Diving into the partnership debate

Co-governance has become a controversial concept. Is it a threat or an opportunity? Grant Miller reports.

Dare to talk about co-governance and a range of responses are provoked.

On the one hand, the enthusiasm for the possibilities arising from a configuration aimed at promoting inclusive and holistic decision-making.

On the other side is the rhetoric about the impending “ethnic state” and suspicion of a perceived agenda to undermine democracy.

In the mix are the plea to take the Treaty of Waitangi seriously, uncertainty about the implications of that, concern that debate is being stifled and worries about the substance of the discussion as we approach ‘an election.

For Otago Regional Councilor Gretchen Robertson, co-governance has many meanings and recipes. Its experiences of co-governance and partnership have been positive.

For his colleague Hilary Calvert, there are issues “long before arriving at the reality of what is meant by co-governance”.

“Who has the casting vote? Is Parliament still in charge? Some seem to suggest equal say. How would that work?

For Ngai Tahu, co-governance is a core idea — in some policy areas, particularly environment and natural resource management, it makes sense for the Crown and its treaty partner to work together as equals.

“This is not about an erosion of democracy, separatism or any of the other accusations sometimes leveled against him,” iwi representatives Edward and Matapura Ellison said in a joint statement.

“It’s about the local communities and people who care deeply about the land and water around them, helping to get things on the right track.”

Environment Southland councilor David Stevens, who is not seeking another term, fears the community will not have adequate discussion of the issues before voting begins in local elections next month.

“Co-governance is the elephant in the room and the sad situation is that no one wants to discuss it because they are … often accused of racism if they have a different opinion.”

What is co-governance?

Co-governance is generally described as an arrangement for negotiated decision-making between iwi and other groups, such as central and local government. This refers to contribution at the governance or strategy level, rather than day-to-day management.

It emerged in the Treaty of Waitangi settlements and, as former Treaty Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson has said, co-governance has been part of the landscape regarding natural resources, such as rivers, for some time. .

As Mr. Finlayson describes it, the debate is now about the extent to which this could or should be extended.

Nationally, the topic has been controversial enough to

Act New Zealand to call for a referendum, arguing that co-governance means “some representatives are democratically elected and others get a seat at the table because of who their ancestors are”.

Co-governance is a contentious element of the Three Waters reform, where it is proposed that the iwi will play a role in determining strategy for planned large water entities.

Environment Southland chairman Nicol Horrell suggested the national controversy over the three waters had not been helpful.

“Partnerships that include aspects of co-governance … work well where there is trust, respect and transparency between all parties,” he said.

Regional councils are required by law to work with mana whenua to improve fresh water.

“That relationship is strong and I find there’s very little difference of opinion when we’re all getting the same information at that time,” Horrell said.

Otago Regional Council Chairman Andrew Noone highlighted a partnership with mana whenua established in 2003.

“The partnership provides for increased involvement by Kai Tahu in Otago’s environmental management – both parties are committed to working collaboratively in a structured and meaningful way.”

The Local Government Act 2002 clearly states that councils must develop and maintain means for Maori to contribute to decision-making. Councils are required to provide details in their 10-year plans on how they will help build the capacity of Maori to contribute to decision-making.

For Ngai Tahu, co-governance is about reconnecting iwi to taonga and providing expertise and knowledge in resource management.

“Look at the state of fresh water in the South Island,” the Ellisons, who are first cousins, said in their statement.

“It is a disaster.

“So it’s not like the Crown has had a lot of success over the last two centuries.

“Ngai Tahu’s view is that we can help provide the cleaner water and environment that all New Zealanders want.”

Co-governance, sometimes referred to as co-management, has become an increasingly common part of treaty settlements over the past 20 years.

When Ngai Tahu settled his claim in the late 1990s, co-governance arrangements were not yet common.

The settlement contained a co-management agreement, allowing the iwi to work alongside local government to manage Waihora, Lake Ellesmere, Canterbury.

Edward Ellison – who played a significant role in the treaty negotiations, is chairman of the consultancy Aukaha and heads the Otakou runanga – saw existing agreements in Otago as being at the level of partnership rather than co-governance.

