What’s cooking these local elections? Māori representation, that’s what.
Over the past few weeks I’ve had the pleasure of sitting down with a handful of the 39 candidates running in the upcoming local body elections. Speaking with Jordan Walker, Jody Toroa, Aubrey Ria, Ani Pahuru-Huriwai and Debbie Gregory, I’m feeling a lot of hope and excitement about the future of our local government here in the Tairāwhiti. As most of us will know, the last term resulted in some significant changes in the way our community will be represented around the Council table. In 2020 the Gisborne District Council resolved to establish Māori wards, so in next month’s local election, those of us who are enrolled in the Maori electoral roll will vote for 5 Māori ward councillors, and those on the General roll will vote in 8 general ward councillors.
This series of conversations started with Jordan Walker, who was a regular contributor to Gizzy Local before they went full time with Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival, took a lead role in a film, and embarked on their Masters thesis. I was interested in what had motivated Jordan, a youthful creative who’s always involved in exciting projects, to run for council at a time when councils all over the country are struggling to find people willing to put themselves forward for the job.
Jordan spoke to me about wanting to be a voice for youth, for urban Māori, and to advocate for the arts. They talked eloquently about the role the arts plays in our wellbeing, particularly in the aftermath of the pandemic, and their understanding of policy as a tool in ensuring equitable access to opportunities and resources.
Jordan has always been a ‘do-er’ whose compassionate nature is a precursor to action. In 2014 Jordan cycled the length of the country to raise awareness for youth suicide: they rode about 100 kilometres a day with panniers that were filled to overflowing and a bike that was far from flash. But Jordan understood that while the experience had been therapeutic for them, they would have to “dig deeper” to bring about any change. Jordan went on to work with a digital literacy programme across 14 low-decile schools in South Auckland but even then they were aware of the inherent accessibility issues and came to the conclusion that “policy is where it's at”.
As we talked more, I realised I was hearing language I’d never heard before in the context of a political campaign, let alone our local council. Words such as ‘feeling safe’ in relation to hitting the campaign trail alongside other candidates, and even (blow me down with a feather), “the collective”. Was I hearing right? Were we still talking about local politics? Yes, Jordan assured me, “It feels as if we’re here for a common cause, it really feels as if things are changing with the inclusion of Māori wards”.
It would have been easy to dismiss Jordan’s sentiment as ‘the naivety of youth’ but during the course of the conversations that followed, it became clear that yes indeed we are facing a beautiful shake up around that table at which so many decisions, that affect all of us in big ways and small, are made, with the introduction of Māori wards.
Both Jody Toroa and Ani Pahuru-Huriwai were quick to give due to the incumbent council and mayor for bringing it through “Those are just the kind of courageous decisions that council should be making in the interests of what is fair, just and right. We need our people to be participating in democracy” said Ani.
Incumbent Councillor Debbie Gregory talked about the series of decisions that led to the resolution to establish Maori wards in 2020. “With our population being 53% Maori, it was important to have equitable representation around the table where these important decisions about our place are being made.
“That table has been dominated by wealthy white people since its inception. We need to bring the hearts and minds of Māori to our decision making table. That’s why I voted for Māori wards. I didn’t think there was any other way”.
As Ani acknowledged, there’s undoubtedly a bit of fear in some quarters as to what a ‘shake up’ at the Council table is going to look like. But while fear is only natural when it comes to dealing with the unknown, I’d like to suggest that if the way in which our Māori candidates have approached this campaign so far is any indication, then we all have a lot to look forward to in this next term at Council.
Ani described reaching out to her networks earlier in the year to see who was considering running in this election and explained “We established our tikanga way back then, said ‘let’s be Māori in our campaigning’. It’s been really brutal, ugly and lonely for candidates who have stood in the past. It’s really important how we treat each other in public, how we disagree in private, and how we look after each other’s mana”.
But this collective approach isn’t just about the campaign. Aubrey Ria says “We’ve all agreed that within our group sits an amazing set of people, skills, knowledge and intelligence. We’ve agreed that whoever gets in, we will get in behind them to support them in whatever capacity we can [following the election]”. Many of the Māori candidates in this election have not only been “in comms” with each other, but have been carpooling to the candidates meetings, preparing together and supporting each other. Jordan described it as the feeling of being surrounded by aunties.
“The way that the Māori candidates have worked this far is how we intend to carry on” said Ani. “It’s how we work anyway, with mutual respect, aroha for our people and looking after each other’s mana. You can have differing points of view and that’s okay, but you can articulate that without hurting another person physically or spiritually in the process of getting your view across.
“I’m hoping that in that space there will be a lot more manaakitanga, and enhancing the mana of others, not just thinking about yourself in that space”
Ani also explained that Māori running in the Māori ward have “put aside our iwi affiliations. We’re standing for the Māori ward. Iwi relationships are not a part of our role in council. Our tipuna have sung about Kotahitanga for decades. [Unity] is important but we haven’t got there because of egos and a system, which has got in the way”.
