I have been the Mayor of Whakatāne now for just over 10 years. When I was first elected, I didn’t think Māori wards were necessary. I believed then that everyone had the same right to stand for election, and an equal chance of being elected. My views on this subject have evolved over time and I am now outspoken in my support of Māori wards being established in the Whakatāne District. Some of the reasons for this shift are outlined below.
The Whakatāne district is a unique area. 43.5% of our population are Māori and Te Reo is spoke by 17% of our residents. This compares to national averages of, respectively, 15% and 3.7%. We are, and always will be, a district that is steeped in matauranga Māori, and I see this as one of our community’s key strengths. Despite these statistics, Whakatāne District Council has been consistently under-represented by Māori elected members; therefore, it is more difficult to incorporate the Māori viewpoint into our decision-making.
Our Māori economy is strong and growing stronger. Whereas many parts of our economy are partly or totally foreign-owned, the Māori economy is not for sale and is here to stay in our district. Māori are not only our community partners, they are our key stakeholders. In any business or organization, such input would automatically result in board representation, so why do Maori not have decision-making seats reserved at our council?
The Treaty of Waitangi is a partnership agreement between Māori and those who settled here. Under legislation such as the Resource Management Act, the Māori view must be taken into account in decision-making. Despite these cornerstone agreements embedded into our society, I still don’t feel as if the practical measures are in place to ensure sufficient Māori representation.
I see the decision as to whether or not we introduce Māori wards as important not only for our district, but for the country. It signals this community’s commitment to a truly representative Council, and I believe that in years to come, people will look back and wonder why there was so much fuss about it. In short, if we take this important step now, I believe Māori wards will be seen as a natural and sensible way of ensuring that our entire community has a place at the Council table, similarly to the way our current ward system ensures that the rural community is appropriately and proportionally-represented.
In late 2017, Whakatāne District Council considered and voted in favour of introducing Māori Wards in the District. On the back of this decision, the Council received a petition demanding that a poll of electors be undertaken on the decision, which triggered a referendum on this issue. This referendum is currently underway, with voting closing on 19th May 2018. The results of this poll will be binding on the Council for the next two triennial elections in 2019 and 2022. If a majority of voters oppose the establishment of one or more Māori wards, the matter cannot be considered again until 2023. If a majority of voters support the establishment of one or more Māori wards, the Council must reflect this when it reviews its representation arrangements later this year.
I want our district to move forward faster and more inclusively than it has in the past. I am totally convinced that the only way forward is to go forward in partnership. The future make-up of the Whakatāne District Council is now in the community’s hands.