De Bres defends call for Maori council wards

Updated at 7:38 pm on 21 May 2012

Race Relations Commissioner Joris de Bres is defending his call - in the wake of two councils blocking Maori electoral wards - for a law change to make Maori seats on councils a right, rather than leaving it to the public to decide.

After a proposal to establish Maori wards in Nelson and Wairoa were voted down by the public, Mr de Bres says that he will be lobbying for a law change during a review of the New Zealand constitution.

That comment drew fire from the Nelson MP, Nick Smith, who says Mr de Bres is going beyond his brief telling New Zealanders what representation models work best for them.

But Mr de Bres says Maori representation on local authorities is already part of his brief through the reports he's written and discussions he's had with regional authorities and tangata whenua.

He did a case study on the Bay of Plenty Regional Council example and talked to Maori and Pakeha councillors about the subject, wrote a report about that, and has been in touch with all councils.

Mr de Bres says he respects Dr Smith's comments but the issue of Maori representation is an important part of his work and is an entirely appropriate topic for him to raise.

Voters reject wards

On Saturday 79% of Nelson voters rejected a proposal to establish a Maori ward - even though the city council itself supported the move, and Wairoa District Council was blocked from introducing Maori wards even though its electoral roll includes one of the nation's highest percentages of Maori.

Though 46% of the electoral population in the Wairoa district are Maori - one of the nation's highest percentages of Maori voters on council rolls - that poll closed on Saturday with 52% of voters opposed the use of Maori wards.

In May last year the Wairoa council considered the first of two reports which provided background information on the establishment of Maori wards.

It then held five public meetings and mailed residents a discussion document on the issue, and an informal opinion survey for them to fill in.

When 62% of those who responded voted against introducing Maori wards, the council agreed not to hold a poll on the issue, until local government elections in October next year.

But in March the administration manager received a petition signed by more than the required 5% of register voters, demanding a poll be held as soon as possible.

Wairoa's council electoral officer James Baty says the result of the poll in which 2500 people voted, means the number of councillors and wards there will remain until after the 2016 elections.

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