The Government will abolish a law that allows local referendums to veto decisions by councils to establish Māori wards.
The move will be made in time for the 2022 local body elections, and means decisions made by nine councils to establish Māori wards for that election cannot be overturned by local voters.
The councils are the Kaipara District Council, Gisborne District Council, New Plymouth District Council, Northland Regional Council, Ruapehu District Council, South Taranaki District Council, Taupo District Council, Tauranga District Council, and Whangarei District Council.
The only way Māori wards will not be established for 2022 in those areas is if the council itself resolves to undo its decision.
Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta made the announcement in New Plymouth this afternoon, where the issue has been divisive.
Since 2002, when the law was changed allowing councils to establish Māori wards, 24 councils have attempted to establish them but only two had been successful – Waikato Regional Council and Wairoa District Council. (The Bay of Plenty Regional Council has Maori wards set up under special legislation).
Five per cent of electors can petition for a binding referendum on whether or not the council's decision stands.
Mahuta said the current system had a different set of rules for establishing Māori and general wards "and that uneven playing field needs to change".
"The process of establishing a ward should be the same for both Māori and general wards. These are decisions for democratically elected councils, who are accountable to the public every three years.
"Polls have proven to be an almost insurmountable barrier to councils trying to improve the democratic representation of Māori interests. This process is fundamentally unfair to Māori."
She said increasing Māori representation was essential to ensuring equity in representation and to provide a Māori voice in local decision-making.
"It will also lead to greater Māori participation in the resource management process," Mahuta said.
"We know the importance of diversity around the council table and, as part of the Government's commitment to working to honour Te Tiriti o Waitangi, we need to do our part to enable councils to achieve fair representation.
"Like in Parliamentary elections, specific Māori seats can assist with this."
Legislative reform to Māori wards processes would be passed in two stages over the next three years, she said.
The first stage would make immediate changes to establish transitional measures for the 2022 local elections.
The second stage would develop a permanent mechanism for local authorities to consider the establishment of Māori wards and constituencies.
A public meeting was held in Tauranga last Friday to debate the decision establishing a Māori ward on the city council. It brought together opponents, including former National leader Don Brash speaking for Hobson's Pledge, and leading supporters of the wards, such as Buddy Mikaere, a former director of the Waitangi Tribunal.
Three councils have already resolved to hold a poll alongside the 2022 election, the Far North District Council, Opotiki District Council and Hawkes Bay District Council. Those polls will not now go ahead and the Māori wards will not be established – unless those councils resolve to do so.
The new legislation will extend the deadline for councils to consider Māori wards for the 2022 elections to May 21, this year.
text by Audrey Young, NZ Herald