Harmony and the case for Māori wards


The following was first published here as an opinion piece in the Dominion Post 11 May 2018

I have been thinking about harmony – in music and in our land.

When I sing a line of notes I create a tune – hopefully a nice enough thing.  But when we add other voices, instrumental backing, rhythm, even an occasional discord, then many lines of notes blend to create a harmonious whole.   Together we create music.

Similarly, if our local councils have only Pākehā councillors, we shut out knowledge and ideas from our communities and we risk singing the same old song.

And the voice which most needs to be heard, the key note of our harmony here in Aotearoa New Zealand, is the voice of Māori.  Why?  To extend the metaphor, the first human voices in this land were those of Tangata Whenua.   It is Māori heritage and culture which makes this country unique – as many of us Pākehā travellers have discovered when asked to “sing a song from your country” and we find ourselves limping through a half-remembered version of Pōkarekare Ana.

More importantly, it is thanks to the Treaty of Waitangi that us non-Māori have the opportunity to live here.  We have been invited to add our voices to the original songs.

But the crucial element in this harmony is sometimes missing.  Tangata Whenua voices are often drowned out, crowded out, and excluded by the weight of demographics, and this is particularly true in local government.    Māori wards are one way of ensuring Tangata Whenua representation and Māori voices at the council table when the electoral system fails to deliver this.  Rural wards are established in much the same way and for most of the same reasons.

It is surprising that the simple concept of Māori wards can feel threatening to some people.  But because this seems to be the case, five councils which recently voted to establish Māori wards (Kaikōura, Whakatāne, Western Bay of Plenty, Manawatū and Palmerston North) are now each having to hold a public referendum before Māori wards can be established.  This is a kind of double jeopardy – demographics work against Māori being elected to council, and those same demographics may work against a yes vote for Māori wards.  There is also an odd inconsistency between Māori wards and rural wards – while both can be set up by council decision, only Māori wards can be overturned through a public referendum.

Perhaps some of this sense of threat comes from groups claiming that Māori wards mean that Māori are getting “special treatment.”   But this isn’t the case – everyone gets one vote.  Just like in national elections, Māori can only be on one roll. If you are on the Māori electoral roll you vote for a candidate standing in the Māori wards, and if you are on the general role you vote for a candidate standing in the general seats.

Most of us realise that Tangata Whenua representation in local government is a good thing.  Most of us value fairness – and it is unfair for Tangata Whenua to be excluded from local councils.  Most of us value justice – and the same Treaty of Waitangi which provides non-Māori the opportunity to live here requires a sharing of power.  And most of us value Aotearoa New Zealand’s potential for unique cultural harmony – which comes from inclusiveness, respect and an honouring the history and cultures that shape us.

Let’s say yes to the creation of Māori wards in Kaikōura, Whakatāne, Western Bay of Plenty, Manawatū and Palmerston North in the referenda now being held.  As a Wellingtonian, I can’t vote in these regions, but I wish I could because us Pākehā need to do our bit to support Māori-led initiatives which help our communities flourish.   Let’s say yes to Māori representation on local councils.   Let’s say yes to the harmony.

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