o Te Arawa and 17 supported the status quo.
The consultation document said the Rotorua District electoral population was 77,300, as estimated in June 2020.
"Based on the current Māori Electoral Population of 21,700 (28 per cent) and General Electoral Population of 55,600 (72 per cent) and 10 councillors, the Rotorua Lakes Council could have three Māori wards," it said.
Te Tatau chairman Te Taru White said consultation with the people and entities of Te Arawa was thorough and there was overwhelming support for Māori wards.
"We were obliged to go out and get Te Arawa's views on Māori wards, so we did," he said.
The process involved "a number of hui", two of which were live-streamed and had more than 3000 views. They also conducted surveys.
"We put out all the facts, we weren't there to drive a decision, we were there to provide some options for them to consider and for them to give us their views," White said.
"Well over 90 per cent were in favour of having Māori wards in this triennium and also maintaining Te Tatau o Te Arawa. We're happy that we had the fullest coverage we could get within the six-week timeframe."
White, who is a Māori ward representative on the Bay of Plenty Regional Council, the first in New Zealand to introduce Māori wards, has seen first-hand how important they are.
"I think it gives certainty that we do have seats around the table. As it stands at the moment it's a vote at large, and while [Rotorua Lakes Council] has four current councillors who have Te Arawa whakapapa, they were voted in by general election and they can be removed.
"The certainty of Māori wards would be another step up for Te Arawa, ensuring there is representation there. Te Arawa made a decision and we're obliged to put that on the table and support it.
"It does work because it does make sure we are at the table, otherwise our voices might not be heard. On the regional council, under the current environment, our voices are being heard which is a good thing."
Te Arawa Lakes Trust chairman Sir Toby Curtis said the introduction of Māori wards would be a step towards better equity between Māori and Pākehā in Rotorua.
"Te Arawa is the biggest landowner in this whole show and the council makes decisions, but we are not even represented on the council," he said.
"It's not the council's fault but the process that is in place has disadvantaged Māori. If the Government is keen to have equity between Māori and Pākehā, they do need to sort out the construction of council to have better representation."
Curtis said the people of Te Arawa owned "thousands of acres" of land and therefore paid the most rates in Rotorua.
"What do we get for it?
"Hopefully, we can be better represented. I think once we get the opportunity to represent ourselves there on the council, you will find things will be better and in a way where we will all benefit.
"At this stage, we are not all benefiting."
Rotorua District Residents and Ratepayers member Glenys Searancke said she did not believe the introduction of Māori wards would "make the slightest bit of difference" in Rotorua as the council was already diverse.
She said the way the Government had left it to each individual council to make a decision on the matter was useful because some councils, such as Tauranga City, had less Māori representation.
"Rotorua has always had Māori on their council, two, three - we have four at the moment," Searancke said.
"In the 30 years I was on council, we always had two or three Māori at the table. I think it's important to have a voice but I believe they should be elected at large like ours always have been.
"It is reflective of our population in that they have always had good representation. For other places in New Zealand, like Tauranga, it probably is timely. I do think it's fair."
Searancke did have concerns that if there were allocated Māori seats on council, people would be less inclined to vote Māori into the other seats.
"The risk is that if three of the 10 councillors are Māori, the general voter may not vote for Māori in that seven that they elect. I have actually had people, who have voted for Māori in the past, who said 'well if they have their three seats, that's enough proportionately'."
Rotorua Lakes Council is expected to make a final decision on Friday, the deadline dictated by the Māori wards amendment bill.
Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick declined to comment at this point, saying the decision on Māori wards would be a made in council.
Last week, Tauranga City Council commissioners unanimously voted to establish a Māori ward, becoming one of the first New Zealand councils to do so since the legislation around it was tweaked earlier this year.
On April 27, Taupō District Council confirmed its decision to introduce Māori wards for the 2022 and 2025 local body elections.
Whakatāne District Council elected members will decide on whether or not to establish Māori Wards at an extraordinary council meeting on Thursday.