ICC right to reject Māori ward but still faces tricky call over mana whenua seats

Should there be room at the table for mana whenua?
Logan Savory/Stuff
Should there be room at the table for mana whenua?

EDITORIAL: The Invercargill City Council has reacted emphatically and correctly in rejecting the creation of a Māori ward.

The Government’s direction that councils consider these has proven vexing nationwide, the objections generally being to the artificiality of the methodology rather than resistance to the idea that there’s real nutrition to be had from Māori input around the council table.

If the prospect ever had any real air in it as far as the ICC was concerned, it was emphatically deflated by the clear steer from marae consultation – Māori didn’t like the prospect either.

For more than one reason, not the least of which was that unless a widespread and pretty danged complicated ward system was created for the entire city, people voting on the Māori ward would have only that one vote for that one position and no say on the makeup of the rest of the council.

* Māori ward hot topic at Invercargill City Council
* Report suggests Invercargill does not create Māori ward for next election
* Wellington City Council set to establish Māori ward next year

What they did favour, and the council is rightly taking this seriously, is the option of creating mana whenua seats.

In an Invercargill context, Ngāi Tahu has official mana whenua status as custodians of the land. Other iwi down here come under the broader description mātāwaka.

The proposal is for mana whenua seats on each of its committees and on the full council. The representatives would be put forward, not elected by the wider public, and would have full voting rights at committee level, but only speaking rights at the full council.

(Bear in mind, though, that all councillors sit on each of the two main committees, which to date has effectively meant these are where de facto decisions are typically made, and rubber-stamped at full council meetings. So surely, if a mana whenua vote swings a decision at committee level, but evaporates around the full council table, there’s at least a possibility of an overturned decision.)

It’s worth stressing that the council’s Performance, Policy and Partnerships Committee hasn’t instructed its officers to make mana whenua seats happen, but have called for a report to consider the idea in more detail

Deputy electoral officer Michael Morris set out the details – the next step would be to discuss with mana whenua what its aspirations for those seats would be, figuring out a potential framework and perhaps a timeframe. Possibly, but not necessarily, the 2022 elections.

It would be, he said, the start of conversations that would still need to be had.

Quite right, because tricky issues arise, notably that the mana whenua status of Ngāi Tahu not mean mātāwaka are sidelined to the point of irrelevance. Cr Nobby Clark estimated that probably 60 per cent of Southland iwi weren’t mana whenua.

Clark believes the council is jumping ahead of itself; that by rejecting a Māori ward it has conducted the exercise the Government imposed on it, but beyond that it should wait until after the next elections, by which time the results of wider reviews of local government would be known.

But that point was well-enough answered by Cr Ian Pottinger. To decide to get a report is not binding. There is no reason why the question of whether mana whenua representation is a good idea, and how it might work, could not be progressed.

A decision, one way or the other, does lie ahead.