Ngāi Tahu gains right to appoint 2 Environment Canterbury councillors

Source: Radio New Zealand

Ngāi Tahu will get guaranteed representation and decision-making powers on the Canterbury regional council.

Te Tai Tonga MP Rino Tirikatene. (Source: Phil Smith)

By Giles Dexter of Rnz

A bill ensuring two Ngāi Tahu members sit on the council passed its third reading in Parliament on Wednesday night.

As the bill was passed, waiata and haka rang out across the House from the public gallery.

Some 40 representatives of Ngāi Tahu, including kaumātua Tā Tipene O'Regan, were at Parliament to celebrate.

The Canterbury Regional Council (Ngāi Tahu Representation) Bill means the iwi's rūnanga can appoint two councillors with full voting rights to the council.

"This is us finally being at the table and finally being able to be part of the decision-making," said Liz Brown, who co-chairs the Te Rōpū Tuia collective, which represents the 10 Papatipu Rūnanga within the regional council's boundaries.

New Zealander of the Year Tā Tipene O'Regan was at Parliament to watch the bill's passage.

In 2010, the National Party replaced the regional council with commissioners.

Six years later, the council moved to a "transitional governance arrangement," which included two members appointed on the recommendation of Ngāi Tahu.

That was repealed in 2019.

Te Tai Tonga MP Rino Tirikatene brought the bill to Parliament at the request of Ngāi Tahu and the council, to reinstate that representation.

He told Parliament the bill recognised Ngāi Tahu's mana and rangatiratanga.

"Ngāi Tahu are entitled to this representation. They're entitled to this representation because that is the promise of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and this is a modern-day expression of that promise," he said.

The council, known as Environment Canterbury, currently has two mana whenua experts, or Tumu Taiao, but they can only offer advice.

Its chair Jennie Hughey said the bill gave a voice to people who have been alienated from decision making.

"That's going to empower not only mana whenua, but all the councillors round the table in our community to make much better decisions, at a time when frankly, we're facing planetary overshoot on every criteria you want to name."

Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said Ngāi Tahu has looked after the region through multiple crises and deserved the representation.

"Whether it be Covid, whether we've had earthquakes, I think that's the respect that should be shown. They are mana whenua and that's how they deserve to be treated in this process.

"They will be one of the first there for every crisis and every clean-up and for every critical strategic decision that needs to be made, and that involves investment as well."

The legislation has the support of the Christchurch, Selwyn, and Hurunui District Councils, and Crown Law advised it does not breach the Bill of Rights.

National slams bill

National's justice spokesperson Paul Goldsmith was furious, calling the bill anti-democratic.

While the 14 councillors will be voted in or out at each local election, the two Ngāi Tahu representatives are not bound by the same ballot.

Goldsmith said the Government was undermining the basic principles that all New Zealanders have equal voting rights and accountability at the ballot box.

"That's a very big and fundamental thing to actually explain to New Zealanders: why they think equal voting rights for all New Zealanders is no longer appropriate, and why they think that basic accountability measure in New Zealand politics, which is to say every three years you can be thrown out if you're not up to scratch, why that basic discipline is being abandoned for those two council seats."

Brown said she was disappointed, but not surprised by National's rhetoric.

"There's still a significant lack of understanding and knowledge across a number of people in Aotearoa. There's an opportunity to educate people, and I look at the positive side of it that through education, people's understanding grows."

She said the process to elect the two councillors will be robust, and with 74,000 Ngāi Tahu members to answer to, there'll be far more accountability.

"As an iwi member, and as a representative of iwi and of whānau, every single conversation that you have with a whānau member, you're held to account. You'll be asked 'how did you vote,' 'what perspectives are you bringing to it?'"

The legislation is unique and bespoke to Canterbury.

Labour MP Tāmati Coffey has put out a pānui to other iwi.

"Ngāi Tahu have opened the door. And for that reason, all of those iwi out there that are struggling with how representation works for them in their rohe, I hope that they're understanding that this is a potential pathway," he told Parliament.

The potential pathway could be a rocky one. National's already pledged to repeal the legislation if it takes power next year.