"Save our democracy."
That was the call from about 40 people who gathered outside Rotorua Lakes Council on Tuesday morning to protest against its pursuit of "iwi co-governance".
However, a Māori academic who observed the demonstration said, in her view, it was motivated by "ignorance and fear".
Waiariki MP Rawiri Waititi says it's "disappointing" people are "threatened" by Māori wards.
Demonstration organiser Jo-Anne La Grouw told Local Democracy Reporting the council's adopted governance model, of one Māori ward seat, one general ward seat and eight at-large seats, was not democratic.
She said a blog post prompted her into action.
"I thought, everybody's against it but nobody's doing anything."
She believed many wanted to remove Māori wards, which the council adopted in May followed by the 'interim' model in November.
It was also pursuing a local bill through Parliament to allow its preferred model of three Māori ward seats, three general ward seats and four at-large seats.
The model is currently unlawful under the Local Electoral Act.
In a statement provided by La Grouw, the group said the council was "riding roughshod over its ratepayers in an effort to achieve its objective of iwi co-governance".
"Co-governance is basically the antithesis of democracy… the minority ruling over the majority."
It said the council was "blatantly ignoring the overwhelming message from ratepayers that they do not accept race-based decisions".
The group's petition opposing the interim model had attracted 183 signatures by Tuesday morning.
Rotorua district councillors Reynold Macpherson and Peter Bentley attended the demonstration.
Macpherson said he opposed the interim model, saying as the district's Māori roll was smaller than the general roll, it gave Māori ward voters 2.6 times the voting power of those not.
"We have a right to a thing called equal suffrage. That means we all have the same voting power."
He wanted three Māori ward seats and seven general.
The demonstration began at the council's Haupapa St entrance and moved to Fenton St. Motorists tooted as they passed demonstrators holding signs including "one vote, one person = democracy" and "protect our democracy".
Other watchers shouted "land back", which refers to the return of land stolen from Māori by the Crown.
Demonstrator Jocelyn Greene said she believed the council was "trying to put people into positions they're not elected to."
She said she could not expand on how that would happen.
Local elections are scheduled for October. The council has not proposed appointing candidates to seats.
A demonstrator who gave her name as Sharyn said she had lived in Rotorua for 70 years and had always seen a "fair representation of people" on the council.
"They want to have extra seats for Māori."
Academic Ngahuia Te Awekotuku MNZM (Te Arawa, Tūhoe, Waikato) observed the demonstration from nearby.
She said, in her opinion, it was driven by "ignorance and fear".
Te Awekotuku believed many in the protest did not understand the history, generosity, vision or gift of local hapu Ngāti Whakaue, Ngāti Uenukukōpako and Ngāti Rangiwewehi.
"We are the indigenous people. We didn't sign the Treaty of Waitangi but we did sign the [Rotorua/Fenton] Township Agreement and that agreement has hardly been honoured.
In her view: "When we have the opportunity now with the new ward system… to actually bring us to the table… it threatens people like that."
In a statement, Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick said she respected people's democratic right to peaceful protest.
She was awaiting the outcome of Local Government Commission hearings on the representation model and the local bill process.
She encouraged people to submit on the bill if the select committee called for submissions.
Te Tatau o Te Arawa chairman Te Taru White said Te Arawa was likely the largest ratepayer in the Rotorua district. That didn't give Te Arawa any special rights but meant it had a stake in democratic participation.
"We want to work together.
"The reality is, our people have been left behind."
He said Māori social deprivation needed to be addressed by having Māori "at the table".
"When people talk about democracy, well, the council voted [for the interim model]. That's democracy."
Rotorua-based Labour list MP Tāmati Coffey, the local bill's sponsor, said it was the "result of democracy" in the majority council vote.
"This city was gifted by local Māori with the intent of partnership, which was never truly honoured."
Waiariki MP and Te Pāti Māori co-leader Rawiri Waititi said in his opinion it was "disappointing that people feel threatened by the establishment of Māori wards".
"We all know democracy is the tyranny of the majority, which fundamentally excludes the voices of indigenous peoples all over the world and in our case tangata whenua.
"There is no such thing as race-based decisions in this country when referring to Māori kaupapa and issues, it's rights-based, based on Te Tiriti o Waitangi."
Waititi said Rotorua Lakes Council had "great representation of Māori" in its current council but that could change.
"I encourage [the demonstrators] to speak to their children and mokopuna and ask for their views, I can guarantee there is an intergenerational mind shift, a change of perspective."
"We are seeing the rise of tangata tiriti - people committed to a treaty-focused Aotearoa - and I am here for it."