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Opinion – First reading, RDC Council’s (Representation Arrangements Bill)

Opinion – First reading, RDC Council’s (Representation Arrangements Bill)

By Dr Reynold Macpherson – 7 April 2022

Rotorua District Council’s ‘Local Bill’ given its First Reading in Parliament yesterday is intended to evade the democratic principles in the Local Electoral Act and to introduce a co-governance model of 3 Māori seats, 3 General seats and 4 At Large seats for councillors at the 8 October local elections. The justifications advanced in favour of co-governance were most interesting.

 Tamati Coffey, a Labour List MP, introduced the Bill to Parliament. However, I believe he misled Parliament when he gave a grievance version of Rotorua’s history, failing to mention that Ngāti Whakaue reached a “full and final settlement” with the Crown in 1993 that settled “any claims whether legal or Treaty based arising from any alleged Crown acts or omissions since 6 February 1840 that relate to … any land within the Pukeroa-Oruawhata Block, … the Fenton Agreement of 1880 (see paragraph 12). Coffey claimed that the Tiriti and Fenton obligations were “never really honoured”.

He then lauded the Te Arawa Partnership Agreement signed in 2015 and segued into a nationwide demand for 50 per cent of power in local government for Māori on the grounds of tino rangatiratanga – absolute self-determination – because “this what they want”  –  referring to “Māori … back home”.

Simon Watts, National Spokesperson for Local Government, questioned if this is really “what they want” when the bill was actually passed 8/2 by Council after being bitterly contested and lacking a high threshold of local engagement, consultation, consideration and support. He considered the Bill unnecessary because a Māori Ward had already been agreed, bespoke arrangements can create complexity and unintended consequences, and a key priority of local government is to enable democratic decision-making and promote well-being for the present and in the future. He advised councils facing a significant burden of reform not to be distracted from core business.

Rino Tirikatene, Labour, Te Tai Tonga, claimed that the bill had the Council’s “full support” and voted unanimously in favour of this bill  [actually 8/2]. He saw it as providing “a unique solution which ensures that the desired composition, which provides a fair representative partnership reflected around the council table”.  The unspoken principle he supported was voter parity between Māori and General Ward members even though there are significantly different voter numbers in the Maori and General electoral populations.

Mr Tirikatene mentioned that “I’m currently the member in charge of the Canterbury Regional Council (Ngāi Tahu Representation) Bill. And, again, they’re all about ensuring that mana whenua presence and representation around the table.” He saw the bill as setting a precedent for the rest of the country, if it succeeded.

Eugenie Sage, Greens, supported the Bill because the Greens had long supported the need for “greater representation, greater say, greater space at the Council table for Māori”. This position also favoured voter parity between ward members over the proportional representation of citizens, seeing it as “much more equitable, will allow much stronger representation, … and one that … better recognises the diversity of Rotorua’s community.” It was not clear how the proposed and ethnic bifurcation into wards would recognize diversity.

Arena Williams, Labour, Manurewa, supported the Bill because it is necessary “to create that partnership that Ngāti Whakaue envisaged for Rotorua when it was foundered,” repeating the myth of the yet-to-be honoured Fenton obligations. Her other reason for supporting “bespoke arrangements … is to affect the particular outcomes that are needed in Rotorua for those iwi who hold mana whenua for the region” and thereby establish a precedent for the rest of New Zealand local governments.

Simon Court, ACT List, opposed the Bill because it “does nothing to solve the problems that Rotorua faces” such as water quality, a housing shortage, social divisions, poverty and environmental problems. He called for “good science, good data, rather than co-governance …  [proposed by a] … “Council in meltdown.”

Paul Eagle, Labour Rongotai, supported the Bill unreservedly. He was resentful of “continuous negative information about Rotorua and its Labour Mayor,” arguing that “people are nervous about sharing power, assets and public services. It can be scary.” Nevertheless, as a member of the Māori Affairs Committee, he was proud and predetermined to support “true, meaningful partnerships on local authorities right across New Zealand.”

Shanan Halbert, Labour Northcote, endorsed the Bill, seeing Parliament “playing a greater role, educating our communities, educating Aotearoa. We are having a respectful and mature debate” about “how we can better fulfil our Te Tiriti obligations and better protect our environment.”

Todd McClay, National Rotorua, opposed the bill stressing that “elections should always be fair and democratic and proportional.” He saw the Bill as proposing co-governance – “that is if you are Māori and opted to be on the Māori Roll, which is 28 per cent of the voting population … then you will equal say to the other 72 per cent. It does not recognize that there are possibly as many Māori on the General Roll who are also disadvantaged when it comes to saying how they elect their councillors. That needs to be fixed and is why we are opposing this.”

Angie Warren-Clark, Labour List, regarded the partnership embedded in the Bill as ideal. She claimed that the Council’s ‘interim’ model was supported by a split vote but claimed that the ‘preferred’ model in the Bill was supported unanimously. “This, to me, sounds very much like democracy, It sounds very much like there is actually parity amongst voters.” She endorsed the history presented by Coffey, especially the alleged ongoing obligations of the Fenton Agreement.

Rawiri Waititi, Co-Leader Māori Party, Waiariki, offered whole-hearted support for the Bill because it is part of his Party’s “fight for greater decision-making roles in our rohe.” He regarded “equal numbers of seats for Māori and General is a fairer model in local government across New Zealand.” He rejected “racist rhetoric and scaremongering against co-governance.” He cited the Rotorua Lakes Settlement as an “outstanding success” involving a partnership between the Bay of Plenty Regional Council, Rotorua Lakes Council and Te Arawa.

In the closing speech of the First Reading, Coffey, revisited his main reasons for tabling the Bill; it will ensure that “Māori are sitting around the decision-making table, and meaningful partnerships with iwi.” This justification was apparently intended for wider application as Rotorua Council has had a history of more-than-proportionate numbers of Māori elected on merit. He claimed unanimous support for the Bill at Council which misled Parliament.

Finally, Coffey disparaged the concept of English democracy guaranteed in Article Three of Te Tiriti and argued that “there is nothing to preclude us being able to tweak democracy to make it work better for us here in Aotearoa.” By ‘us’ Coffey clearly meant Māori. It was not clear how such ‘tweaking’ would be justified in principle. Nevertheless, it was clear that, as chair of the Māori Affairs Select Committee, he was predetermined to legitimate power sharing as proposed in Rotorua’s Local Bill based on tino rangatiratanga, absolute self-determination, exclusively for Māori.

In sum, the 12 First Reading speeches suggested that later Readings and Hearings will be conducted on a largely partisan basis. Five key issues are likely to predominate:

  1. The validity of Te Tiriti and Fenton obligations in the Local Bill light of Ngāti Whakaue’s full and final settlement in 1993.
  2. Voter parity in co-governance models versus proportional representation in democratic models
  3. Voter parity in co-governance models versus equal suffrage in dem0cratic models (a democratic right guaranteed in New Zealand Bill of Rights to ensure that voter’s votes have equal voting power).
  4. The extent to which the Local Bill will enhance the practical problem-solving capacity of the Rotorua Lakes Council.
  5. The extent to which the Local Bill will set a precedent for co-governance in local government across New Zealand.

Reynold Macpherson
Chairman, Rotorua District Residents and Ratepayers