Last week we prepared and delivered a submission both in writing and in a brief hearing, at the Māori Affairs Select Committee on the Māori Wards Bill. The Bill abolishes binding polls on the establishment of Māori Wards and constituencies whether triggered by the community, or initiated by a local authority.

We submitted in favour of the Bill, consistent with our previous submission on the issue at the last Justice Committee Inquiry into Local Elections and our recent Tuning up the Engine submission to the Minister of Local Government.

While local authorities are not Treaty partners directly, there can be little room for debate that local authorities are public sector entities that make significant decisions with impacts on lands, waters and other taonga on a daily basis. The Waitangi Tribunal has held that local authority’s observance of its obligations can give rise to a breach of the Crown’s Treaty obligations (for example the report on Wai 262 and various observations on historic rating practices).

Additionally, there are some activities where local authorities are acting as a delivery agent on behalf of the Crown. Many of the regulatory services involve exercise of some functions on behalf of the Crown, and some public health activities are also provided on a similar basis.

In addition, many of the big public policy issues of the 21st century require the intervention of both central and local government. Matters like climate change, social inclusion/cohesiveness and affordable housing cross spheres of government. Again, decisions our sector takes could give rise to a breach.

There are direct obligations on our sector to provide opportunities to participate in decision-making processes. Our submission lists these at some length. Local authorities are adding more depth and creativity to how they go about these.

And a Māori ward or constituency is the only mechanism that guarantees Māori representation on the body that makes the final decisions.

There is no such trigger for polls with regard to other decisions around wards and constituencies. The only other representation decision that may be overturned by poll is the decision on the voting system. 

The poll provision, whether consciously or otherwise, imposes a higher procedural standard on one representation arrangement than applies to others. While a local authority might arguably be able to resolve to have a binding poll on issues around general words – it is a matter for debate. In any case, while the law might arguably allow for such a poll, a binding a poll on a Māori Ward is mandatory if certain conditions are met.

We left the Committee with a final thought. A Māori Ward or Constituency will work best as an additional means for promoting Māori participation in the decision-making process. It is not a substitute for a meaningful and ongoing relationship on a day-to-day basis.