Politics | Māori wards

‘We had a democratic process’ for Māori ward, Gisborne Mayor says

Gisborne mayor Rehette Stoltz. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Gisborne mayor Rehette Stoltz wants people to remember a democratic process was followed for the establishment of Māori wards in the district.

The mayor made the comment during a council meeting last week where councillors discussed a report on an iwi request for the retention of Māori wards.

A bill announced by the government earlier this month proposes to require councils who established Māori wards after 2021 to have a binding referendum at their next local body elections.

Local Government Minister Simeon Brown in a statement said the new policy would reverse the previous government’s decision to not require councils to vote on Māori wards.

Stoltz and many Gisborne councillors said they followed democratic processes when the council established a Māori ward in 2022.

People perhaps forgot the community had the opportunity for electors to demand a referendum “under the old regime”, Stoltz said.

Legislation at the time allowed for a petition signed by 5 percent of ratepayers to force a public referendum on Māori wards. An attempt to achieve the 5 percent (1625 signatures) failed, receiving only 722 signatures.

Stoltz said it was unfortunate the government was requiring everyone who established Māori wards during that time to now have a referendum.

“I think there are about nine councils who are in our position, where they did follow the proper process.

“I support the retention of Māori wards as we can see the lovely contributions around our table,” she said.

However, she did not believe the government would change its view.

“I vehemently oppose the establishment of the 5 percent poll,” Deputy mayor Josh Wharehinga said.

“We already asked our region what they thought. Our council held a representation review, where the community overwhelmingly supported the establishment of a Māori ward.

“This is supposed to be the government that’s about less waste ... yet they are forcing us to undergo a process we’ve already done.”

Wharehinga said the request was anti-democratic.

Councillor Colin Alder said he believed it was democratic to hold the vote and let Gisborne decide.

“I believe in the democratic process. The central government was voted in by the majority and it is not my place as an elected local government councillor to attempt to influence their decisions.

However, he had “absolute confidence we will revote in favour of Māori wards”.

Stoltz rejected Alder’s claim.

“It is absolutely factually incorrect to say it is not our job (as local council) to tell the central government.

“It is 100 percent our job. I would say half of my time as mayor is taken up by listening to opinions of my community and then letting the government know how the community feels about that.

“We make submissions weekly, monthly to let the government know because it is their job.”

Just as Gisborne District Council listened to Tai Rāwhiti, the government must listen to local councils, she said.

Counillor Nick Tupara said the community had spoken “and as the voice of that community we are compelled to voice that opinion”.

Councillor Rawinia Parata said in relation to the iwi requests report: “Iwi are saying that they like the decision that you made (on Māori wards). It’s a partnership now.”

She agreed it was anti-democratic but said she had faith Gisborne would vote in favour of Māori wards again if it came to that

If the bill was passed, Māori wards would be the only wards subject to binding referendums.

Council director internal partnerships and protection James Baty said that the government had hinted at returning to the previous legislation on Māori wards.

This would mean that if the council received a valid poll demand at any time (of 5 percent), the council would have to run a referendum, he said.

“Let’s say we had to do it for 2025, the result of that poll would be in place for the 2028 election and 2031,” he said.

Councillor Rhonda Tibble and council chief executive Nedine Thatcher Swann questioned the reasoning behind this.

“What is the background thinking to require Māori wards to go through this level of stress every six years”? Tibble asked.

Local Democracy Reporting is funded through RNZ and NZ On Air.