Mr Ellison said it was important to understand that the concept of co-governance had a treaty basis.

The Crown’s actions in the past had been grossly unjust, but in recent years it has engaged constructively on a bicultural path, he said.

He spoke of reversing the shortcomings of the local government and helping it meet its obligations of Tiriti o Waitangi.

Iwi tended to allow for a more holistic approach and this resulted in better environmental outcomes.

Why the controversy?

Otago Regional Councilor Michael Laws said a constitutional revolution was underway to undermine the philosophy that has traditionally underpinned representative democracy in New Zealand – one person, one vote.

It was one of the advisers who brought up He Puapua, a discussion paper that essentially argues for greater Maori self-determination, but has also been branded as an unofficial plan to ‘break up New Zealand’ according to criteria racial.

“Co-governance was imposed as an almost direct consequence of the He Puapua reflection initiated by Te Puni Kokiri,” Cr Laws said.

“Neither the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, nor the judgments of the Court of Appeal interpreting the ‘principles’ of the Treaty (in the late 1980s/early 1990s) signaled co-governance as a device of leadership. It’s a very modern device.”

Dunedin City Councilor Lee Vandervis called co-governance “undemocratic and divisive sharing of power with unelected, self-selected racially based tribal elites”.

He was the only city councilor last year to vote against the inclusion of runanga representatives on two council standing committees.

Invercargill Deputy Mayor Nobby Clark said he supported the partnerships, but opposed He Puapua’s stealth advancement.


Cr Robertson said alarmism stems from fear of the unknown.

Otago Regional Councilor Alexa Forbes said the power structures had not suited “those not in the Pakeha mindset”.

“We must shape our democracy according to our unique circumstances.”

Otago political commentator Dr Morgan Godfery agrees with Cr Laws that a constitutional revolution is afoot, but he argued that co-governance is orthodox Labor and National Party policy.

Dunedin Councilor Steve Walker highlighted an example of co-governance that was set up in 2010.

“From what I’ve read about the Waikato River Authority, the co-governance council has led to extremely positive results for the restoration of the Waikato River,” said Cr Walker.

“I would say that from a purely governmental perspective, it is only wise and sensible to try to ensure that Maori voices are heard at the decision-making level.”

Healthy debate

Cr Calvert raised concerns about groupthink, as it seemed that the diversity of views on the merits of co-governance was less and less welcome.

Dunedin City Councilor Sophie Barker said the debate should not be avoided, but should be respectful.

“It is detrimental to truth and trust when people take reactionary positions on issues,” said Cr Barker.

“I believe there is a lack of understanding across the community of local government obligations under the Treaty/Tiriti.”

Outgoing Queenstown Lakes Mayor Jim Boult said debating important issues, including co-governance, should not automatically lead to racism or hate speech.

“In fact, healthy and open debate should be encouraged, bad behavior should be exposed, and we should invest more time and effort as a nation in preparing our young people to be willing and able to actively participate.”


Environment Southland councilor Robert Guyton said co-governance agreements in a regional forum had resulted in high-quality advice to improve water quality.

Dunedin Mayor Aaron Hawkins said he saw exciting opportunities to “honor our commitments under Te Tiriti o Waitangi”.

“It’s the messy business of what it means to be a bicultural nation in practice. There will absolutely be differences of opinion as to what that looks like, among Maori and Tauiwi.

“We just have to accept that sometimes we’re going to be wrong, be willing to learn from that experience and make deeper connections as a result.”

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“Rise above the use of divisive language”

The Human Rights Commission is of the view that New Zealanders should not fear the development and strengthening of indigenous rights.

“There are different ideas, concepts and models that are discussed when the topic of co-governance comes up,” a spokesperson said.

“The discussion around these concepts is both valid and important.

“However, it can be both unnecessary and counterproductive when groups of people are pitted against each other as we work for an inclusive and cohesive society.

“We must rise above the use of divisive language and avoid stereotypes and sentiments that negatively frame entire communities.

“Honest and candid discussions around Te Tiriti o Waitangi and its history, as well as an openness to learning, are essential to holding responsible conversations.”


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