Third Reading Speech – Local Government (Rating of Whenua Māori) Amendment Bill

Māori Development

I move, that the Local Government (Rating of Whenua Māori) Amendment Bill now be read a third time.

I was shocked, but not surprised, to find that the law relating to rating Māori land is largely unchanged since 1924.

Apart from the prohibition on selling Māori land for unpaid rates, which was passed in 1968, nothing has changed in almost 100 years. Change is long overdue.

So I am proud to remedy this situation and bring the rating law for Māori land into the 21st century.

This Bill sits within a wider context. This Government is committed to enabling Māori landowners to develop and benefit from their land where they wish to do so.

We have previously legislated to improve the operation of the Māori Land Court and have provided resources and assistance to owners to fulfill their aspirations for their land.

This Bill is also an important Bill for local authorities. I was delighted that no local authority submitted against this Bill.

While nationally we have been on a long journey to improve Māori Crown relations, local authorities are also walking that journey with iwi and hapū in their own communities. This Bill removes one of the obstacles to the local authorities’ journey.

For too long rates have framed Māori land as a problem for local authorities, rather than an opportunity. For too long Māori attitudes to their local authority have been framed by pressures to pay rates on land from which they derive no economic benefit.

This has resulted in Māori keeping their distance from local authorities, rather than engaging with local authorities to see what can be achieved in partnership with each other.

The Bill removes a loophole which allows Māori land that was arbitrarily reclassified as general land in the late 1960s from being sold by local authority abandoned land or rating sales.

While the number of such sales is small, they continue to this day and it is not acceptable in this era for that practice to continue.

The Bill provides each local authority chief executive the power to write off rates that in his or her opinion cannot reasonably be recovered.

The Commissioner of Inland Revenue has long had this power in respect of Crown taxes, but for some reason, no similar power has been available in respect of rates.

The lack of this power has led to the level of rates arrears on Māori land being substantially distorted in public reports. An original debt of $1,000 becomes $3,450 before it is statute-barred for collection under the Rating Act at which point local authorities then write the debt off.

Public reports of the level of rates outstanding on Māori land give a quite false impression of the amount of rates unpaid because the majority of the outstanding amount is penalties, not the rates originally assessed.

Sensible use of this power by local authority chief executives can do much to improve relationships between Māori and local authorities.

The Bill makes unused Māori land non-rateable. Much Māori land is inaccessible, being either entirely landlocked with no legal access at all, or with access either by sea only or by paper roads that provide no practical access.

It is almost impossible for the owners of these properties to obtain any benefit from local authority services – they are effectively providing conservation estate to the nation. Making this land non-rateable is the only fair thing to do.

The rates rebate scheme was designed in the 1970s to provide financial assistance to low-income homeowners. Given the Crown Māori relationship at that time, it is not surprising that it made no provision for the communal ownership of Māori land and the possibility of multiple homes being built on one block of Māori land.

This has meant that many homeowners on Māori land are not able to access this assistance. However, it is not acceptable in this day and age that low-income homeowners on Māori land should be disadvantaged in accessing this entitlement.

In 2018, this House recognised the special circumstances of retirement village residents when it passed the Rates Rebate (Retirement Village Residents) Amendment Act 2018.

It is appropriate that having recognised the special circumstances of retirement village residents, this House also recognise the circumstances relating to homeowners on Māori land.

Local authorities and Māori should stand side by side. I can think of no people who have a greater interest in the success of local authorities than those that hold mana whenua over the land in the local authorities’ districts.

They are the only people that cannot and are not able to up stakes and go elsewhere if they don’t like what is happening in their community.

This Bill implements a number of pragmatic measures to resolve rating issues relating to Māori land. But it also tries to clear impediments to the relationship between local authorities and Māori.

In the long run, that may be its most important contribution to our future.

I want to thank all those who have contributed to the preparation and passage of this Bill. I look forward to local authorities now working with Māori to successfully implement the Bill, for the benefit of Māori landowners, councils and their communities.

I commend this Bill to the House.