The truth about Maori Wards

Tauranga Moana Te Arawa ki Takutai Partnership Forum Chair Reon Tuanau and WBOPDC Mayor Garry Webber.

A poll is currently underway to determine whether the Western Bay of Plenty District Council should introduce Maori wards – but are they necessary?

A WBOPDC spokesperson says Maori ward representatives could “better relate to the needs of Maori communities and provide the council with a greater understanding of Maori issues and concerns, and may encourage more Maori to participate in local government, by standing for office and voting at local elections”.

However, statistical evidence suggests separating Maori electors into their own wards does not improve Maori participation in the democratic process.

The Bay of Plenty Regional Council has had Maori constituencies since 2001. They presently have three – Kohi Maori, Mauao Maori, and Okurei Maori – in which electors on the Maori roll can vote in. But do they vote?

In the last three elections for BOPRC, turnout in the three Maori constituencies has been consistently lower than the overall turnout. In particular, the Mauao Maori constituency, which covers Tauranga and the Western Bay of Plenty, has had the lowest turnout – 26.6 per cent (2010), 20 per cent (2013) and 21.4 per cent (2016).

This compares with an overall turnout of 41-45 per cent over the same period.

In the 2017 Mauao Maori by-election, although six candidates contested the vacancy, turnout was even lower, at 16.9 per cent (although by-elections in general typically attract a lower turnout).

While it would appear there is a great appetite for becoming a councillor via the Maori ward route, the same cannot be said of voters within those wards – particularly those living in the Western Bay.

Even without Maori wards, though, the numbers tell us Maori candidates could quite easily make it on to the council.

For example, Bertie Ratu, who stood unsuccessfully in the Maketu-Te Puke Ward in 2016, could have been elected a councillor if every voter enrolled on the Maori roll in her ward had gone out and voted for her.

Likewise, unsuccessful mayoral candidate Kevin Tohiariki – who has spoken in support of Maori wards – would have won the mayoralty by a landslide if the estimated 5900 Maori electors in the district had come out in support of him.

But they didn’t. It’s almost as if Maori don’t all vote, and those who do vote for candidates not on the basis of skin colour, but on whether they think that person will make a good member of council.

In fact, it’s possible Maori – like Pakeha – don’t all think the same, and vote for a range of different candidates, for different reasons.

In any case, WBOPDC itself states that ‘all elected members are required to act in the best interests of the whole of the Western Bay of Plenty District, not just for their own ward’ – which, if true, would mean the current batch of councillors are already acting in the best interests of Maori, despite not being of Maori descent.

In other words, Maori wards are a solution looking for a problem that just isn’t there.