Democracy Action oral submission to Auckland Council re: designated Māori seats

Oral submission to the Auckland Council Governing Body on 2 October 2023

Good morning your worship Mayor Brown and Councillors.

Thank you for this opportunity to share our views on the council’s proposal to introduce designated Māori seats.

I am here representing Democracy Action – a group of citizens advocating for the protection of democracy and equality of citizenship.

Equal political rights are a foundational democratic right that underpins many of the other rights we enjoy.  Like many New Zealanders, we at Democracy Action firmly believe in a fair and democratic society based on equality of citizenship - a society where we all have equal political rights.

We are opposed to the proposal to introduce Māori seats. We do so for several reasons.

Introducing designated Māori representation in local government is a big deal. It fundamentally changes the nature of representation in a council as it means some councillors will represent people of one ethnicity only, rather than everyone in a geographic district.

Auckland Council already has robust ways to ensure Māori influence policy and participate in the decision-making process.  

The Council has in place specific and ample opportunities for Māori citizens of Auckland to contribute to decision-making processes - far, far more than any other citizens. This includes the Independent Māori Statutory Board, the Tāmaki Makaurau Mana Whenua Forum, various co-governance bodies such as the Tūpuna Maunga Authority, and the formalised agreements reached between iwi or hapu and Auckland Council, quote “to contribute to council decision making and service delivery”. There is also provision for similar arrangements between iwi/hapu and local boards. 

These specific opportunities, especially the IMSB, are surely relevant to the proposal whether or not to introduce dedicated Māori seats.

We have found that many people in the community are unaware that the IMSB has voting power that directly impacts decisions made at the Council Governance Committee level. At times IMSB members can potentially - and sometimes do - sway decisions. As noted by Councillor Lee during the Governing Body meeting of 22 June, their voice is heard at all times and sometimes decisively on contentious issues which have been narrowly split.

Having both Māori seat councillors and IMSB members with decision-making power on these committees would violate the right to equal suffrage, as Māori citizens would have disproportional representation. This disproportionate decision-making power already exists without the introduction of Māori seats. For instance, IMSB members hold 25% of the votes on some committees, whereas Māori make up 11.5% of Auckland’s population.

This illustrates another instance where our democratic principles are being compromised.

The active participation by members of the IMSB in key committees ensures that their perspectives are incorporated into crucial discussions affecting the community at large, and yet the IMSB does not even represent Māori voters.  The members are not accountable to any voters - in effect under s. 82 Local Government (Auckland Council) Act 2009) it appears they are not legally accountable to anyone.

This confers an unusually significant level of influence upon a group that lacks accountability to the community.

It is highly undemocratic that political power is given to a group of people who are legally accountable to no-one.

Rodney Hide, the Minister of Local Government at the time the legislation was introduced to establish the IMSB, expressed his dismay at the way the Board has panned out in a recent radio interview discussing the proposed Māori seats for Auckland, saying “it is a shocking, shocking thing.”

I would like to express our disappointment that the council has not been fully transparent in its consultation with the public about the significant influence exercised by the Independent Māori Statutory Board. Therefore, I submit that the council failed in its duty to provide enough information to enable the public to be adequately informed to be able to properly engage in this consultation.

Nor has there been public information on the ongoing costs of establishing these seats. This would come at a time when the council is contemplating double-digit rate increases.

Another very important issue I would like you to consider when making your decision is that race-based seats foster racial division.

There are significant risks with separating citizens into "Māori" and “others” – as in the proposed designated Māori seat or seats on the council. Even with the best of intentions, separate race-based representation risks deepening social division, forcing the population to see themselves as something apart from one another - fostering a ‘them v us’ dynamic between people of different races. This is very damaging to social cohesion.

Separate identity representation creates incentives to exaggerate any differences between the group and the rest of society. There is a danger that difference becomes something that is deliberately cultivated because there are political and economic rewards attached to it. We need only have to look at the central government to see this scenario in action.

Furthermore, historically, and internationally, we see the tragic results of dividing people along lines such as race, religion, politics etc., where allegiance to the ‘tribe’ becomes more important than our common humanity. Is this the future you want for Auckland?

Time and time again New Zealanders, when given a vote, have rejected racial segregation. According to law firm Tomkins Wake, in the 20 years to 2021 that New Zealand law provided for the establishment of Māori wards or constituencies in local government, 24 councils attempted to establish Māori wards, and just three succeeded. Indeed, only one of these succeeded when a referendum was held.

Aucklanders appear to be no different. Rose Leonard, governance services manager at Auckland Council, recently told Newshub that most submitters to the Have a Say survey said they do not support designated Māori seats on Auckland Council.

And let’s not forget there is no impediment to Māori citizens being elected to the Council.

Indeed, the make-up of the current council proves this to be so. As with the previous council.

Parliament shows that it has been long demonstrated that New Zealanders of Māori descent are as capable of being elected as anybody else. Māori are elected in general seats without special legislation. For instance, almost a quarter of all the MPs in the current Parliament are Māori – 29 in total – with only seven of those elected in the Māori electorates. Also notable is the leadership of the four minor parties contesting the current election – all four are of Māori descent, with only one representing a Māori electorate. And that’s great. It shows the system is working fine without adding further Māori wards or seats.

Now I would like to address the second of the two proposed models in the council’s consultation document – the Royal Commission model. This model suggests an additional seat to be appointed solely by mana whenua of Auckland rather than voted for by those on the Maori roll.  Any appointed seat with voting rights, being unelected by and therefore unaccountable to the wider community, is fundamentally undemocratic. Democracy Action requests the council gives this proposal a big thumbs down.

In Conclusion, we suggest the Council wait until the next local body elections and ask the citizens by referendum if they support introducing Māori wards or seats.

But, if you decide to support Māori seats on Council - and most submitters do not agree this should be so, as the feedback to the council has shown – this should only happen if the IMSB is scrapped, allowing for Māori seats to be established in proportion to the people they represent. This would be a far more democratic arrangement.

I understand that the council cannot make the decision to abolish the IMSB. This would need to be done by the central government. However, it is within the power of the council to remove voting rights from IMSB members on Governing Body committees. The legislation establishing the IMSB did not specify voting rights on Auckland Council and only mandated their inclusion on committees that deal with natural and physical resources. The expansion to other committees and the addition of voting authority was gradually conferred over time by the Auckland Council itself, diverging from the Board’s initial purpose of assisting elected Councillors in their decisions.

It is also within the power of the council to lobby the central government to get rid of the Independent Māori Statutory Board.

So, in summary, given the powers the council has granted to the IMSB, as well as the other ways I have mentioned, the voices and interests of Māori are already amply provided for at the Council.

Therefore, in the spirit of political equality for all citizens, I am recommending the answer must be NO to designated Māori seats on Auckland Council.

Thank you.

Please note the Auckland Council Governing Body voted down the proposal to introduce dedicated Māori seats for the 2025 local body elections at a meeting held on 26 October 2023. See: AUCKLAND COUNCIL REJECTS MĀORI SEAT PROPOSAL


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