How co-governance debate heated up at Rātana Waitangi

By Jane Patterson  from Focus on Politics RNZ

Co-governance, co-management, devolution: how political parties approach power-sharing with Māori has already become a central topic this year.

It's an important conversation - with a fundamental question at its core: is the current way of doing things delivering the best possible outcomes for all New Zealanders? You don't have to look far to see proof to the contrary.

As 2023 gears up towards the election, the debate seems destined to intensify - and it could again be Māori caught in the rhetorical crossfire.

The year began in dramatic fashion with the resignation of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the rapid installation of her replacement Chris Hipkins. 

Rātana in late January is typically considered the start of the political calendar, but with the transition from Ardern already under way it marked her last official outing as prime minister, and Hipkins' first real test as successor - a symbolic handover of power. 

Waitangi events about a week later are always a time for scrutiny of politicians. Those welcomed to Te Whare Rūnanga had been encouraged to keep the kōrero constructive and avoid politicising things.

Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said there was a lesson in that for the other parties present. 

"I think those that chose not to respect that have to go back home and talk to themselves ... I think it was a good reminder for the Crown to honour Te Tiriti and where else best to do it than here?" 

But politics always seem to come into consideration at Waitangi somehow.

Hipkins had already been challenged at the Iwi Chairs Forum over how his government would handle issues like co-governance. Opposition leader Christopher Luxon had been grilling Labour over the issue for months, saying they had failed to explain co-governance measures to the public. 

How co-governance debate heated up at Rātana Waitangi

Hipkins admitted the government could have done better, and would be working to in future. He said the word could mean different things in different contexts: there were examples of co-management in various Treaty settlements, for example, many of them negotiated under National. 

Luxon says National does not support co-governance in public services specifically, and would instead pursue a kind of devolution. 

"The point for me is the means by which we deliver those outcomes is a coherent public service system with massive innovation within it, delivering through community organisations," he told RNZ. 

It was the language he used about the Treaty settlement process brought rebukes from others, however.

Greens co-leader Marama Davidson was among them. 

"It's just a continuation of their entire attitude towards Treaty settlements - that they're full and final, that the Crown is being generous - I think that just gives an indication that the worst possible outcome for Te Tiriti justice would be to have a National government in power," she said.

"Treaty settlements are enduring, they do not have an end of life. They are about continuing, ongoing, working together - this is what we heard from iwi leaders the first days we were here that we want ongoing authentic partnership, that mana motuhake is central." 

She did not reserve her criticism for Luxon alone, saying ACT leader David Seymour's speech had diminished the inequities of the past 200 years and was reaching into public fear and ignorance of the Treaty: stoking racism.

He flatly dismissed that. 

"That's Marama isn't it. If she listened carefully to my speech I said kia whakatika, te hapa āu mua - that is, to fix the rights- er, wrongs, of the past. So that was actually one of the three points I made about ACT's belief in the Treaty.

"Perhaps she would have liked me to have made it flowery or over several more sentences but it was certainly there." 

This year's Waitangi - while it had strikingly similar themes - was still a far cry from the vexed debates of the mid-2000s, when Don Brash as leader of National was celebrating a major boost in public support after his now-infamous Orewa address. 

It divided the nation, and - combined and interwoven into the foreshore and seabed controversy - prompted Helen Clark to carry out a policy reset of her own, and laid the ground for a new political movement,Te Pāti Māori.

Brash narrowly lost the 2005 election, and was succeeded by John Key, whose approach to Māoridom was very different. When he took power in 2008, he formed a government with the Māori Party's support. Under Key's prime ministership, New Zealand became a signatory to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2010 - something Clark had refused to do.

A decade later, Ardern's Labour government found itself under fire when a report commissioned in response - He Puapua - was leaked, becoming a lightning rod for attacks by ACT's David Seymour and National's Judith Collins.

They cast the document - a rushed, aspirational, anything-is-possible plan for putting the Declaration into action which largely built on the Matike Mai work of Margaret Mutu and Moana Jackson - as a government policy of 'separatism by stealth'.

Labour has consistently ruled it out as policy, and Māori Development Minister Willie Jackson had been working on some other way of advancing the Declaration - but put those plans on ice late last year.

Luxon has mostly steered clear of the report, his denunciations focusing largely on the aspects of Labour policy Collins said was carrying out its supposed hidden agenda: the Three Waters reforms and Te Aka Whai Ora - the Māori Health Authority - both of which he has promised to repeal.

The co-governance aspect of Three Waters - strategic oversight and board-appointing powers shared equally between council representatives and Māori - will be a difficult knot for Hipkins to untangle. He must either risk alienating Māori and their allies by removing it, or find a way of re-selling the deeply unpopular policy to the public. 

Māori leaders have warned him against abandoning it for political expediency.

Te Aka Whai Ora on the other hand could be more of a problem for Luxon.

For all his protestations that it creates two separate health systems, in reality the organisation does commissioning of Māori-led health groups, and develops strategy for closing the health gaps between Māori and non-Māori. 

It arguably more closely resembles the kind of devolution and outcome-focused work he touts than the massive bureaucracy he decries. Whether his fervent opposition to it can be squared with his support for things like Kōhanga Reo and Whānau Ora remains an open question. 

Just how far Hipkins is prepared to go to shore up the support he's regained since becoming leader is too - particularly as the election heats up. 

Focus on Politics RNZ