Why Māori wards are critical for democracy

Sarah Sparks is a communications consultant who works with wāhine toa across Aotearoa.

OPINION: This local body election season has seen plenty of kōrero about Māori wards, as Aotearoa moves towards a more inclusive system of governance.

Māori wards are not, as some have claimed, a dilution of our democracy. They’re about sitting in unity at the top table, enshrining the rights indigenous people are granted under Te Tiriti o Waitangi/the Treaty of Waitangi.

While the hīkoi to the adoption of Māori Wards has received predictable pushback in some quarters, ultimately constituent voices and collective conscience have won out. It’s the right choice to make.

Shifting the old local government system to be more representative of the people it serves opens a smoother pathway for tangata whenua aspirations to be realised through reform and reconciliation.

While legally the local government system is duty-bound to embody the Crown’s obligations under the treaty partnership, it should not be about how many voters turn out.

It must be about embedding strategic roles for Māori in decision-making at the highest governance level within the dense siloed systems and structures of local government.

This will honour Ko te Tuarua (Article 2) in Te Tiriti, centred on Māori making decisions about resources and taonga; and Ko te Tuatoru (Article 3), which demands equal rights for Māori and non-Māori.

If this genuinely happens, council practices and policies will be far more inclusive and representative of indigenous values, removing barriers to kaupapa Māori.

Power needs to be given back to communities, particularly in districts with proportionally higher Māori populations that have been historically underrepresented.

Now, Māori Ward councillors will have an equal voice to participate fully like any other councillor, resulting in local decision-making that’s authentic to the views, issues and challenges of iwi, hapū, whānau and urban Māori.

Rate hikes are high in growing cities, and many whānau are struggling to hold onto their whare and maintain payments because of the impact of development in affluent areas. Māori-led policy could see compassionate rate relief for people under a certain income threshold, and support for local marae development.

Ensuring mana whenua have more say over pollution and climate change effects will also benefit Māori and non-Māori alike.

Within my own whānau, our kaumātua and whanaunga ‘water warriors’ from Ngāti Tama of Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka-ā-Maui have fought to uphold the kaitiakitanga of the sacred waters at Te Waikoropupū Springs, entailing expensive, long-running litigation.

Elevating Māori successes, identities, voices and world views should not be feared; instead, rich and meaningful Māori history should be embraced in every rohe.

As I write this, I reflect on an extraordinary meeting I attended last year at Hamilton City Council where impassioned locals submitted both for and against Māori wards.

Rangatira Māori spoke with eloquent conviction, unanimous in their view that the wards would benefit future generations.

Lady Tureiti Moxon, a qualified lawyer and former member of the Waitangi Tribunal, made a fair point by sharing a legal lesson on the Coat of Arms of New Zealand, succinctly getting to the heart of what a relationship of ‘unity’ means.

The coat of arms is symbolic of a covenant agreement of Tino Rangatiratanga between the Crown and Rangatira Māori. A partnership of equals. Mutual prosperity for both. Standing together on the whenua, side by side.

The whakaaro of Ngira Simmonds, the Archdeacon for the Kīngitanga, encapsulated it all: “We do not seek to usurp your mana; rather we seek to dwell together with you.”

As Aoteroa continues this hīkoi, may all society see that what benefits Māori, benefits everyone.