Waitangi: Politicians who exploit 'fear' around co-governance must reflect on actions, Chris Hipkins says after iwi meeting

Politicians who exploit "fear" resulting from a lack of clarity in the co-governance debate need to reflect on their actions, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins says.

He said he "loves the phrase mahi tahi", meaning to work together as one, and admits the Government's large work programme has caused confusion.

"I think [the term co-governance] has been misunderstood. Those who seek to use misunderstanding around it for political advantage need to reflect on their own behaviour."

Iwi leaders have told the Prime Minister at a National Iwi Chairs Forum meeting in Waitangi on Friday they expect race not to be used by politicians to create division.

"They don't want to see ethnicity, race being used as a way of dividing New Zealanders and I was able to absolutely reiterate my Government's commitment to ensuring that we continue to work together to avoid that happening," Hipkins said.

He said when there is uncertainty or a lack of clarity around so-called co-governance schemes that "can lead to fear".

"Politicians who use that fear or exploit that fear in order to try and gain really need to reflect on their own actions. That's something that my Government will never do."

Speaking after the meeting, Waikato-Tainui's Tukoroirangi Morgan, who also chairs one of the Three Waters iwi bodies, said opposition parties have "fanned the flames of racism" to keep alive debate on the reform programme.

"There is nothing mysterious about Three Waters, it's all about pipes under the ground. Our view has always been we stand here at Waitangi, at the cradle of the Treaty of Waitangi, and here is the embodiment of partnership."

Hipkins was asked if the lack of clarity he spoke about was the Government's fault. He replied by acknowledging the larger the Government's work programme, "the more confusing it can be for people who maybe aren't engaged in it on a day-to-day basis".

"That is something that I've already said we reflected on as a Government."

He repeated points he made when first became Prime Minister that co-governance can be applied very differently in different contexts.

"Because we've been doing so many different things, actually, we probably haven't created the space to make sure people understand what we're doing and why we're doing it. That is absolutely I think a lesson for us over the last five years."

Chris Hipkins after the meeting.
Chris Hipkins after the meeting. Photo credit: Newshub.

Hipkins said there would be changes in language so Kiwis understand "what we're talking about in a particular context and why we're talking about it".

"It's about working together, but how we work together will look different in different situations… I love the phrase mahi tahi, working together.

"Ultimately, that's what it is about. It is about the Crown working with Māori to advance our common interest."

He said iwi leaders didn't specifically mention changing the term "co-governance" to another phrase, but "they don't want the concept of co-governance to be used to stoke fear, and nor do we".

Hipkins said the Opposition in the past has tried to use uncertainty "to try and stoke fear".

National leader Christopher Luxon at Rātana last week said the conversation around co-governance has been "divisive and immature" and believed previous Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hadn't used her "huge political capital" to make the case to New Zealanders about it.

But he's refused the National Party has played into that uncertainty. Last week, when it was put to him that National's previous 'demand the debate' campaign on co-governance may have contributed to it, he said National was "under new leadership".

Luxon made National's position clear on Friday afternoon.

"We support co-management between government and Māori for natural resources in the context of Treaty settlements. We do not support co-governance of public services or separate bureaucratic systems for Māori and non-Māori.

"Labour has progressed a divisive agenda and continually failed to set out its views clearly. It is disappointing to see the new Prime Minister try to shut down the discussion rather than clearly setting out Labour’s plans for the public to judge."

ACT has also rallied against co-governance proposals and believes Kiwis aren't getting a "coherent and rational debate" about the treaty and democracy in New Zealand.

"They are not getting it, largely because people who question co-government are often accused of racism," leader David Seymour said last month.

His party is pushing for legislation that clarifies treaty principles and for that to then be put to the people through a binding referendum.

After Hipkins' press conference, Seymour tweeted that Hipkins should "stop playing politics and unite NZ under the fundamental democratic principle of one person, one vote".