Accusations of racism and threatened democracy were levelled during an at-times heated Māori Affairs Committee hearing yesterday.
The committee split into two groups to hear submissions to the Rotorua District Council (Representation Arrangements) Bill, which would allow the council to have an equal number of Māori ward and general ward seats.
It came as Attorney-General David Parker released his Bill of Rights Act analysis on the bill, finding it discriminated against general roll voters and "cannot be justified".
Among opposing submitters' views heard by the committee today were that the local bill went against the principles of suffrage and was akin to "apartheid", while those in support said it promoted equity and equality.
Rotorua previously elected its mayor and 10 councillors at-large.
It agreed to create a Māori ward but found its preferred arrangement - three each of Māori and general ward seats plus four seats and a mayor elected at-large, and two community boards - was not allowed under the Local Electoral Act 2001.
The act required the number of Māori seats to be proportional to the population.
The council pursued the local bill to legalise its preferred arrangement for the next two triennial council elections.
The first reading was held on April 6 and it was agreed the bill would be considered by the Māori Affairs Committee.
About 50 submitters spoke to the committee today.
First up was Rotorua-based Labour list MP Tāmati Coffey, who chairs the committee and sponsored the council's bill.
He said committee members would hear from "homemade mathematicians" and that colonisation had reinforced the rights of the dominant majority.
"This bill promotes equal voting rights."
Rotorua Lakes Council mayor Steve Chadwick said the bill had been a complicated journey that had not been rushed.
"Rotorua is unique, what suits us does not necessarily suit the rest of New Zealand."
She said there was a large and growing Māori population in the city and the community faced significant issues that could not be overcome without the bill.
She said without this model, the Māori voice was diminished.
"No other ethnicity is marginalised in this way."
Those voicing concern tended not to be young, she said, a view reiterated by councillor Merepeka Raukawa-Tait.
Raukawa-Tait said, in her view, the concerns tended to come from a generation when Māori were "seen and not heard", and this belonged in the past.
Controversial ad man John Ansell had his time cut short after a heated four minutes where he described the Government and the bill as "racist".
"We've got to drop this victimhood mentality."
When Coffey asked him to keep comments to the bill, Ansell responded: "I can see racism here".
Committee member and Te Pati Māori co-leader Rawiri Waititi said, "We can too".
Coffey told Ansell he could not call them racists and expect them to be fine with it.
Blogger and commentator David Farrar said in his view the bill was a breach of quality suffrage and it was not needed after the Local Government Commission's recent decision that the Rotorua council will consist of a Māori ward with three seats, a general ward with six seats and a rural ward.
Coffey asked if it was fair that, as a Māori electoral roll voter, he would get three votes under that model rather than 10 under the bill.
Farrar said he would find it hard to vote for 10 people.
Robin Grieve, whose parents came from South Africa, compared the bill to the apartheid regime his parents opposed and had moved away from.
In his view: "[The] council is out of touch with equal suffrage and democracy."
In his written submission he said he opposed it because he believed it had a "fundamental philosophy ... that Māori people have rights and virtues that other people don't".
"I believe that to be an ugly mindset and the most vile of beliefs."
Another submitter made the same comparison, saying, "What else do I call it if not apartheid?"
Joanna Beresford said the bill would end equality of suffrage, and each vote should have equal weight.
In her written submission said the bill would give the Māori ward three councillors for an electoral population of 21,700, and the general ward three councillors for an electoral population of 55,600.
"This means the vote of someone on the general roll will be worth only 39 per cent of the vote of someone on the Māori roll in terms of ward councillors, and 58 per cent in terms of the whole council."
Former New Plymouth mayor Andrew Judd, who has previously described himself as a "recovering racist", supported the bill.
He challenged the Government and committee to extend it to all councils, "to get the same representative voice at the table".
Reporoa dairy farmer Colin Guyton said, from a rural perspective, there had been a lack of consultation. He wanted a rural councillor added to address the sector's concerns.
Rotorua iwi Te Arawa's written submission supported the bill's intention, but added recommendations such as a rural ward and a mechanism allowing Māori land blocks within the district to fairly participate in local government elections and cast their own votes.
Rotorua District Residents and Ratepayers secretary and Rotorua councillor Reynold Macpherson said its members were opposed to the philosophy of the bill, saying it did
"nothing to enhance practical problem-solving".
The bill must pass its second and third readings and then, in what's generally considered a symbolic process, receive royal assent via the Governor-General to become law.
The council sought to have the bill passed by June in time for the local election.
Submissions on the bill were to have closed on Wednesday, with 1423 received - but after an outcry about submitters only having two weeks the deadline was extended to May 4.