Aubrey Ria agrees “It’s going to feel collaborative. There will be more interactive engagement, more focus on empowering communities, organisations, iwi, hapū, whānau, and people in our rural areas. Empowering each small community within our city as well as those outside of it to contribute to the decisions that affect them. It’s going to be better for the overall community, from Muriwai to Matawai to Te Araroa Hicks Bay”.
Jody Toroa says she’s looking forward to collectively building some strong foundations around change, once there’s Māori representation at the table, rather than just a Māori advisor. “My push is to build the partnership framework, so that it actually reflects the partners around the table, and extends to the co-management, the whole delivery”.
Jordan spoke too of the importance of relationship, “I’m all about relationships, There are so many nuances in peoples’ personalities and backgrounds, if there’s a strong group of us all there for a common purpose, a collective cause, that interpersonal skill, open mindedness, and the different perspectives that come as a young person will be useful”.
I’m excited too about a greater community intelligence around the council table after this election. There’s a lot of talk about the wealth of community experience held by many of the Māori ward candidates. Many of them, like Ani, have led the Covid response in their communities, and have an intimate understanding of where their communities are at right now.
“Our Māori ward candidates are really proactive members of the community. They’re at all the meetings, at the marae, at the housing forums” Aubrey Ria points out. Aubrey sees herself as following in the footsteps of her ancestors, who have worked towards better relationships and better communities here in Tūranga for generations. After leading a peaceful protest against the erection of the Endeavour replicas without consultation, she was also active in advocating for the establishment of the Māori wards. Aubrey running in this election was, for her community, the natural next step for her.
Jody has worked for years on the Waingake Transformation Project, as well as sitting on various boards. Ani has played a significant role in the David and Goliath battles of preventing Petrobas from deep sea drilling on the East Coast and the proposals for a barging facility at Te Araroa.
For Jordan, the wealth of community experience and iwi connections amongst the candidates to the Maori ward was one of the reasons they felt so strongly about running in the general ward rather than the Maori ward. “A lot of the Māori candidates standing in the Māori ward are strongly connected to Iwi and Hapū. They’re connected to those communities, and they knew what those communities need. A lot of them have been doing the work for a long time now”.
There appears to be a lot of common ground in the kaupapa carried by many of our Māori ward candidates into this election, and the kind of intergenerational thinking that is so imperative in our times, is just a part and parcel of that kaupapa. There’s a big emphasis on wellbeing, but far from being just another token catch phrase, there’s a deep-seated understanding of the interconnectedness between the wellbeing of our land, water and that of our people.
Aubrey Ria states it as “Oranga wai. Oranga whenua. Oranga tangata”. Ani sums it up as “Papatuanuku”. Jody is passionate about getting tutae out of the Bay, access to drinking water and our potential as a bio-region. Awareness of the far reaching effects of poverty in our region, the challenges of our rural communities, and the impact of decisions made now on their mokopuna were also common themes.
“I believe at the time our tipuna made the best decisions with the information they had in front of them. They really did believe that forestry was going to save our people. They didn’t foresee what we face now. That’s what we’ve inherited. It’s all about our mokopuna that haven’t yet been born and the generational trauma we might cause as a result of bad decisions. We’re always trying to project two generations out - what do we want it to look like then?” explained Ani Pahuru-Huriwai.
Right now though, getting people to vote is one of the most pressing matters for the candidates I spoke to. For many of our younger voters, the idea of getting something out of the letterbox, opening it and filling out a paper form is an utterly foreign process! Ani has pushed to get ballot boxes in the rural shops and is spending a lot of time talking to whānau about how to vote - don’t tick the boxes, number them!
Aubrey agrees “I’ve been asked a lot, ‘Why should people vote for you?’ But I just want people to vote. There’s an amazing smorgasbord of representation available for you to choose from, so do some research, and get in and back the people you have common goals and aspirations with”.
We can all do our own little bit to influence how well things go during this next term in Council. I for one am incredibly heartened by the influence that the inclusion of Māori seats around our decision making table is going to have on what has traditionally been an extremely ego-driven and oftentimes, dysfunctional space.
After one term at that table, Debbie Gregory agrees, “It’s really important to listen to everyone around the table. To research your subjects before you go, listen and incorporate that into your decision making. That is why it's exciting that we’ll have the Māori ward councillors at the table - it feels very exciting for me, that collective approach”.
“We will be bringing our culture to the table,” Jody Toroa explained. “Our tikanga, values, kawa. What is important, what is tika”. And as Ani Pahuru-Huriwai put it, “There are more things that we have in common than we do different. I think it’s going to be amazing. As tangata whenua our job is to look after people. We always have, since the arrival. That’s just who we are”.
So let's go Tairāwhiti! Do your research. Read the mail out that’s going to turn up in your letterboxes from the Gisborne Herald this week about the different candidates, and make sure you give your votes to candidates who are committed to working together for better solutions for all of our people and whenua, both now and into the future.