Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Maori Representation on Local Council Wards

There have recently been a number of referenda on the subject of obtaining specific Maori representation on city and district councils around New Zealand. To the surprise of some, the concept has been rejected, most recently in Palmerston North and perhaps more surprisingly, in Whakatane, which has a significantly higher percentage of Maori compared to many other cities. Much of the intellectual thinking and some of the financial backing appears to come from the Hobson's Pledge group and Don Brash, who start from the position that this is somehow undemocratic. They suggest that appointing or electing a Maori representative is a race-based approach and undemocratic.

The problem is that they appear fixated by the concept of direct democracy electing representatives. There are in fact more sophisticated models designed to ensure that groups are represented in a way which enables a better voice for communities which may otherwise be marginalised. In particular I refer to what is called the multi-stakeholder model, which is particularly strong in a number of Internet organisations such as ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers which can be found at, with full explanations and diagrams), the Internet Society and IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force). A good article on Internet governance by multi-stakeholder models is here

At first blush, making a connection between the highly technical and international structures of Internet organisations may seem a little remote from representation on local councils in New Zealand. But the reason multi-stakeholder approaches were evolved, was to recognise that interest groups are often capable of marginalisation because of smaller numbers, despite the importance of that interest group. This approach is in my view a better model for looking at Maori representation rather than using a simplistic voting approach. The Treaty of Waitangi establishes the need for a partnership and recognises that both parties to the treaty have a stake in the future of New Zealand. So it cannot be a significant change to recognise that even though Maori may not have significant numbers in some councils, nonetheless they are a stakeholder because they hold te ahi kaa, a phrase used to demonstrate that they had for many generations lived on the land, where they built their cooking fires. That certainly extends of course before 1840 when the treaty was signed. Because of colonisation, the ratio of Maori to subsequent settlers declined significantly. But that does not take away their role as a stakeholder as the people of the land. So when a council is elected but does not have a representative of the local Iwi, then it has failed to recognise the treaty principle of Maori being a stakeholder. So on one hand the elected representatives on the council are the stakeholders for the general electorate, but a Maori representative represents the other treaty established stakeholder. That is not undemocratic but recognises that there are other voices who must be heard at the council table.

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