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Opinion – Where is the push for co-governance coming from in Rotorua?

By Robert Lee – 5 April 2022

Observing the Council’s Representation Review over the past year has been a revealing case-study for understanding how this Council makes decisions, what their motives and agenda are and most importantly, who this Council is really in “partnership”, or “co-governance” with.

The Review will determine the number of councillors, wards and the number of councillors in each ward that will make up Rotorua’s next Council. Since 2016 both Māori and non-Māori each had 10 votes for 10 councillors in a single ‘at-large’ ward (10AL).

The Council’s early decision not to consult with non-Māori voters about the establishment of a Māori Ward was concerning. Notably, Cr Tania Tapsell (Ngati Whakaue / Te Arawa) voted against the establishment of a Maori Ward on the basis that Maori would have less voting power. Her argument was based on the formula in the Local Electoral Act 2001 that gives a Māori Ward 28% of councillors because 28% of voters (21,700) are enrolled on the Māori Roll. With 10 councillor seats, that would be 3 seats out of 10 for the Māori ward while the 72% (55,600) enrolled on the General Roll would have the remaining 7 seats. That means those on the Maori Roll would only get three votes while those on the General Roll would get 7 votes (3M:7G).

However, not satisfied with Māori having 3 guaranteed seats at the decision-making table, Council considered a number of other options that do not comply with the Local Electoral Act formula. The Council put three options out for public consultation – including their “initial proposal”, which was a 2-seat Māori Ward, a 4-seat General Ward and a 4-Seat “at-large” ward (2M:4G:4AL). Both Māori and General roll voters would be able to vote for councillors standing in the “at-large” ward so those enrolled on the Māori Roll would get a total of 6 votes and those enrolled on the General Roll would get a total of 8 votes.

159 people or organisations made written submissions of which 26 made oral submissions before Council on 19 October 2021. The 3M:7G model was by far the most popular with 45% support. Only 2 submitters supported the Council’s “initial proposal”.

Everything changed when three leaders representing the chairs of the four Ngāti Whakaue corporate entities including Ngati Whakaue Assets Trust and Ngati Whakaue Tribal Lands Incorporated (“the Whakaue leaders”), dropped a bombshell with their oral submission. Ana Morrison, Tupara Morrison and David Thomas argued for a new representation model – 1M:1G:8AL on behalf of the enterprises with estimated assets of around $1 billion. The attractiveness of this model for the Whakaue leaders is that it would give both Māori and non-Māori voters the same number of total votes (9) – despite there being 2.6 times more people on the General Roll than on the Maori Roll. This is what the Council have called “voter parity”.

Mayor Steve Chadwick immediately recognised the implications, later telling the Local Government Commission that this was a “light bulb moment” for her. She asked whether the Whakaue leaders were asking for “co-governance” of Rotorua. Both Morrisons confirmed that they were and argued that the “Rotorua Settlement Agreement” (aka the Fenton Agreement) and the Waitangi Treaty justified this departure from democratic norms.

In fact the Fenton Agreement was fully and finally settled by Ngati Whakaue in 1993 (see Paragraph 12 of the 1993 Agreement) and even Cr Tania Tapsell (Ngati Whakaue / Te Arawa) accepts the Waitangi Treaty does not promise “co-governance”.

Te Tatau o Te Arawa, the entity that the Council is supposedly in “partnership” with and which represents all of Te Arawa’s hapu including Ngati Whakaue, was unimpressed. Their Chief Executive Jude Pani later stated that the Whakaue leaders’ proposed 1M:1G:8AL model came “out of thin air”. After extensively consulting with their people, Te Tatau’s bottom line was having 3 guaranteed Māori seats on Council.

Cr Reynold Macpherson was not permitted to ask questions or challenge the Whakaue leadership’s presentation because the Chair, Cr Merepeka Raukawa-Tait (affiliated with Ngati Whakaue / Te Arawa), had earlier ruled that he was not permitted to ask questions of any submitters for the whole day purportedly because the Rotorua District Residents and Ratepayers, of which he is Chair, had made a submission so he was supposedly in a conflict of interest. While conflicted in relation to RDRR’s submission, there was no justification for preventing a duly elected councillor from questioning other submitters.

Somewhat inconsistently, Cr Raukawa-Tait allowed the Councillors affiliated with Whakaue (Raukawa-Tait, Mercia Yates and Tania Tapsell) to ask [softball] questions of the Whakaue submitters.

Cr Maxwell, who is from Ngati Rangawewehi, was concerned about the political implications and how the wider community might receive this model.

Apart from not complying with legal formula, the problem with the 1M:1G:8AL model is that it gives the 28% of voters enrolled on the Māori Roll the same voting power as the 72% voters enrolled on the General Roll, which is unfair. Regardless, the electoral law does not allow for “voter parity” to be considered as a relevant factor.

Surprisingly, the Council voted to adopt Whakaue’s new 1M:1G:8AL model, thereby abandoning all three models that they had previously put out for public consultation and ignoring all other submitters. Who this Council is really in “partnership” or “co-governance” with? Based on this case study, it isn’t the Council’s official partner, Te Tatau o Te Arawa. It certainly isn’t the residents and ratepayers of Rotorua. Rather it appears to be the leaders of the Ngati Whakaue corporate entities.

Te Tatau filed an appeal against this model with the Local Government Commission (LGC), as did several of the other submitters. The Local Government Commission recently heard appeals from Te Tatau and the other appellants and they will soon decide the makeup of Rotorua’s next Council. Given that the 1M:1G:8AL doesn’t comply with the formula or even basic democratic principles, it would be very surprising if the Council’s decision was not overturned and a variation of the 3M:7G model – that may include a rural ward – is chosen (eg 3M-7G-1R).

Meanwhile, Council is also seeking a law change in Parliament to enable permanent “co-governance” (which would effectively mean governance of Rotorua by Whakaue’s corporate leaders) with a 3M:3G:4AL model. Again, it would be surprising if Parliament set aside the basic principles of democracy and allowed Rotorua to be an undemocratic exception within New Zealand.

Nevertheless, the political influence that the Ngati Whakaue leaders have exerted over this Council has been laid bare for all to see. The alacrity with which this Council has complied with their demands – despite the electoral law being against them – is alarming.

The Ngati Whakaue corporate leaders demand too much of the people of Rotorua. The coming election on 8 October is an opportunity to liberate this Council from the Whakaue leadership’s undue influence over our Council and ensure that it serves the best interests of all of Rotorua’s residents and ratepayers – including everyone from every hapu of Te Arawa and all the people with Ngati Whakaue whakapapa – without fear or favour.

Accepting that the Council has already decided on a Maori ward, RDRR joins with Te Tatau o Te Arawa in supporting any variation of the 3M:7G model that complies with electoral law as it will provide for a fair election where every person’s vote is worth the same as every other person, regardless of race.

Robert Lee

Rotorua District Residents & Ratepayers Association
Endorsed councillor candidate for Rotorua District Council 2022