50 mayors and presidents criticize changes to the government’s Maori districts

Fifty mayors and regional council chairs have written a letter to the Government, criticizing its bill that would require councils to hold referendums on Māori districts established without a local vote.

The letter, obtained exclusively by 1News political editor Maiki Sherman, argues that the legislation is “an overreach into local decision-making” and “a distraction from the hard work” city councils are doing.

Additionally, mayors and regional council chairs say they are “disappointed” by the bill and suggest it “undermines the important contributions Māori are making”.

The signatories represent two-thirds of local council leaders, as the Government’s bill to reintroduce the right to local referendums in Māori districts is to be debated in Parliament.

Palmerston North mayor Grant Smith said the coalition’s move was a distraction when there are “more important things to worry about with local government”.

“There is water. There is infrastructure. There are funding issues. This is a big distraction.”

He said: “It’s an overreach and I think there’s nothing local about this.”

Local Government Minister Simeon Brown last month announced a bill restoring the ability of communities to hold referendums in Māori districts.

Smith added: “My plea to the Prime Minister is that it could be a coalition deal, but it’s not worth fighting for. Māori won’t give up and neither will local communities.”

The previous Labor government passed legislation allowing local councils to make the final decision on whether to establish Māori districts in their city or district.

The law change removed a provision that previously allowed local communities to veto Māori districts by holding a referendum. Before that provision was removed, 24 councils attempted to establish Māori districts, but only three were successful.

Restoring the right to local referendums on the establishment of Māori districts was a commitment under ACT and NZ First’s coalition agreements with National.

Last month, Local Government Minister Simeon Brown said councils establishing non-referendum districts would have to hold binding elections in 2025. The bill to reintroduce the right to referendums will have its first reading in Parliament tomorrow.

Simeon Brown (file image).

The mayors’ letter maintains that referendums are not necessary in other local representation decisions, such as the establishment of rural districts, and that councils already seek community input.

Central Otago Mayor Tim Cadogan told 1News that while some mayors had not signed because of the adjustment, the letter represents a “very strong statement” against the bill.

“I just don’t understand why this is a separate issue, when things like a rural district or other decisions we might make aren’t put to a vote in a referendum,” he said.

“Until they have explained to me why Māori neighborhoods are separate and other similar decisions made locally are not questionable in this way, I will continue to oppose them.”

However, the Government has stood firm on the letter.

Winston Peters, Christopher Luxon and David Seymour at the announcement of the coalition agreement.

Asked about the signatories, Simeon Brown said it was a “fundamental decision about how councils should be set up”.

“The Government is restoring democracy,” he said.

“This is a fundamental decision about how councils should be set up, how those districts should be allocated. And we think voters should be able to determine whether there should be Māori districts or not. Not just the council.”

Maori neighborhoods in councils.  Composition image by Vania Chandrawidjaja (Source: Getty/1News)

Deputy Prime Minister and NZ First leader Winston Peters defended the legislation.

“We campaigned on it: that this democracy should be equal.”

ACT leader David Seymour said Kiwis already made up their minds when they voted last year.

“The people of New Zealand have voted. Many more people than voted for any mayor have voted for a government that is now changing those laws.”

The letter was sent to the Prime Minister, the Minister of Maori Development and the leaders of the coalition parties, on the letterhead of the highest body of Local Government of New Zealand (LGNZ).

Of the 52 signatories, 44 are mayors, eight are regional council chairs and two councilors are chairs of the LGNZ Māori elected members sub-committee.

There are 78 territorial, regional and unitary councils in New Zealand.