top of page

Jane Luiten, Historian

At a recent Historic Places Trust Whare Kōrero, historian Jane Luiten gave a historical context to the discussion currently taking place in our community about Maori representation.

“Local Government has been an important tool of colonisation” she says, “and in making our local government more inclusive it is necessary to look at that legacy of colonisation”.

“Making a new home in a new place or making yourself at home in a new place takes a lot of energy and effort and it comes with hopes and dreams. In the case of colonisation of Aotearoa it comes with a flip side of dislocation and dispossession and pain” she began.

When Jane went to university and discovered New Zealand history she was hooked. Much of her life has been researching Treaty claims that have been brought to the Waitangi Tribunal - about acts and omissions of the Crown that breached the Treaty. Jane has researched local government both on the East Coast and the King Country and her basic premise is that local government has been a very important tool of colonisation.

“It’s not that it's just been applied wherever Pākeha settlement has gone, which it has, but it has within it an internal combustion engine which projects and propels Pākeha settlement to every forgotten valley in the country. It has done this and there has never been any role for Māori to include Māori interests, with very adverse impacts on communities … and it’s time to change that.”

Jane says that “the reason it hasn’t included Māori is because the policy of the government since the Treaty was signed has been one of assimilation.” The presumption with local government is that you can be involved if you function just the same way Pākeha do – and Māori have not.

“A longstanding Pākeha myth is that colonisation in New Zealand was done nicely. There have not been any colour bars in our legislation about what people can and can’t do. But we don’t need [colour bars] because there has been structural discrimination which has excluded people.”

“It’s time we have a system that includes everybody’s interests - that’s where I am coming from,” says Jane.


Local government is a delegated power to carry out prescribed functions and public works a community needs. There is an annually recurring direct taxation on property, which pays for the public works - as most of us know, these are called rates.

The council is empowered to borrow money to top up what they get from rates to get the works that we need done. “Why is something so boring, so crucial to colonisation and actually so interesting?” Jane asked the crowd of 45. “Because it’s actually the busy fingers of colonisation. This is where the rubber hits the road.”

Civilisation as we know it depends on the productive utilisation of land. Roads are vital to that. to enable the development of farms, and to get produce to the market. It was the County function to build these roads and because it was the farmers who were on the county council, rural local government was largely preoccupied with roads and bridges.


For the first 35 years after the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand was run as six provinces. Auckland Province included everything from Taupo north, including Poverty Bay, but the electorates were drawn from areas of significant Pākeha population: Auckland city, suburbs of Auckland, pensioner settlements and the Bay of Islands. There was a single ‘northern’ and ‘southern’ electorate for everyone else.

Tūranga only became an electorate in 1873, shortly before the provinces were abolished. In this provincial period, the income derived by local government from rates was extremely limited. Public works were instead financed by the Land Fund. The Land Fund came from the purchase of Māori land by the Crown at a cheap price. The land was then cut up into surveyed parcels with road access and sold at a much higher rate.

The profit margin went back to the provinces to support that settlement. The expectation from a buyer was that their property would come with a road.

In 1876, the provinces gave way to centralised government and general territorial taxation, ie. annual rates on property, was introduced to pay for local infrastructure. To support expanding Pākeha settlement, New Zealand was carved into 63 counties and local government delegated to the elected county council. Each county in turn was made up of ‘ridings’, which were communities of interest who would for example, share a road. Representation on council, and the county finances, were based on the ‘riding unit’.


Cook County in 1876 ran from just north of Mahia to Cape Runaway. The Waiapu Riding was basically the whole of the east coast. At that time there were 3400 Maori and 374 Pakeha living in Cook County - ten to one.

Only ratepayers were able to participate in local government, meaning that 10th were in the driving seat. Two-thirds of them lived south of Kaiti.

Waiapu Riding in 1884 was made up of just 18 electors/ratepayers. Most of them had been there less than 10 years and it was these select newcomers who started controlling road development and expenditure. Waiapu County Council was also the driving force behind the ‘Native townships’ legislation 10 years later. In a classic colonial misnomer, the legislation enabled the government to take up to 500 acres in districts where it was otherwise unable to acquire land through purchase – to establish Pākeha townships, not native ones. Tokomaru Bay (Tuatini), Te Araroa, Te Puia and Waipiro all started out in that manner.


A longstanding cherished Pākeha precept is ‘no taxation without representation.’ But, Jane points out, wherever direct tax is involved, funny things start happening to representation, and to democracy.

Rates were based on the occupiers’ column of rateable properties on the district valuation roll. The lack of any residential franchise meant that local government remained firmly in the hands of farmers, while strategies such as weighted voting and plural voting meant the wealthiest of them were elected to council.

