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What the heck is the Crown/Māori Relations portfolio?

According to the government, the new Crown/Māori Relations portfolio was introduced (among other things) to improve the way government departments engage with Māori and find new and different opportunities for more active partnership. But what does that actually mean?

Not sure what the new Crown-Māori Relations portfolio is all about? Don’t worry – neither is the minister.

This may well be a good thing. Kelvin Davis has pledged to listen rather than charging ahead with a government-knows-best strategy for “fixing” race relations – a method that hasn’t worked in the past.

The idea for the new portfolio came from the observation that more than two thirds of iwi have completed their journey through the Treaty settlements process, and we are entering into a new phase of race-relations, full of new commitments and high expectations: uncharted territory.

But what might managing the transition to a “post-Treaty-settlement era” actually mean in practice?

The government have posted their initial proposals for the portfolio and are seeking input from the public. There’s a lengthy list of priorities, which can be distilled down to the following:

  • Strengthening Crown-Māori relationships, including looking for partnership opportunities
  • Being the ministry that oversees meeting the thousands of commitments made in Treaty settlement deals, and the ministry that addresses contemporary Treaty claims

The Crown-Māori relationship is complicated. It refers to countless interconnections, made up of the attitudes with which government employees and individual Māori regard each other, and the exchanges between them, across the entire country, over 178 years. And the distinction between “the Crown” and “Māori” is also not always clear. Kelvin Davis embodies that fact. He is a Crown minister. And he is Māori, from the Ngāti Manu hapū of Ngāpuhi, among other affiliations.

There are various ways you can look at this kind of group relationship. You can look at its structure. You can look at how power operates within the relationship. You can look at the way people think about each other. And you can look at how people actually interact.

The Crown-Māori relationship has formal structures that support (or obstruct) the relationship. At present they are many and fairly ad-hoc. Each government agency has its own guiding legislation and policy around working with Māori, and at local levels there are various practices and projects, some organised into co-management structures or Memoranda of Understanding. One of the suggestions in the government’s initial proposals for the new ministry is to “develop a new [overarching] relationship framework that will guide ministers and the public sector.” If they go ahead with this it is vital that they keep the framework flexible, and don’t impose unnecessary bureaucratic layers and costs on local efforts to make relationship agreements appropriate to local contexts. Those who research in this area often note the importance of flexibility and an ability to innovate in collaboration.

Power in a relationship is about who makes and influences decisions, how the process works to include or exclude people, and who benefits. It is possible to have a seat on a board, for example, but to constantly be outvoted, meaning that in practice the seat conveys no power. The Crown also needs to make sure it is working with communities, not just individuals. Māori governance is an elephant in this room. Agreements made with the wrong, or too few parties are likely to run into issues, but it is very problematic for the Crown to adjudicate matters of internal Māori governance. What they can do is invest time into getting to know something of the internal politics of communities, to help create fair and functioning relationships.

The attitudes and ideas people hold about each other are also difficult things to shift. The history of the Crown-Māori relationship is fraught, and it would be naive to think that signing a Treaty settlement could wipe the slate clean, and Māori will suddenly turn to the Crown with trust. Trust will be built up over time here, if the Crown behaves with good faith, at great length. It has made around 7000 new promises to iwi during the Treaty settlements process, and it needs to keep them.

Lastly, and most importantly, the individual relationships that collectively make up the “Crown-Māori” relationship need to be supported. How do you support people to have better interactions? The government’s initial proposals suggest, as a priority, “lift[ing] public sector performance to better respond to Māori issues.” Training programmes for government employees could be useful here. The Department of Conservation has run for many years a week-long marae based course called Te Pūkenga Atawhai, which teaches new staff about the Treaty, engaging with iwi authorities, marae protocol, Māori beliefs and values, and some of the traditions of the tāngata whenua group that hosts the course. These sorts of training programmes only work, however, if the staff stay working for the organisation for a long enough time to use their skills. Hiring policies to target staff with a good understanding of Māori culture, and who are likely to stay around for a reasonable length of time, might be a good approach.

I also hope the new ministry will seek to include the wider public in their work. The Treaty was signed between Māori and the Crown, and some make the legitimate argument that Treaty relationships are a contractual matter between those two parties alone, a matter of justice, not of broader reconciliation. But that justice will only ever be carried out by a government voted in by the majority non-Māori population. If tāngata tiriti (those who are here because the Treaty made it possible for them to come in peace) are left out of the Treaty relationship, then the Treaty relationship will not succeed.

If we resource cross cultural relationships in civil society – properly fund marae and schools to build and nurture their relationships for example – so that non-Māori kids grow up understanding Māori culture rather than being afraid of it, then we’ll have all the ingredients here for a sustainable positive change.

He rau ringa e oti ai. This is a job for many hands. I think we can do it.

To have your say on the new portfolio and its priorities, you can go to one of the hui being held across the country between April 7 and May 12, or make your submission online here. The online submissions close on 30 May.

Dr. Keri Mills is a senior researcher at the Policy Observatory, AUT. Her research specialties are in Māori/Pākehā and Māori/government relationships in Aotearoa New Zealand.
@keri_mills

This piece was originally written for Briefing Papers.

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