Professor Jack Vowles puts paid to the claim Māori wards are unnecessary because Māori are proportionally represented in local government.
The Government is passing legislation to allow local and regional government councils to establish Māori wards if they so wish, by removing the right for the public to petition for a referendum that might overrule the council’s decision. Criticism has emerged of the decision on several themes. One particularly pertinent claim is that Māori wards are unnecessary because Māori representation in local government elected office is now very close to the proportion of Māori in the adult population.
This claim can be refuted on two grounds. First, the usual basis of estimating representation ratios for general elections is the total population. The principle is that elected officials represent not just adults but also their children, whose interests their parents also represent, because current policy choices affect the future as well as the present. On this basis, those who identify as Māori in the total population are a higher proportion: 16.5 percent in 2018. So it is untrue to claim that those who identify as Māori are proportionally represented in local government: using this data, there is still a gap.
Second, the data cited that estimates Māori representation at 13.5 percent almost certainly comes from Local Government New Zealand’s (LGNZ) post-election survey of elected members. This survey has a response rate of about 50 percent. The survey covered all those elected to local government, including 701 members of community boards, 777 territorial authorities and 127 regional councils. The data therefore includes many members of community boards unlikely to be affected by the law change.
There is an alternative and better source of data. My research (in conjunction with Professor Janine Hayward at the University of Otago) into the characteristics of candidates for territorial local authorities (TLAs), both successful and unsuccessful, has matched electoral roll data to candidates of Māori descent and location on the Māori roll. This captures almost all who stood and were elected, almost entirely overcoming any problems of non-response. It also captures the distinction between Māori on the general and Māori rolls, and of course Māori wards will be based on the latter.
Here the evidence is clear: people on the Māori roll in 2019 were 7.5 percent of all voters on both rolls, but were only 5.7 percent of those elected to TLAs: on the bright side, this was an increase from the 4.9 percent elected in 2016. But there is a significant gap, even on the basis of the total enrolled adult Māori population (in which Māori may be slightly under-represented as well). Because our data contains unsuccessful candidates, we can identify one reason for Māori under-representation. High rates of nomination among Māori candidates may lead to a consequent dilution of Māori votes among Māori candidates. Simply arguing that ‘more Māori should stand’ turns out to be unhelpful and counter-productive.
The representation gap is even bigger when we consult New Zealand Electoral Commission data that tells us a ‘total population’ estimate for the entire Māori roll in 2020 was just over 10 percent of the population. This is how all electoral boundaries are calculated, including setting the number of Māori electorates for general elections. On that basis, Māori who choose the Māori electoral roll are even more under-represented in TLAs, the most powerful units of New Zealand local government. And the establishment of Māori wards, where deemed appropriate by councils, should address that problem.
Professor Jack Vowles is in the Political Science and International Relations programme at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.
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