Rotorua District Council agrees to pause its representation bill

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Labour, Te Pāti Māori and the Green Party voted for the Rotorua District Council representation bill at its first reading.

A controversial local bill, which aimed to increase representation of Māori at the Rotorua District Council, has been halted.

Labour MP Tāmati Coffey, who sponsored the bill on behalf of the Rotorua District Council, said the council had agreed to “press pause on their bill”.

The bill faced scrutiny from Attorney-General David Parker, who said it presented an unjustified disadvantage to non-Māori and moved Rotorua away from proportional representation at its council.

The bill would see Rotorua District Council comprising 10 councillors and the mayor. Of the 10 councillors, three would be elected by voters on the Māori roll and another three would be elected by voters from the general roll. The other four, and the mayor, would be elected by the voters at large.

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Labour MP Tāmati Coffey says progress on the Rotorua District Council (Representation Arrangements) Bill will be halted.
Labour MP Tāmati Coffey says progress on the Rotorua District Council (Representation Arrangements) Bill will be halted.

The main point of contention came from the population sizes of Rotorua’s general and Māori electorates. The general roll has more than double the number of voters than the Māori roll – at 55,600 to 21,700 voters.

Parker, in the Bill of Rights analysis of the bill, said the Māori wards would have “disproportionately higher” representation at council.

Coffey is a list MP based in Rotorua, and the former member for Waiariki​. He is also the chairperson of the Māori Affairs select committee, which has been receiving a deluge of public submissions relating to the Rotorua District Council (Representation Arrangements) Bill.

He said on Thursday that he supported the council’s decision to pause progress of the bill.

“I will be seeking the support from the Māori Affairs committee to suspend submission hearings while possible amendments are being considered,” he said.

As it was a local bill, he said it had not undergone a Bill of Rights analysis before its first reading. He said that analysis, and report from the attorney-general, raised clear issues with the proposal.

“It was clear that more information was needed, and a suspension will now be undertaken to respond to the attorney-general’s Bill of Rights analysis and consider other concerns this bill raises,” he said.

“Labour would not have supported the bill further in its current form. The pause allows for the council to work through the options and decide whether the bill could continue in an amended form.”

Rotorua Mayor Steve Chadwick said the council remained committed to introducing Māori wards, but she acknowledged she was unlikely to see this bill through.

“I am retiring in October, I don’t know when the policy work will be completed,” she said.

“If we are outside the parameters of being able to get this through, the Local Government Commission representation model will be the model for the next election.”

Rotorua Mayor Steve Chadwick says the council will pause
Tom Lee/Stuff
Rotorua Mayor Steve Chadwick says the council will pause

That model will see the mayor elected at-large, alongside one Rural Ward councillor, three Māori Ward councillors, and six General Ward councillors.

She said the existence of four at-large seats in the original proposal was overlooked in debate about the bill, and would have ensured the majority of voters elected the majority of councillors.

“We think it is fair, equitable and legal,” she said.

She said the council was working with advisors to address concerns raised in the attorney-general’s report.

Halting work towards progressing this legislation would give officials time to quell Bill of Rights concerns, and also continue public consultation, she said.

“The door is still open. I know my community well, our community is really confused now because they are listening to the responses from so many so-called ‘experts’ and they don’t know who to turn to. Let’s pause, get the policy work done and get the process going again.”

It was a dramatic day at the Rotorua Lakes Council table.

Rotorua district councillor Peter Bentley resigned on the spot and walked out of the council meeting after a dispute with Chadwick about this bill.

Chadwick said it was disappointing to see Bentley leave the meeting.

“You’re elected to take part in robust council meetings, they have been robust, and then vote. He's gone. That’s sad. I like elected members to take part and vote,” she said.

The attorney-general’s analysis raised concerns among Labour MPs who had voted for it at first reading.

Waiariki MP and Māori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi is standing behind the Rotorua District Council bill.
Waiariki MP and Māori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi is standing behind the Rotorua District Council bill.

Waiariki​ MP and Māori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi said he would continue to support the bill.

In a statement, Waititi hit out at Parker’s “caucasity” to criticise the bill and said it was a step towards “equality” at council.

“Pākehā should stay away from using the term ‘discrimination’, especially when it comes to Māori seeking equality when it comes to representation in their own country,” he said.

National Party justice spokesperson​ Paul Goldsmith said Coffey’s announcement was a “significant u-turn” for the Labour Party, which he supported.

He said Labour MPs had been “very enthusiastic” about the bill during its first reading, despite the ACT and National parties raising concerns over its impact on local democracy.