Gisborne is an ‘outlier’ on Māori districts bill, says mayor

Gisborne Mayor Rehette Stoltz says her region is an outlier and should therefore be exempt from the Government’s proposed changes to Māori districts.

Stoltz was one of more than 50 mayors and council presidents across the country who signed a letter criticizing the Government’s proposed Māori ward bill.

He said he signed the letter on behalf of Gisborne District Council because it followed the proper democratic process to create the Māori district.

“We have seen a beautiful contribution around the table from our Māori ward councillors.”

The Government’s proposed bill would mean councils that established Māori districts after 2021 must choose to reverse their decision or hold a binding referendum at their next election.

New Zealand’s local government coordinated the letter, which said the bill was “an overreach into local decision-making.”

Stoltz said Gisborne and nine other councils are “atypical” of the reasoning behind the proposed bill.

Speaking to Local Democracy Reporting, Stoltz said his council carried out extensive community consultations and held public hearings on the introduction of Māori districts in 2020.

“The consultation on Māori neighborhoods received 293 responses, the highest number of submissions compared to previous engagements.

“Of these, 68.4% considered the establishment of Māori neighborhoods in Tairāwhiti valuable, and 67.6% confirmed their desire to see them established.”

As required by law, the council notified the public of its decision and provided voters the opportunity to demand a referendum.

“However, no such demand was received,” he said.

Following a representation review, which included Māori wards, councilors voted to introduce them in the 2022 and 2025 local body elections.

These processes overlapped with the previous government’s legislative changes, which meant that binding elections could not force referendums in Māori districts.

“Gisborne District Council and nine other councils are in a position where we follow the appropriate process,” he said.

Some councils introduced Māori districts after legislation changed and their communities did not have the opportunity to be consulted or hold a referendum, he said. “But this was not the case in Gisborne.”

The letter to the Government also expressed concern that the changes would distract “from the hard work councils are doing to deliver infrastructure and keep costs down for their communities”.

Stoltz said introducing a referendum with the next election would cost the council $7,500 plus GST.

“Let the local people decide,” says the minister

Local Government Minister Simeon Brown said he disagreed with the statement in the letter.

“This government believes in localism and letting local people decide their constitutional arrangements.”

Councils that introduced Māori districts after referendums in which the public supported this decision were not affected by the legislative changes, Brown said.

“All other councils will have to hold referendums.

“South Taranaki, Ruapehu and Gisborne district councils resolved to introduce Māori districts in October and November 2020.

“In February 2021, the Government introduced legislation to deprive communities of a say over Māori districts and removed any right to petition.”

Three months is not enough time for communities to express their opinion in a petition, he said.

Councils that introduced Māori districts under the previous Government’s legislation and voluntarily put their proposals to a referendum would not be affected by the Government’s changes, including Ōpōtiki District Council.

Stoltz questioned why the Government only introduced this legislation for Māori districts and not other districts.

“I think it would be fair if the Government introduced legislation that also included rural districts, or different types of representation, then I would have absolutely no problem with it, but at the moment, it’s just the Māori districts.”

However, Brown said unlike general wards, Māori wards were based on race, rather than where people lived.

The bill passed its first reading in Parliament on Friday.

LDR is local body journalism co-funded by RNZ and NZ On Air.