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By Ashleigh McCaull, RNZ News Te Ao Māori reporter

Māori councillors have detailed the torrents of abuse and racism they say they face in their role.

It is something Local Government New Zealand says it has to confront as it tries to make councils more diverse.

It comes as its new programme Te Āhuru Mōwai aims to provide a safe space and support for first time Māori councillors.

Ruapehu District councillor Vivienne Hoeta has had many instances of discrimination in her role.

She recalls one conversation with another councillor over lunch which left her speechless.

“Well your people should be alright, they’ve raised the benefit. I’m like, ‘um actually, I have a degree, my children have degrees, so does my husband and most of my family are well educated on both sides.’

“‘Aw, no no no, I don’t mean you, I mean in general’,” she said.

‘What about the drawings?’
Or the time she was at a public meeting in Taumaranui speaking alongside Māori colleague Elijah Pue when she was asked:

“What do you think about the drawings on your fellas faces, won’t that get mixed up with gangs. The room went quiet, a few kuia in the background answered him but I actually didn’t know at the time how to answer that question.

“All I did was say, ‘can you explain your relevance to the long term plan with regards to that statement’. [To] which that Pākehā gentleman said, ‘aw I’d like to hear from someone educated’,” she said.

It had also been felt by Wellington Councillor Tamatha Paul during her first campaign in 2019.

“There was definitely a really small but very hateful minority group of people who would follow candidates around and livestream them and whenever the candidates would speak Māori they would yell at them on their livestream, while they were livestreaming and tell them to speak English.”

It’s racism like this that has forced Local Government New Zealand, which represents all 78 councils to launch a new mentoring programme, Te Āhuru Mōwai, for newly elected Māori members.

Māori governance group Te Maruata chair Bonita Bigham hopes it will help.

Tackling things that get ‘tricky’
“We hope that the strength of our Te Maruata network will enable those people to feel that they’ve got others to reach out to, that they’ve got experienced members within local government who can advise them and assist them when they find things are getting a bit tricky,” said Bigham.

Viv Hoeta is optimistic it will make a difference.

“This mentoring programme is so integral for supporting new Māori that are going to come in and have to deal with that and giving them the support to deal with it in a way that is mana enhancing, but that is also professional and shows the light of who Māori are,” said Hoeta.

Thirty-two councils across the motu are bringing in Māori wards this year and that means 50 new Māori councillors.

The hope is that will help better reflect the population.

Bonita Bigham said it was essential for Māori councillors to want to stay.

“It’s really important that our people feel like they’re supported enough, that they can see that there is a role and that there voices are valued and that their contributions are critical to the ongoing decision making of the councils in a robust and diverse decision making of council,” said Bigham.

Survey showed racism
Earlier this week, a Local Government New Zealand survey showed 49.5 percent of councillors had experienced racism or gender discrimination.

Tamatha Paul warned new candidates being in council was not a comfortable place to be for Māori.

“We put ourselves in these positions and we put ourselves forward because we want to prevent harm to our people. We do it because we want to make sure that our people have a critical outcome with their non-Māori counterparts.

“And we want to show the people that Māori ways of being and doing things are good for everybody,” Paul said.

A sentiment shared by Hastings Councillor and Ngāti Kahungunu chair Bayden Barber, who agreed it wasn’t easy.

“Council can be a lonely place for a Māori councillor. So you might have one, or two. Some councils wouldn’t even have a Māori on there,” he said.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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