A bill to enshrine permanent Māori representation on Environment Canterbury (ECan), Canterbury's regional council, looks to pass shortly, after it was returned from select committee with minor changes.
The bill would mean up to two members of the council would be appointed by Ngāi Tahu, the iwi in that council's rohe, beginning with the local body elections this year.
The bill specifies that these members have the same rights and remuneration as elected councillors.
National opposes the move, which is a local bill and sponsored by Labour's Rino Tirikatene, the MP for Te Tai Tonga, the local electorate.
The proposal came about in the wake of the crisis that befell ECan following the previous National government's decision to appoint commissioners to the council and temporarily abolish local democracy.
The initial legislation abolishing local democracy required the commissioners to "collectively have knowledge of, and expertise in relation to, tikanga Māori as it applies in the Canterbury region", according to the select committee report.
A separate piece of legislation from 2016, which provided for ECan to transition back to a fully elected council set out a process for two representatives to be recommended by Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu and appointed to ECan.
That piece of legislation was itself repealed, and now ECan is elected along the lines of other councils.
ECan, however, wanted to keep the two Ngāi Tahu appointees, arguing that they helped meet the councils obligations under the Local Government Act and the Resource Management Act.
It was unable to do this after the 2016 legislation was repealed and the council returned to being fully democratic.
Ngāi Tahu, the only iwi with mana whenua throughout the region was also keen to keep the appointments - and preferred the idea of appointing members, over elected Māori wards. Instead, in the current local government term, the council has relied on Ngāi Tahu members observing its work and consulting.
The council sought to have a local bill establishing the appointees in the last parliamentary term, but NZ First joined National in voting it down at first reading.
The bill has come back again in this Parliament and looks set to pass with Labour and Green support.
The only significant change to the bill recommended by the committee would be to expand the total membership of ECan to 16 representatives, above the 14 who sit on the council currently.
This would mean Ngāi Tahu appointees do not come at the expense of elected members.
National produced a minority report, setting out its opposing view.
National said the appointments had "no voting or other democratic input from the people of Canterbury".
"This is not a Māori ward, allocated proportionately to the population. It is an appointment by an independent entity," National said.
National said the appointments undercut equal voting rights and meant the two representatives would be less accountable than the rest of the council.
"[F]undamental to our system is the ability to remove elected representatives at the next election; that is the bedrock of accountability in our democracy. But it would not apply under this bill, because the representatives of Ngāi Tahu could not be made accountable for decision-making input in this way," National wrote in the minority report to the committee.
The bill will inevitably draw comparisons with a local bill from Rotorua, which sought to increase Māori representation through disproportionate wards.
That bill received a fairly scathing vetting from Attorney-General David Parker saying its representative arrangements were inconsistent with the Bill of Rights.
Crown Law advice to Parker on ECan's bill said the bill "proposes to confer rights on Māori that are not conferred on other people", and that the bill could "therefore be seen to draw distinctions on the basis of race or ethnic origins".
However, Crown law also said "the extent to which the distinctions reflect the status of Māori as the Crown's Treaty partner, and the Crown's duties under Te Tiriti o Waitangi, we do not consider any other group is in a comparable position.
Crown law advised this meant it did not breach the Bill of Rights.
Tirikatene said Labour would continue to support the bill until it passed.
"We supported the bill right from its introduction," he said.
He said this was "quite different" to the bill from Rotorua.
"It is a long time in the making. There's a lot of thought given to the drafting of it. We received a positive Bill of Rights assessment," Tirikatene said.
"This is a unique situation where you have a single iwi which has already appointed councillors and it's just seeking to reinstate that arrangement for a single geographic area," he said.
Tirikatene noted that National's support came with a dash of irony, given National had created the appointees in the first place under the earlier, temporary legislation.
National's justice spokesman Paul Goldsmith said the bill represented a "significant shift away from two principles: equal suffrage and accountability at the ballot box".
"They're significant elements of democracy as we know it. To change this as the basis of supporting a local bill without any proper discussion is quite inappropriate," he said.
Goldsmith disputed Tirikatene's allegation, saying that while National had created temporary appointees to the council, they were accountable because the electorate could have voted National out if it did not like them.
"Yes we decided to have some representatives from Ngāi Tahu and if the people didn't like that decision they could throw us out," he said.
- by Thomas Coughlan, NZ Herald