Maori wards plan going to public ballot

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Far North voters will have a chance early next year to decide whether the district should have Maori wards in future council elections.

The non-binding postal ballot will take place in February and March and seek a simple yes or no response. Holding the poll will cost about $65,000.

If a majority backs the idea of designated Maori seats at the council table, they could be introduced in time for the 2016 local government elections.

By law the Far North District Council has to carry out a review of its electoral boundaries and representation system later next year. If the yes vote wins, the number of Maori wards and seats could be decided as part of that review.

Mayor John Carter said neither he nor the council had a position on dedicated Maori seats, so they wanted some direction from the community.

If the proposal was rejected the council would have to look at other ways to meet its commitment to better engage with Maori, who made up close to half of the Far North's population.

Other options included setting up advisory boards or appointing Maori to standing committees, but the council wanted to canvas the electoral option first.

Mr Carter said the reason for raising the issue now was that the next opportunity to change the Far North's voting system would be in 2019, which was too far away.

It marks a change of heart for the former National MP who, in the run-up to the 2013 local elections, described Maori seats as a form of apartheid. However, he also said that his time as High Commissioner to the Cook Islands had opened his eyes to the importance of cultural identity.

When previous mayor Wayne Brown and the Better Local Government Working Group were pushing for a unitary authority last year, their proposal included three Maori seats with boundaries similar to the Far North's current wards.

Since then, however, iwi have cooled on the idea. Many leaders say they need to be at the council table, but should not have to rely on voters' whims to get there.

Ngai Takoto leader Rangitane Marsden, a member of the Iwi Leaders Forum, said the poll was "insulting" and came out of the blue.

"It's a bit of a head-scratcher. The council is saying, 'We'd like to have a relationship with you, but we'll ask the people of the Far North first'."

Mr Marsden said iwi were looking for partnerships and ways of moving Northland forward, but did not have to be voted onto the council to achieve that.

"The council's position seems to be, 'If we create wards, you can sit at the table with us'. Our position is that we can sit at the table as of right, you just have to invite us."

The whole Maori seats debate could be rendered superfluous if the Local Government Commission decides to scrap the Far North District Council in favour of a single Northland-wide authority combining the region's four existing councils.

The commission's initial proposal was to create a single Northland Council with seven community boards - more powerful local boards were not possible under the law of the time - and two Maori advisory boards.

The commission is unlikely to issue a final proposal for Northland this year because its current efforts are focussed on a possible merger of Wellington councils, due to be announced on December 4.

The commission does not have the power to create Maori seats where none already exist, but it can create advisory boards.

Several other councils are currently grappling with the same issue. The New Plymouth District Council voted in September to create a Maori ward seat. The move was strongly backed by Mayor Andrew Judd but the backlash has included a councillor's resignation and a Grey Power petition to have the decision overturned.

- Voting packs will be sent out to registered electors on February 23 with voting due to close on March 17.

- Northland Age

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