On behalf of Democracy Northland, I am pleased to talk to the petition that has been delivered to the Whangarei District Council.
Standing behind me today are 5133 people who signed the petition. I take this opportunity to thank them for doing so.
They are part of the more than 15,000 people who signed the petitions, the others being Kairpara District Council and the Northland Regional Council. That’s more than twice the number that voted in the recent NRC by-election.
Let’s be clear about what this petition is calling for. It is calling for a referendum to be held on whether the WDC should have Maori wards. It is NOT a petition for or against Maori wards. It’s calling for a referendum so everyone can have a say on this very important matter.
In our view, a referendum would be the best way to put the pros and cons so the community as a whole can make an informed decision in a rational manner – without shouting, without accusations of racism. A referendum is the best way to deal with controversial issues that divide communities.
I remind councillors that in June 2015 this council held a binding referendum about the Hundertwasser project. There was a forty-nine per cent turnout with 51% voting in favour of the project proceeding.
This issue is about democracy – Whatever the public want is fine with us – but the public should have a say.
We were required to obtain 3080 signatures or 5% of registered voters.
We found overwhelming support for the petition. We stopped collecting three weeks before the close date.
5133 local electors signed the petition, representing 8.3% of registered voters, and support is still coming in.
In my view, the support for the petition would have reached 10% had we continued through to the 24th of February cut-off date.
It is the largest paper petition ever presented to the WDC.
It’s also an “Old school petition”. It was conducted in accordance with the Local Electoral Act that required the name, address and signature on paper. All of the signatories are registered on the local electoral roll, and Council’s Electoral Officer has validated the count.
This old school petition is in contrast to the “activist” online petitions which are typically presented to the council, which are not independently validated.
There are three key “takeaways” from the petition.
1. The public want to be involved in this decision and feel very strongly that they should.
2. Some were also of the view that the need for Maori wards had not been demonstrated and mentioned mayor Semenoff had four terms and Kahu Sutherland was a long-standing councillor and deputy mayor if I remember correctly. The public wants more information, information that has not been provided to them to date.
3. People want to be united by the things we have in common, not divided by our differences and are looking to their councillors to provide that leadership.
This is where we are at now.
The retrospective changes to the Electoral Act rushed through Parliament under urgency have removed the right of veto as it applies to Maori wards – it still applies to a change from FFP to STV voting.
The responsibility to consult with the community now rests entirely with councillors as representatives of the whole community.
It is appropriate that councillors revisit their November decision to introduce Maori wards because the rules have now changed. You now have to make the decision again knowing the right of veto does not exist. There is no backstop.
• 5133 local residents have asked the council to hold a referendum. That call should not be ignored.
• It’s an important decision for long-lasting implications. It’s significant.
• And it’s an issue with high passions with the potential to divide the community.
These are compelling reasons alone for the matter to be put to a referendum.
But there’s a more fundamental reason. In a democracy, the voting system belongs to the electors, not the elected.
It should only be changed when the council has a mandate from electors to do so. That’s why the citizen veto was included in the Local Electoral Act when Maori wards were enabled, and why it still exists when councils decide to change from FPP to STV voting (S29).
In our view, it is significantly more important than the Hundertwasser. And more significant than the fluoridation of drinking water which I read may be put to a referendum.
Surely something as fundamental as the way the community elects its representatives should be put to the community.
This petition is putting to the test what democracy means in our district.