The Rotorua Lakes Council has voted to withdraw its support for a “very controversial” move to increase Māori representation.
More than $146,000 has been spent pursuing the Rotorua District Council (Representation Arrangements) Bill, which would change local electoral rules and allow an equal number of Māori ward and general ward seats on the council.
The bill proved controversial, with former councillor Peter Bentley resigning during a fiery council debate last year, Attorney-General David Parker finding the bill would breach the Bill of Rights Act, and protests being staged in opposition.
Today, all councillors voted to withdraw support for the bill - with the exception of Māori ward councillor Rawiri Waru, who voted in favour of continuing with the bill.
Trevor Maxwell, also a Māori ward councillor, was absent from the meeting.
The bill arose as part of the council’s regular review of its representation arrangements.
In November 2021, after consultation, the council settled on three general ward councillors, three Māori ward councillors, and four at-large councillors as its preferred structure.
However, this structure was illegal. Based on Rotorua’s population, the maximum number of Māori ward seats the Local Electoral Act allowed it to have was two.
The council then devised an interim model of one Māori ward seat, one general ward seat and eight at-large seats while it pursued the law change to enable the preferred model.
In April 2022, the Local Government Commission overturned the interim model in favour of one Māori ward with three seats, one general ward with six seats and one rural ward seat for the 2022 election. Later that month, the Māori Affairs Committee heard submissions on the bill. Opposing submitters argued it went against the principles of suffrage and was akin to “apartheid”, while supporters said it promoted equity and equality.
Attorney-General David Parker found the bill could not be justified under the Bill of Rights Act and discriminated against general roll voters. This prompted Labour to retract its support of the bill, sponsored by Rotorua-based list MP Tamati Coffey, who chaired the select committee overseeing its progress.
The council requested the select committee pause on the matter to allow for work to strengthen the policy for it.
At today’s meeting, council deputy chief executive of Te Arawa Partnership Gina Rangi described the matter as “very, very controversial, not only on a local level but nationally also”.
Mayor Tania Tapsell said there was “a lot of history” involved and it was important to note the previous council was under significant time pressures which limited the ability for public consultation.
“It was a difficult time. We now have an opportunity as a new council to make that decision.”
Māori ward representative Lani Kereopa said she had not been involved in the previous discussions but it was her understanding that what went forward to the select committee was something that was not supported by local iwi Te Arawa at that time, “so I’m happy for it to be withdrawn”.
She said she wanted to ensure there was time for “proper engagement with iwi around any decision-making, going forward” when a representation review next arose by 2028.
Councillor Robert Lee said one of the most troubling aspects of the Bill was “the assault on democracy”.
“I would say to those who supported this bill and arrangement, that democracy is tapu.
“When I talk about democracy, you are walking on sacred ground. We are talking about two world wars [last] century - people who were killed in the name of democracy.
“You can’t have an election that’s a sham.”
Lee commended the efforts of those who protested against the move, particularly former councillor and Rotorua District Residents and Ratepayers chairman Reynold Macpherson.
Councillor Conan O’Briensaid that given some of the misinformation and hurt caused by the initial decision to proceed with the bill last year, he was happy to withdraw his support.
However, he cautioned his fellow councillors to consider a longer-term consultation process on the matter.
“Part of the reason why we are here today is the rushed nature [of this]. I would urge council to start looking at consultation and in my opinion, that can’t come soon enough,” O’Brien said.
Councillor Don Paterson said the decision would have affected people’s lives and withdrawing support was a “step in the right direction”.
Rural ward councillor Karen Barker said she agreed that the lead-up to the bill was lacking in community involvement and it was “important the community has its say”.
In response, councillor Waru said that in his view, tapu had a “very different meaning” and democracy was “man-made”.
“I believe my colleague councillor Lee mentioned democracy as the ‘rule of the people’. My interpretation of it is the rule of the majority. That’s very different in my books. When you talk about democracy as being fair, for many years there was a 5 per cent rule where if the council wanted a Māori ward, it would only take 5 per cent of the community to vote against it and it would be overturned immediately. That didn’t apply to general ward or any other ward. Is that fair democracy? I don’t think so.”
Waru said his tipuna also went to war, with many paying “the ultimate price”. When those who survived returned, their lands had been farmed out and given to others.
“These are the things we need to talk about when we [talk about Māori representation].”
Waru said he knew the numbers were there to carry the vote but “I would rather go the other way and see it run its course”.
Following the vote, Tapsell - who previously said she wanted to scrap the bill as mayor - would now write to the select committee to inform it of the council’s decision.
It would then be up to the select committee to withdraw the bill, ending the entire process.
The existing make-up of the elected council would continue.