Former Northland councillor calls for early Māori ward polls in Te Tai Tokerau

Māori ward polling lobbyists John Bain (left) and Robin Grieve in late 2020 outside NRC with the beginnings of their petition campaign. Photo / Susan Botting

Northland councils that want to keep their Māori wards at the next local elections should have to poll their communities beforehand, former local government leader John Bain says.

The call from the former Northland Regional Council deputy chairman and Democracy Northland spokesperson comes ahead of an expected law change on Māori wards later this month. Polling will be returned under the proposed legislation.

At next year’s local elections councils that have brought in Māori wards without polling residents will need to do so if they want to keep the wards or choose to scrap them ahead of that time.

John Bain (right) with fellow Democracy Northland member Robin Grieve in February 2021 outside NRC in Whangārei with boxes of signatures petitioning that council as well as WDC and KDC to poll their communities about new Māori wards. Photo / LDR

The binding poll’s results will take effect from the 2028 local government term.

There were 10,671 Parliament justice select committee submissions on the proposed law change.

About 20% were in favour of polling’s reintroduction, 65% against.

Bain lobbied for the Democracy Northland polling push during select committee hearings.

He said Northland councils should have to hold such polls ahead of, rather than at the time of the 2025 elections.

Three of Northland’s four councils - Far North District Council (FNDC), Whangārei District Council (WDC) and Northland Regional Council (NRC) - were among 41 councils which submitted on the bill, with 97.5 per cent of these local government submissions opposing reintroducing polling.

Māori ward polling lobbyist John Bain. Photo: Northern Advocate / Michael Cunningham

They and Kaipara District Council (KDC) all have Māori wards. Bain said he was okay with Māori wards as long as communities were polled.

He said Northland’s situation was unique in the ongoing Māori ward debate.

This was because more than 15,000 people signed Democracy Northland petitions over the 2020/2021 summer calling for KDC, WDC and NRC to hold polls on their decisions to bring in Māori wards, he said.

Bain resigned as an NRC politician in November 2020 when it voted to bring in a Māori constituency for the 2022 local elections, without polling first.

He then set up Democracy Northland which collected more than the required number of petition signatures needed to force the three councils to hold a poll on their decisions to introduce a Māori ward.

Bain said Democracy Northland’s efforts were thwarted only when the former Government retrospectively changed the law in February 2021, just after his group delivered the polling petitions to the three councils.

He said holding a poll ahead of the next local elections would allow Northlanders to vote on their council’s resulting political structure, effective from those elections rather than from 2028.

Veteran local body and government politician Dover Samuels said he was not in favour of the polling timeframe Bain was pushing for.

Māori ward polling should not be rushed says Northland's Dover Samuels. Photo: Northern Advocate / Michael Cunningham

The Kerikeri-based ex Māori Affairs Minister and former Far North deputy mayor said there were signs Northland’s Māori wards were making some positive contributions.

“But let’s see how the Māori wards deliver for the community, the whole community, by the end of this three-year term,” Samuels said.

He said he had always been for Māori wards, in principle.

They had brought the opportunity for councillors from Māori wards to work with others from general wards for the good of the whole community, not just their own waka.

Samuels said Northlanders voting in any future Māori ward polling should think carefully.

“It’s critical to judge people on their ability to get the waka to where we all want it to go,” he said of the performance of Northland councils, which all now include Māori wards.

“We’re all in the waka together. We all want to head in the same direction. If the paddlers in the waka are working well, why get rid of them?”

The Department of Internal Affairs Bill submissions report recommended against pre-2025 elections polling, also indicating that the cabinet was not in favour of this timeframe.

Requiring councils to hold Māori ward polls before the 2025 elections would mean extra council costs and an extra three months for the establishment process, it said.

Parliament’s justice committee chair James Meagar said the committee’s recommendations reflected its views.

The committee’s report summarised its work scrutinising the bill, and any amendments that were recommended with the reasons for these, Meager said.

Parliament justice select committee chair James Meager and his team considered more than 10,500 submissions including from Northland on the Government's signalled Māori wards law changes. Photo: NZME

Te Tai Tokerau MP, Whangārei’s Mariameno Kapa-Kingi attended the select committee’s full three-day hearings.

She said she was disgusted with what was happening around Māori wards.

It was an attempt to erase Māori from local government.

Losing any of Northland’s Māori wards would be detrimental for the region with its high proportion of Māori, the former Te Kahu o Taonui (Northland Iwi Chairs Forum) co-chair said.

Te Tai Tokerau MP Mariameno Kapa-Kingi. Photo: supplied via LDR

Kapa-Kingi, also a former FNDC Te Kuaka - Te Ao Māori committee member, said the Far North’s Māori ward establishment alone had given three iwi entities, 252 hapū, Māori social service, reo and local trust organisations a voice.

“That voice bridges into greater confidence in what is meant to be their local government,” she said.

Meanwhile, Northland MP Grant McCallum said the legislation change would be “good news for democracy in Northland and the rest of the country”.

Northland MP Grant McCallum. Photo / NZME

McCallum would not be drawn on whether councils should have Māori wards, saying that was up to the public to decide locally.

Northland was the first New Zealand’s first region with Māori wards across all its councils.

Twenty per cent of its council politicians are Māori ward councillors.

Local Democracy Reporting is local body journalism funded by RNZ and NZ On Air