Graham Adams: Nanaia Mahuta and the Māori wards

Graham Adams: Nanaia Mahuta and the Māori wards

The Minister of Local Government has struggled to make her case for a law change under urgency. Graham Adams gives his analysis.


Although veteran MP Nanaia Mahuta undoubtedly has many sterling qualities, the debate over Māori wards shows that a keen sense of irony doesn’t appear to be among them.

The Minister of Local Government — who is pushing the Local Electoral (Māori Wards and Māori Constituencies) Amendment Bill through Parliament under urgency — was part of Helen Clark’s government that passed the law which allowed a binding referendum to be triggered by five per cent of registered electors petitioning to challenge a council decision to establish Māori wards. Not only that, Mahuta spoke in parliamentary debates at that time in favour of the law.

National MP Nick Smith, who has been in Parliament since 1990, questioned Mahuta last Tuesday about her radical repositioning. As he told the House: “The law that puts in place the referendum on Māori wards was passed in 2002 by a Labour government. Nanaia Mahuta spoke in the third reading, strongly supporting the law that she today says is racist. So I say to the Minister: ‘How can a member in one breath, in one speech to the House, say this is great law and then come round a number of years later and say it’s racist law?’…

“If it is a racist law, she should have the courage of her convictions, stand up in this Parliament, and apologise for the previous Labour government, of which she was a part, for passing it.”

Such conundrums don’t appear to worry Mahuta. Her explanation of her shift seems effectively to be that the 2002 law allowed voters to vote the “wrong way” — ie, against the creation of separate Māori wards — so the law needs to change.

Alarming lurches in logic don’t appear to worry her either. In introducing the bill this week, she asserted she was “not thwarting any democratic process” because “this is a debate that has been around for a very long time.”

This is a spectacular non sequitur. Many contentious issues have “been around for a very long time” but principled governments wanting to legislate on them observe democratic conventions rather than ramming legislation through Parliament under urgency.

They certainly don’t condense select committee oversight from the usual six months to less than a week — and especially not when it involves electoral law. Or, for that matter, allow less than 48 hours for public submissions to be made.

Even Mahuta’s expert advice from her own department, Internal Affairs, noted in its Regulatory Impact Assessment of the bill: “Changes to democratic processes for local government should be accompanied by an opportunity for consultation with the general public, and in this case, specific consultation with local authorities (elected members and staff), electoral officers, and iwi/Māori.

“This view was endorsed by the Ministry of Justice because of the constitutional nature of electoral processes. This consultation has not been possible within the timeframes.”

To add insult to democratic injury, Labour didn’t campaign on changing the law on Māori wards and it didn’t appear in its manifesto. In fact, the manifesto promised the exact opposite: “Labour will ensure that major decisions about local democracy involve full participation of the local population from the outset.”

National MP Simon Bridges summed up the situation succinctly in Parliament: “A bill that’s anti-democratic, that’s passed in urgency, that’s done retrospectively, and that’s done without a skerrick of a campaign promise.”

Everyone knows that, with Labour’s outright majority in Parliament, there is no chance of the law not passing. Nevertheless, the public deserves its say — not least because a law that has been throughly debated in public is more likely to be accepted as just or, at least, carefully considered.

This is particularly true of law changes that concern electoral processes, which are the bedrock of any democracy.

Abuse of democratic process quickly erodes trust in democracy and the institutions of government itself — as became very obvious during former US President Donald Trump’s term of office. And it’s hard not to think that many of those who are cheering on Mahuta’s determination to ram the bill through Parliament would have been outraged when Trump tried to bend constitutional convention to his own ends in a similar manner.

Mahuta seems oblivious to these dangers — or the hypocrisy as Foreign Minister of condemning the recent coup in Myanmar and demanding the Southeast Asian nation observe democratic principles, while subverting democratic convention in New Zealand as Minister for Local Government.

The government knows the establishment of Māori wards is not popular. And it seems likely that it didn’t broadcast its intentions to change the law before the election because Labour’s strategists knew such a move would face strong opposition and likely dent the party’s vote.

In particular, it no doubt preferred not to give Winston Peters any traction that might have helped NZ First get over the five per cent threshold and once again hold the balance of power.

Nevertheless, Mahuta made the preposterous claim in Parliament that only a small minority oppose a law change: “There are some really strong views in some parts of our community, who do not want to see Māori wards and constituencies in their area. But I hazard a guess that it’s a small part of those communities, because there is much more openness to ensuring greater inclusion and participation in local democracy than ever before.”

However, if opposition to a law change were indeed “confined to a small part of those communities” as she claims, the government could have happily campaigned on the topic and included it in its election manifesto, confident that opponents would have had negligible effect on the election result.

And Mahuta’s statement is hard to square with the evidence. In 2018, Māori wards were rejected by more than 70 per cent of voters in Western Bay of Plenty and Manawatu, with Palmerston North recording 68 per cent against, Whakatāne, 56 per cent, and Kaikōura 55 per cent.

Mahuta, it would appear, is “hazarding a guess” that doesn’t tally with the government’s sly actions or the evidence available from referendums.

In fact, even her grip on the law she is intent on changing seems very shaky — as shown by her incoherent reply to a question put to her by Nick Smith in Parliament on Wednesday:

Smith: “Does the government expect councils to respect ballot-box decisions where communities have recently voted against creating separate Māori wards; if not, why not?”

Mahuta replied: “The ballot-box decision that electors make every three years, which is to choose their leaders of council, to choose their councillors, is overturned by a five per cent discriminatory provision. Even if those councillors around the table who have been elected to represent their region want Māori wards, it can be overturned by a five per cent poll, and that’s discriminatory. We need to even up the playing field.”

Her assertions are completely untrue. Councillors can’t be thrown out by a “5 per cent discriminatory provision”.

And the process of overturning a council decision setting up a Māori ward only begins with at least five per cent of voters petitioning for a binding referendum. It then requires a majority of participating electors to vote against a Māori ward being established for the veto to be effective.

That the Minister of Local Government doesn’t appear to understand these basic facts — or at the very least can’t articulate them coherently under questioning in Parliament — is worrying.

Mahuta is starting to look like a gift to National and Act. At number nine in Ardern’s Cabinet line-up, and holding the prestigious portfolio of Foreign Affairs alongside Local Government, she is shaping up to be a sitting duck for sustained Opposition fire.


Graham Adams is a journalist, columnist and reviewer who has written for many of the country’s media outlets including Metro, North & South, Noted, The Spinoff and Newsroom

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.