The New Zealand government announced Sunday that it is introducing a new government bill to improve Māori representation in local government as the country prepares for the 2022 local council elections.
The Local Electoral (Māori Wards and Māori Constituencies) Amendment Bill is spearheaded by the Minister of Local Government Nanaia Mahuta. According to a fact sheet on the government’s website, the bill proposes three key changes. All changes concern Māori wards and constituencies, which are local government electorates adjacent to general wards and constituencies wherein voting is conducted by persons on the Māori parliamentary electoral roll.
The first change is repealing provisions in the Local Electoral Act 2001 (the Act), which allow local council decisions supporting Māori wards and constituencies to be overturned by polls, triggered by the demand of just 5 percent of electors to a local council, that bind that council for two elections. The second change is stopping local councils from holding such polls, although non-binding polls can be held. The third change is establishing a transition period between the date that the legislation comes into effect and May 21, 2021, wherein local councils can decide whether to include Māori wards or constituencies in their 2022 local council election. Councils that opt to do so must then “complete a representation review to propose how many councillors it will have at the next election and the boundaries for any wards or constituencies.”
The proposed changes are designed to achieve better equity between the Māori wards and constituencies process and the general wards and constituencies process. The changes would also “make it easier for local authorities … to establish Māori wards and constituencies for the 2022 local government elections.”
Introducing the bill is a welcome change better honouring the partnership between Māori and Pākehā set out in Te Tiriti o Waitangi (the Treaty of Waitangi). The change is desired by the New Zealand public given that Parliament was presented with two petitions calling for such changes signed by over 11,000 persons late last year.
In a press release, Mahuta commented:
The process of establishing a ward should be the same for both Māori and general wards. These are decisions for democratically elected councils, who are accountable to the public every three years. Polls have proven to be an almost insurmountable barrier to councils trying to improve the democratic representation of Māori interests. This process is fundamentally unfair to Māori. Increasing Māori representation is essential to ensuring equity in representation and to provide a Māori voice in local decision making.
Mahuta’s concerns about the current polls system are echoed by the bill’s proponents. Stuart Crosby, President of Local Government New Zealand, an association representing “the national interests of councils” in the country, said in a press release that “[t]he existing poll provisions are unfair and inconsistent with every other ward type. Either the poll provisions should apply to all wards or they should apply to none.”
Given that the country’s government has an absolute majority in the House of Representatives, the bill will be passed and become legislation. The passing will likely occur within the month, given that Parliament seeks to operate under urgency upon its return to sitting next week.