12 Sep 2016

Māori representation treated with caution

7:14 am on 12 September 2016

Māori representation has become a virtual no-go area for those vying for public office in New Plymouth.

New Plymouth mayor Andrew Judd is embraced by Parihaka elder Te Whero o te Rangi Bailey after the peace hikoi entered Parihaka.

Andrew Judd, right, is embraced by Parihaka elder Te Whero o te Rangi Bailey after the peace hikoi entered Parihaka in June this year. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

When departing mayor Andrew Judd revealed earlier this year he had been spat at and abused in the street for supporting a Māori ward, he touched a raw nerve. In June Mr Judd, who called himself a "recovering racist", led a peace hikoi onto Parihaka.

But three months on you could be forgiven for believing the issue of Māori representation on council or creating a better partnership between Māori and Pākehā had gone away completely.

Richard Handley said there was a very strong backlash from the community after Māori ward discussions last year.

Richard Handley said there was a very strong backlash from the community after Māori ward discussions last year. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

First-term councillor Richard Handley, who favoured a Māori ward but missed the vote, is one of the frontrunners for the mayoral chains this time around.

Mr Handley reckons candidates are deliberately not revealing their hands.

"The result of the Māori ward discussions last year was a very strong backlash from the community and I think there is a general caution that that may occur again if it was raised.

"So I think candidates are being careful. They're willing to discuss it, but they are sensitive about how some components of our community may respond."

Mr Handley said his preference was for the re-establishment of a Māori committee with a clear directive about its responsibilities.

Heather Dodunski voted for a Māori ward, but believed people had now moved on.

Heather Dodunski voted for a Māori ward, but believes people have now moved on. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

His main rival for the top job, deputy mayor Heather Dodunski, voted for a Māori ward, but believes people have now moved on.

"Well I think we just need to recognise that we did have the debate around the Māori ward and that it did divide our community in some ways but now that's been sorted.

"It's been debated, it's been consulted on, it's been voted on so it's a thing that will not resurface for another three or four years."

Bill Simpson did not support the formation of a Māori ward.

Bill Simpson did not support the formation of a Māori ward. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Waitara community board member Bill Simpson is one of two Māori candidates competing for the mayoralty, the other being Araukuuku hapu chairman Clive Tongaawhikau.

Mr Simpson did not support the formation of a Māori ward but said the issue had not gone away.

"I think they feel as if they got burnt, that the community put them in their place and they think they are going to get embarrassed because of it.

"But let's make one point very very clear, Māori are not going to go away, iwi are not going to go away, hapu are not going to go away. We're going to be here forever. We've been here for 160 years and were going to still remain here. What Māori want is a true partnership and it has never happened in New Plymouth."

Mr Simpson's preference is for a statutory Māori board, but he said its structure and role must be iwi-led.

As incumbent councillors, Ms Dodunski and Mr Handley are privy to discussions between the council and the iwi chairs' group designed to find a way forward.

Ms Dodunski said this approach held the best hope of finding common ground.

"We are looking at all sorts of ways of doing that but it's together. It's not one of us looking at one way and the other at another.

"We're working together through workshopping. I think that's the important thing, that we are not springing surprises on one another."

Taranaki iwi trust chair Toka Walden

Toka Walden said changes to the Local Government Act would be crucial to finding a long-term solution to Māori representation. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Chairman of the Taranaki iwi's post settlement, Toka Walden, said it was a worry that candidates were not discussing the issue of Māori representation more openly.

"I think they're trying to save their own backsides to be honest. It's going to be really critical for the whoever is in the leadership role that they do make a firm commitment to addressing this situation rather than just letting it, you know, just fall away."

Mr Walden said changes to the Local Government Act that would allow Māori a place at the decision making table would be crucial to finding a long-term solution to Māori representation.