Byline: Ilona Hanne
Any potential establishment of a Māori ward in Stratford will not happen before next year's local government election, despite an accusation of racism from one iwi.
With just a couple of days left before the May 21 deadline for councils to consider Māori wards for the 2022 triennial local government elections, Ngāti Ruanui and Ngāruahine representatives appealed to Stratford District councillors to introduce Māori wards.
In March, mayor Neil Volzke asked elected members if they wished to reconsider the establishment of a Māori ward in the district in time for the 2022 elections. Volzke and three other councillors, Peter Dalziel, Min McKay and Amanda Harris, voted in favour of bringing discussion on the topic forward so a decision could be made in time for the 2022 local government election. They didn't have the support of the other seven elected members who voted against the motion.
In a statement released on Monday this week, chair of Ngāti Ruanui Runanga Haimona Maruera said Stratford Council's relationship with tangata whenua was "tokenism".
"Dialling up for a karakia and pōwhiri as suits but refusing to start listening and respond like every other council in the Taranaki and introduce Māori wards."
On Tuesday, Ngāti Ruanui and Ngāruahine representatives filled the council chambers at the start of the long-term plan hearing to listen to submissions from Graham Young, Te Runanga O Ngāti Ruanui Trust, and Te Korowai o Ngāruahine deputy chairman John Hooker.
Some were wearing T-shirts emblazoned with slogans stating their support for Māori wards, others wore their school uniform.
Eleven-year-old Gabby Coogan was missing her lessons at St Joseph's Hāwera to attend the hearing.
"We want Māori to be heard today," she said before entering the meeting.
Young said while they appreciated the opportunity to speak at the hearing, they did so "with extreme disappointment and a heavy heart" regarding councillors having decided not to introduce Māori wards in time for the next election.
Ngāti Ruanui felt "disgust" at the decision and there was a "loss of goodwill" as a result, he said. He said the Ngāti Ruanui submission did not address anything specifically discussed within the long-term plan but argued council's relationship with Māori was an intrinsic part of planning for the future.
"The introduction of Māori wards is all about long term planning ... it is about the future, and goes to the heart of what is required of long term policy, in particular improving decision making for Māori and local government."
The decision by councillors to not bring any discussion on Māori wards forward to be in time for next year's election was a disappointment, he said. Ngāti Ruanui heard of that decision through the media, he added.
"Perhaps this is reflective of our relationship."
The Stratford District Council is now an "outlier" in the region, he said, with both New Plymouth and South Taranaki district councils having moved to adopt Māori wards along with Taranaki Regional Council.
"The time is right. Central government knows this, and local government in the region knows this, you only have to look around your own region to see this. The Stratford District Council needs to act."
The current system was "an unfair electoral system" for Māori, and introducing a Māori ward would be one action, "a bold step" in meeting Treaty obligations, Young said.
Councillor Rick Coplestone questioned if a seat gave the outcome they wanted.
"I looked at the Māori ward and I decided that really gives you a voice, but no power ... did you ever think that consultation in a group situation would give you more power to a council than just one seat?"
"No because someone on the table, around the decision making table, is a step in the right direction. Ngāti Ruanui's not asking for all the power, we are asking for a partnership."
For the past 10 years they had been engaged with council through consultation, he said.
"It's given us no power."
John Hooker, deputy chairman of Te Korowai o Ngāruahine, said through his years playing rugby, the community of Stratford had always impressed him.
"It's a community that rolls up its sleeves and gets on with the job."
Six years ago, he said, Ngāruahine were against the establishment of Māori wards.
Now, however, the iwi was "definitely in favour" of Māori wards.
The iwi contacted members by email on Monday night, he said, to ask their opinions and the "overwhelming response was that we need to support Māori wards".
He said the establishment of a Māori ward was not to be seen as the only way engagement between hapū, iwi and council could happen, but as one aspect of it.
"It's having that face at the governance level here: It's also having that face at the management level.
"It's time to get on with the job," he said. "It's time to roll the sleeves up and get it done."
After the two submissions, supporters left the chambers.
"The point is, we can't stay in there after that as we have said we won't engage with council until they listen to us on the subject of Māori wards," said one of the supporters, who declined to give their name.
"We want to be heard and we aren't going to continue to engage with them if they continue to ignore our call for the establishment of a Māori ward."
The long-term plan hearing continued in council chambers, with another 12 submitters being heard on a range of topics before councillors deliberated on the submissions in the afternoon.
During those deliberations, councillor Min McKay asked "are councillors comfortable with our stance" regarding Māori wards.
She asked council officers what a "damaged relationship" with iwi might mean for the district.
Chief executive Sven Hanne said depending on the view of iwi on the outcome of the Māori ward conversation "it could have a negative impact on our work".
Despite this, he said he encouraged elected members not to look at it from a "damage control" perspective, but rather to look at the "genuine benefit of regular and positive engagement between the multiple parties" that was already in place.
Mayor Neil Volzke said he felt both submissions made on the subject that morning had been direct and clear as well as cordial.
"They weren't overly demanding, aggressive or anything of that nature."
He said he felt this reflected the nature of the relationship council, particularly senior staff as well as himself had with the two iwi.
Regarding the future relationship with iwi, he said it wasn't a case of if it 'will it affect the relationship'.
"Clearly not only will it, it has. I don't think we can talk about that as a future thing, it has already happened."
Council's earlier decision to not bring forward the discussion on Māori wards, but to leave it until it was officially due as part of the representation review set to take place in 2024, was in part because councillors were unsure of the position of all iwi involved on the matter at that time, he said.
"We wanted to get their input, their guidance, as to how they best saw Māori representation. Clearly today, two iwi have expressed their view, but as of today we haven't had the same discussions with the other five iwi."
You can't make the assumption that everyone thinks the same in the issue, he said.
A decision on Māori wards in time for next year's election had to be made by May 21 - just three days away, he said.
Stratford District Council had supported the change to legislation removing the ability for voters to demand a binding poll on Māori wards, Volzke said.
"Because we didn't think that was fair."
Since then he had personally thanked and congratulated Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta for bringing the amendment through Parliament.
Moving forward he said, there was "a lot of work to be done" regarding council's relationship with iwi.
"But I do think we have a lot more in common with iwi and our Māori community than we do differences ... although clearly this decision today has taken us a step backwards with Ngāti Ruanui and Ngāruahine."
Saying it was likely to be himself who had to communicate any decision from the hearing back to iwi, Volzke asked for clarity on what the final decision was.
"Our position hasn't changed since we made the decision," replied councillor Jono Erwood.
Time had run out for consultation in time for the next election, said Volzke.
"We haven't got time to consult not only with iwi but the wider Māori community and the broader community itself."
Disclaimer: Editor Ilona Hanne is married to the CEO of Stratford District Council.