While 2009 saw some positive signs for the state of the Treaty of Waitangi relationship, it is difficult to see the Government’s refusal to create Māori seats on the new Auckland ‘super-city’ council as anything but detrimental to the Treaty partnership.
The Royal Commission on Auckland Governance had recommended that three seats on the new Auckland Council be set aside for Māori. Two of these seats, the Commission recommended, should be set aside for general representation of Māori in Auckland and one seat should be set aside for a representative of mana whenua (tribal groups who traditionally held local authority in the area). The Commission took the view that, while the two general seats should be elected by those who choose to vote on the Māori electoral roll, the mana whenua seat should be appointed by a pan-tribal leadership group in accordance with a formalised process to be developed by mana whenua tribes themselves. The Commission explicitly states that the primary objective of these recommendations is to give effect to obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi.
Despite a large number of submission advocating Māori representation on the new council, the Select Committee Report on the Local Government (Auckland Council) Bill recommended that no seats on the council be specifically set aside for Māori representation. Labour, the Green Party, and the Māori Party each expressed minority views within the Select Committee report. Each of those minority views supported the Royal Commission’s finding that there should be provision for Māori representation on the new Council. The Government majority on the Select Committee decided that, because the Local Government Act 2002 provides a process by which local councils can establish Māori seats, this was a matter best left to the new Auckland Council to address. Furthermore, they contended that Māori representation was not an issue that was specific to Auckland and, therefore, should not be dealt with in an Auckland-specific piece of legislation. The majority report did not even address the Treaty obligations raised in the Royal Commission’s report.
As some commentators have pointed out, it is difficult to see how the Government’s decision to not provide for specific Māori representation as part of these hugely significant reforms can be consistent with the principles of the Treaty. When this decision is taken in the face of the Royal Commission’s recommendations to the contrary, and numerous submissions and significant protest action opposing the Government’s decision, this must be damaging to the Treaty partnership.
In 1994, the Waitangi Tribunal found, albeit in the rather more fundamental context of Parliamentary representation, that:
The Maori seats have come to be regarded by many Maori as the principal expression of their constitutional position in New Zealand. They have been seen by Maori as an exercise, be it a limited one, of their tino rangatiratanga guaranteed to them under the Treaty of Waitangi.
Although that statement related to the Māori seats in Parliament, it is no great stretch to understand that Māori representation on the new Auckland Council is an issue that is also bound up with the Treaty partnership. The Royal Commission recognised that. Yet, without offering any argument to the contrary, the Government refuses to do so.