Bryce Edwards: A polarising co-governance decision for Parliament

Bryce Edwards: A polarising co-governance decision for Parliament

Co-governance is currently the most polarising issue in New Zealand politics. There’s something of a culture war over the concept of giving Māori voters or leaders a mandated equal political influence in public affairs. It’s an issue that has the potential to be socially explosive as plans are being developed and debated for how far the co-governance concept should be introduced in different areas of public life.

The co-governance issue of the day is whether local government elections could be altered so voters on the Māori electoral roll have the power to elect exactly the same number of councillors as those on the general role. The council in question is the Rotorua District Council, which has asked Parliament to give it legislative permission to introduce a new system for this year’s elections, allowing voters on the Māori and general rolls to elect three councillors each.

Critics point out that there are 22,000 voters on the Māori roll in Rotorua and 56,000 voters on the general roll, and that means voters on the Māori roll will have 2.5 times the electoral power as voters on the general roll.

The changes being sought by the Rotorua District Council are justified in terms of the Treaty of Waitangi as well as the local Rotorua Township (Fenton) Agreement, in which parts of the land Rotorua sits on were gifted by local Ngāti Whakaue to the public with the expectation of “an equal relationship”. More specifically, an equal number of councillors is being justified on the basis of the co-governance model of equal partnership, and the concept of “parity” between voters on the Māori roll and voters on the general roll.

The council’s “leadership and democracy” deputy chief executive Oonagh Hopkins has advised that a scenario in which voters on the general roll elected more councillors than those on Māori roll would not constitute the “parity” desired by the council. When a different voting system was proposed for Rotorua, Hopkins advised: “This outcome may be seen as unfair to Māori, as it reduces the influence [of] those voters on the Māori Ward roll… which is contrary to the concept of parity.”

The fraught process of bringing in co-governance for Rotorua

There hasn’t been any significant consultation with the Rotorua public as a whole on the intention to bring in the new co-governance voter system, apart from with local iwi and hapū. Certainly, no local referendum has been proposed on this significant political change.

Instead, the decision whether to allow the council to go down the co-governance path is entirely a decision for Parliament. Without a law change, Rotorua’s new model would be illegal, as electoral wards must be approximately the same size according to the Local Electoral Act.

The local council has therefore put together a piece of legislation, The Rotorua District Council (Representation Arrangements) Bill, which the Government is currently pushing through Parliament. Labour supports the bill, and it’s been shepherded through by list MP Tamati Coffey.

Although such bills would normally be considered in Parliament by the Governance and Administration select committee (which deals with local government issues), in this case it’s been sent to the Māori Affairs select committee, which normally looks at issues such as Treaty of Waitangi negotiations. This is chaired by Coffey and has a majority of Labour MPs.

The committee decided to truncate the usual six-week public consultation period to just two weeks – including the Easter break. And the period for public submissions closed last night at midnight.

The passage of the bill has so far been supported by a majority of 77 to 43 in its first reading in Parliament, with Labour, the Greens and the Māori Party in support, and National and Act against.

Meanwhile, the Local Government Commission has stepped in with an alternative, proposing that Rotorua have a Māori ward electing three councillors, a general ward electing six, and a rural ward electing one. While this satisfies those who want to see three Māori councillors elected by voters on the Māori roll, because there will be the larger number of six councillors elected by voters on the general roll it disappoints those who say a “partnership approach” warrants that these be equal in number.

Opposition to the new model

After a period in which there has been very little media coverage of this co-governance issue, opposition to the change appears to be building.

A sign of where things might be going can be seen in liberal Māori political commentator Morgan Godfery coming out against the proposed law, effectively siding with National and Act. Last night, just before submissions on the bill closed, Godfery tweeted: “In general, I support Māori wards, but this Bill is so disproportionate in pursuit of its apparent aim that I can’t support it. Parliament should probably vote it down”.

Public law expert Graeme Edgeler wrote yesterday that the bill is entirely unnecessary in terms of bringing about greater Māori representation on the Rotorua District Council, and that the “Council’s rationale for the bill is non-sensical”, and the effect of the law change is “profoundly contrary to established democratic principles”. He concludes that “the bill is bad, and should not pass”. Furthermore, he admonishes the process that Parliament is using for the bill: “The bill represents so important a change to the democratic underpinnings of our local electoral system that it should not be rushed”.

Democratic issues at stake

The fraught issue of the Rotorua bill is important to the overall co-governance debate, as it raises questions about principles of democracy and social cohesion. After all, it’s long been a core value of democracy that votes should be of equal value. As some have pointed out, this is even a key part of the Labour Party’s own constitution, which states: “All political authority comes from the people by democratic means including universal suffrage, regular and free elections with a secret ballot.”

The value of democracy and whether it should be subsumed by other priorities has therefore become a key part of the debate. In Parliament, Tamati Coffey introduced the bill two weeks ago and dealt with this head-on in a paragraph that is worth reading in full:

“There’s lots of kōrero and lots of calls for democracy, because, actually, people across New Zealand have become really wedded to this idea of democracy being one way. Can I say to the people of New Zealand and all of those people that are listening to this that are thinking about putting in submissions: democracy, at its very fundamental, is Greek. The parliamentary process that we partake in right here, that we’ve cut and pasted for our Chamber, right here, is actually English; this is from a Westminster system. There is nothing to preclude us being able to tweak democracy to make it work for us here in Aotearoa.”

The idea of “tweaking democracy” is obviously something of an understatement, but at least Coffey makes clear his orientation to democratic values, and the right to tino rangatiratanga for Māori.

He also makes it clear that the change is about “partnership” and the co-governance project: “This is partnership. This is what we want. This is what Māori have always wanted… It’s part of a larger conversation, because there are councils all around the country right now that are talking about the idea of co-governance. It’s a very important kaupapa.”

Te Pāti Māori’s co-leader Rawiri Waititi has also strongly backed this, saying it aligned with “moves towards a more Tiriti-centric approach”. He suggested that opposition to the bill was from those who were simply “afraid” of allowing Māori voices in power. He accused National and Act of putting forward “racist rhetoric and scaremongering propaganda of co-governance.”

The Greens have also supported the law change, with MP Eugenie Sage stating that it would provide for much more equitable governance and representation.

The Rotorua co-governance model could be extended to other local and national elections

The idea of Māori roll voter “parity” is only being considered for the Rotorua District Council. But Graham Adams writes today that the law change could “provide a precedent for other council elections throughout New Zealand. And perhaps ultimately for Parliament as well”.

Regardless of how far this version of co-governance advances, there is no doubt that it will eventually have a negative impact on social cohesion. That obviously isn’t the intention of the Rotorua District Council or the parties pushing this through Parliament, but in many ways, it looks set to provoke something of a culture war backlash in those who feel this erodes important democratic rights and principles.


Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

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

Further reading today on local government co-governance

Graham Adams (The Platform): Ardern struggles to defend unequal suffrage
Graeme Edgeler (Public Address): The local bill to remove equal suffrage
Paul Goldsmith (Herald): Stop casually changing our constitution (paywalled)
Brigitte Morten (NBR): Is our lawmaking getting scrutiny it deserves under Labour?(paywalled)


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