NZCPR Weekly by Dr Muriel Newman
Last month Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull, the President of Local Government New Zealand – the union that represents the country’s 78 local authorities – wrote an open letter to the coalition Government calling for the removal of the petition rights that allow local residents and ratepayers to demand a poll if their Council unilaterally decides to establish Maori wards.
Under section 19ZD of the Local Electoral Act 2001 a council can elect to hold a public referendum in order to decide whether or not to establish Maori wards. This reflects the fact that such a change fundamentally alters the democratic make up of a council and by convention, changes of a constitutional nature in New Zealand can only be undertaken with the express approval of voters.
However, if a council chooses to introduce a Maori ward unilaterally, their decision can be challenged through section 19ZB of the Act, which gives residents and ratepayers the right to force a referendum – if 5 percent of voters sign their petition.
Referenda decisions are binding on councils for the following two elections.
The Maori wards provisions in the Act mirror those for changing the voting system, which is the other major constitutional change provided for in the legislation. Under Sections 27 to 34, councils can change between First Past the Post and Single Transferable Voting through a public referendum process. But if the decision is made by the Council alone, it can be challenged if 5 percent of local electors support a petition for a referendum.
So while LGNZ wants to retain the right of locals to demand a poll to challenge council decisions on the constitutional matter of changing the voting system, it wants to abolish their right to demand a poll to challenge council decisions on the constitutional matter of establishing Maori wards.
In his letter to the government Dave Cull ignores this glaring inconsistency, and instead tries to argue that establishing Maori wards is no different from altering ward boundaries, to take account of population changes. He says, “either the poll provisions should apply to all wards or they should apply to none.”
Fine – if that’s the game they want to play, let’s support polling provisions for all boundary changes!
Dave Cull tries to justify LGNZ’s attempt to remove the public’s democratic right to have the final say on Maori wards by claiming it’s all about increasing Maori representation. What he fails to acknowledge is that the “principle of equal treatment enshrined in the Treaty of Waitangi” runs two ways – all New Zealanders should be treated the same and have the same rights to representation.