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New Zealand: Amendments Enacted to Remove Barriers to the Establishment of Maori Seats by Local Authorities

(Mar. 5, 2021) On March 1, 2021, the Local Electoral (Maori Wards and Maori Constituencies) Amendment Act 2021 (2021 Act) received royal assent, having been passed by the New Zealand Parliament on February 23, 2021. The amendments to the Local Electoral Act 2001 were passed under urgency procedures, as the government considered that local authorities should be given sufficient time to prepare for the next elections to be held in 2022.

Previous Requirements

Under the Local Electoral Act 2001, regional, city, and district councils are able to resolve to establish wards or constituencies for electors on the Maori electoral roll (section 19Z & schedule 1A). However, under the previous provisions, doing so required holding a local referendum on whether Maori wards or Maori constituencies should be established if at least 5% of the electors in the relevant area demanded one (repealed section 19ZB). According to the minister for local government, Nanaia Mahuta, “[t]hese polls have proved to be an almost insurmountable barrier to improving Maori representation in local government and, in some cases, a deterrent to local authorities considering establishing Maori wards or Maori constituencies.” Since 2002, when the relevant provisions were enacted, “24 councils have tried to introduce the Maori wards, but only three have been successful.”

In addition to these provisions, the Local Government Act 2002 contains “principles and requirements for local authorities that are intended to facilitate participation by Maori in local authority decision-making processes” (section 4).

Purpose and Content of Amendments

The amendments in the 2021 Act are intended to

  • align the treatment of Maori wards and Maori constituencies with the treatment of general wards and general constituencies as much as possible; and
  • remove all mechanisms for binding polls to be held on whether Maori wards or Maori constituencies will be established; and
  • provide local authorities with an opportunity to make decisions on Maori wards and Maori constituencies, in light of these changes, in time for the 2022 local elections.

To achieve these aims, the 2021 Act

  • repeals the provisions in the Local Electoral Act 2001 that relate to polls on the establishment of Maori wards and Maori constituencies; and
  • prohibits binding council-initiated polls on whether to establish Maori wards or Maori constituencies (while retaining the right of councils to initiate non-binding polls to gauge public sentiment); and
  • establishes a transition period ending on 21 May 2021 in which any local authority may, regardless of any previous decisions or previous poll outcomes, resolve to establish Maori wards or Maori constituencies for the 2022 local elections.

Maori Electoral Roll and Maori Seats

In 1867, four seats in Parliament, or “electorates,” were introduced to represent Maori. This number remained the same for 129 years. In 1975, a law change meant that “Maori could choose whether to be on the Maori or general electoral roll.” In 1993, “[t]he number of Maori seats became based on the number of people on the Maori roll. By 2002 there were seven Maori seats.” When first registering to vote, Maori can choose which roll they wish to be on. In addition, a “Maori Electoral Option” is held every five years, when Maori can choose to change from one roll to the other. People on the Maori roll vote to elect members of Parliament in the Maori electorates in which they live. The provisions governing the rolls and electorates are contained in the Electoral Act 1993.

At the local government level, there has been a history of underrepresentation for Maori and debate over establishing dedicated seats. For example, “[i]n the 2007 local government elections, less than 5% of successful candidates were Maori, despite Maori forming 14% of the population.” A decade after the 2002 amendments to allow the establishment of Maori wards or constituencies, “few councils had adopted this approach and many regional and city councils had no Maori members at all.” Since 2012, several councils, “including the Far North District Council and Nelson City Council, proposed the creation of Maori wards.” However,

[i]n all but one case, opponents used provisions of the Local Electoral Act 2001 to trigger binding referendums which overturned the councils’ plans. Wairoa District Council itself initiated a poll on this issue in 2016. In 2019, Wairoa voters elected three general ward and three Maori ward councillors.

A controversial referendum was held in May 2015 in New Plymouth District, where 83% of voters (on a 45% turnout) rejected Maori wards, much to the disappointment of Mayor Andrew Judd, who had championed the issue. The controversy prompted Judd to stand down when his term expired in 2016.

Before introducing the amendment bill, Mahuta stated that “[n]ine councils have decided to establish Maori wards for the 2022 local elections, joining three councils who established these at earlier elections.”

Reactions to the 2021 Act

The 2021 Act was supported by the Labour Party, Green Party, and Te Paati Maori, while the National Party and ACT opposed the legislation. The National Party, currently the main opposition party, said that it would overturn the amendments in the 2021 Act if elected to government in 2023, with its local government spokesperson calling the process a “sham” and saying that the issue was not the most pressing one facing local government.

The Maori Affairs Committee, which considered the bill, issued a report summarizing the views of those who made submissions, which contained both criticism and support for the truncated parliamentary process, discussion of the benefits of having Maori wards, and support for the existing poll requirements.