Weighted voting meant a single ratepayer could exercise up to five votes, depending on the value of his property. After 1899, the scale was lowered to a maximum of three votes. Plural voting meant a single ratepayer could vote in any riding in which he held property.


These are the “dirty secrets” of local government. The residential qualification introduced in general government in 1879 was not extended to local government until 1944, and then residents were given a single vote.

“Women got the vote much earlier in local government. This was not because of a desire to empower women, it was because landowners could place a wife or daughter over the age of 21 in the occupiers’ column in order to have more control over the electoral outcome.”

Plural voting in general government ended in 1889; in local government it took almost another century, ending in 1986. Weighted voting was never a feature of general government but it only ended in local government in 1974.

This still does feature in some form however, in that rural wards can get elected with 100 votes in Ruatoria for example, while it takes 4000 - 5000 votes to get voted in the city. Once they are at the table, they hold the same voting power.


“You can imagine that overnight imposing a property tax is a political act. If you have been occupying your land for 26 generations and someone says you have to start paying this tax every year, you are not going to like it much,” says Jane.

It took 40 years from 1876 when territorial tax was imposed, to pull Māori land into the rating system and in 1910 all Māori freehold land was deemed to be liable for rates.


Despite Māori traditionally holding their lands communally, nothing was done to devise a mechanism where multiple ownership could be converted to multiple franchise.

At the end of the 19th century, provision was made for a ‘nominated occupier’, where Māori could choose one of their number to go onto the valuation roll. This didn’t work well.

By the 1920s a new system of ‘charging orders’ bypassed Maori occupiers altogether: county councils could go straight to the Native Land Court to have the rates charged against the land, and Māori landowners were not even sent a rates demand. If you didn’t pay your rates, you didn’t get a vote. “That just becomes a little unfair when you have this system where Māori weren’t even sent the demand to pay rates.

“The whole bent of twentieth-century legislation has been aimed at rates recovery from Māori land but very little attention has been given to how that could be conveyed into representation.”


If ever Māori stood a chance in joining the ‘local government club’ it was in Te Tairāwhiti. Still in possession of much of their land by the early twentieth century, Ngāti Porou were the pioneers of title consolidation and land development which meant that by the 1920s many were ratepaying farmers. The Māori councillors in Matakaoa County at that time, are a case in point.

However, despite the Māori farming initiatives taking place, structural barriers still worked against Māori representation in local government. A 1938 inquiry into the non-payment of rates from Māori in Waiapu County revealed that 60 percent of the entries in the valuation book were inaccurate.

“Court records of succession to deceased owners, or partitioned lands, were not transferred from the court to the valuation department, or the local body.” The local body resorted to court to recover rates, which meant there was no incentive to keep its records of Māori occupiers updated.


If all else failed, riding boundaries were configured to retain control. Old rates books in the back room at the Te Puia county offices are split into two categories: European and Native, with data showing occupiers, owners, property descriptions, area, rateable value, rates owing, who paid the rates, and the date paid.

“The devil is in the detail” Jane says, “it’s remarkable the patterns and trends that come up once you start collating.”

In 1945, the year after introducing the residential vote, the Waiapu County ridings were reconfigured, with glaring disparities of electors between ridings, which widened over time. “From this time, Māori had a seat on council, but they never achieved anything proportional to their presence on the coast.” Riding configuration is one reason why: by 1980, Mata Riding and Hikuwai Riding had just 20 and 21 electors, as compared with Piritarau Riding’s 534 electors.

Weighted voting ended in 1974 but plural and non-resident ratepayer voting continued until 1986. That year, for the first time, Waiapu County Council returned a Māori majority. One of the first things they did in their district scheme was to place the Treaty of Waitangi at the heart of all planning policy. The outcome was profound.

Māori had been unable to return home to live on their land up the coast because of the planning rules, which said you couldn’t have more than one house on a title unless it was for a labourer. Māori were similarly prevented from building within old communities that had not been designated by the council as urban settlements, to avoid expenditure on amenities like footpaths and lighting.

“So the council files are full of these letters asking permission to build on family land and being refused. All of a sudden there’s a change of thinking - let’s get as many people moving home as possible. They changed the rules.”

That same year Waiapu County was amalgamated into Gisborne District. Not all of the gains were lost, but once again Māori were reduced to a minority in local government.

The systemic exclusion of Māori from local government has meant that their interests have largely been ignored. On the coast it meant that whole communities like Whareponga did not have road access until the 1950s. At Rangitukia, there were 51 Maori households trying to dairy farm without a road.

“Marginalisation hasn’t worked”, says Jane. “It is time to do things better”.

Story by Debbie Gregory Photograph by Sarah Cleave


bottom of page