All newly elected Māori councillors to get mentor

In a bid to make councils more culturally safe, Local Government NZ will provide all newly elected Māori councillors with a mentor, someone they can lean on for guidance and support.

The initiative, called Te Āhuru Mōwai, comes as Māori councillors continue to encounter racism by members of the public and by fellow colleagues.

Wellington Councillor, Tamatha Paul, experienced this during her first election campaign in 2019.

"During campaigns a lot of racist losers come out of the woodwork," she said.

"I remember during my first campaign, in 2019, we had some real weirdos following us around and livestreaming and complaining every time we spoke te reo Māori and saying, 'speak English, only 3% of people understand te reo'".

This has been a common theme throughout her first term.

"Whenever we do something for Māori, like try be a bilingual city through our Te Tauihu Policy or restore the traditional names of Māori places, we get inundated with racism and abuse from just racist losers out there, with nothing better to do than to try and take us back 200 years."

Gisborne Councillor Meredith Akuhata-Brown said racism was a problem around the council table too, and she'd encountered a number of harmful remarks over the years.

"Stuff like; 'why have those busses got 'waka' written on them?' You know, things about the land; 'why is this report mentioning tangata whenua? It's not theirs'.

"To hear rhetoric that was wholly racist towards Māori, I was kind of like, why would you serve in this space, in this region?"

Te Āhuru Mōwai will see Māori councillors paired with a tuakana, a senior, who will be there to offer support and advice throughout their term.

"To hear rhetoric that was wholly racist towards Māori, I was kind of like, why would you serve in this space, in this region?"

—  Meredith Akuhata-Brown, Gisborne Councillor

"Just a whanaungatanga basis, really, making sure that they're looked after and they want to stay, cos there's a lot of work to do," said Te Maruata Chairwoman Bonita Bigham.

"It's a start and it's something that we've never had before. And we've heard over the years that many of our whānau Māori in councils haven't felt supported, so we don't know how far this will go but we know that this is just the beginning of the journey."

Local Government NZ released an elected member survey earlier this week supporting claims of racism by Māori councillors.

It found that nearly half of respondents have experienced racism, gender discrimination, or other forms of harmful behaviour while doing their job.

Councils also remain predominantly Pākehā, with Māori making up about 13% of all elected members.

However, Māori representation may change dramatically this year, with 32 councils introducing Māori wards. In 2019, there were just three.

This will bring in an additional 50 Māori councillors, who will each have access to the new mentoring programme.

Meredith Akuhata Brown welcomed the move.

"Those who are involved in politics, be it local or central, have recognised the need for that support," she said.

"I guess for many non-Māori and tauiwi, they don't actually understand the tautoko (support) and awhi (care) that is needed for those who represent whānau, hapū and iwi."

However, Tamatha Paul remained sceptical that councils could ever be a culturally safe space for Māori.

"You can't really tweak council to be more culturally safe because, as an institution, it was set up on the dispossession of Māori land. And so you can't make it safe, you kind of have to dismantle it," she said.

"You can do a karakia to a cucumber sandwich at lunch time or at the beginning of a meeting but that doesn't make it a culturally safe place... the only way to challenge institutional racism is by giving power to iwi to be able to help us support our communities and providing housing and water and all of those critical things."