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Image: Getty / Archi Banal
Image: Getty / Archi Banal

OPINIONĀteaFebruary 20, 2023

The prospect of co-governance sparks deep, irrational fears

Image: Getty / Archi Banal
Image: Getty / Archi Banal

Co-governance allows Māori no more than was guaranteed under Te Tiriti. It’s about shared responsibility and there are many fine examples of it already in place. So why  are some people so afraid of it?

They always saved the reconstruction till last. I must have been young, because I didn’t even understand what the word “reconstruction” meant, except in the context of a police dramatisation. 

Sometimes the woman would be attacked from behind in a car park while fumbling for her keys (silly! Always have your keys ready!) Sometimes she’d be sleeping in her bed next to an open window, the intruder slipping dark-gloved through the sheer netting and treading lightly across the carpet (practically an invitation!)

Always, it was dark. 

I found myself thinking about these scenes recently – specifically, about the source of my fears – as I roamed the streets of Titahi Bay after midnight looking for my boy. He gapped it after a heated clash between my parental expectations and his teenage indignation, and although I confiscated his car keys he proved his feet serve him just as well. 

When I could still make out the shape of his broad shoulders under the streetlights ahead of me I wasn’t worried, I was concerned only with keeping up. But then he darted across the road and slipped between the boat sheds and I lost him. He was too quick. Too resourceful. More familiar with the shortcuts and back alleys of this neighborhood than I could ever be.  

It was only when I abandoned my pursuit and turned towards home that I realised just how far I’d ventured. The stars above me blinked. The houses slumbered. It was a perfectly still night. Beautiful, even. 

Or was it?

I was barefoot, empty handed, and alone. I scanned the bushes for movement, checked over my shoulder. A distant seabird shrieked in warning. I hastened my steps.

It’s programmed into women walking alone at night to feel afraid. (Photo: Getty Images)

It’s a rare thing, as a woman, to walk alone at night by choice. Crimewatch reconstructions taught me young that I should stay inside and lock all the doors the moment darkness begins to fall. Logically, I knew the chances of a threat lurking opportunistically in the bushes for a woman walking alone on a quiet suburban street at 2am were remote, but my heart still thrummed in anticipation.

The night is not inherently dangerous. The stars are the celestial GPS by which our ancestors navigated the oceans between islands all over the Pacific. So what was the source of this unconscious reflex that suddenly heightened my sense of vulnerability?

We can ask the same thing of politicians arguing about what co-governance is and isn’t in the run-up to the election. The term has become a stealth word, like a dark-gloved, theoretical intruder slipping in the window after dark or waiting on the fringes of a deserted car park ready to attack.  

What are we afraid of?

In practice, co-governance isn’t inherently threatening. There are multiple working examples of co-governance already in existence in healthcare and education and the environment. Formal partnership agreements exist between iwi and local and central government to protect and manage a number of our lakes, rivers and mountains. 

Kōhanga Reo and Kura Kaupapa Māori deliver excellence in Māori education through a purpose-designed Māori curriculum that sits within a broader education system. Whānau ora provides world-class health services to Māori communities more effectively and with greater efficiency than many mainstream providers ever could.

Then there’s the independent efforts of colleagues and communities in different sectors across the country working constructively and collaboratively to tackle inequity and honour and uphold the promises of Te Tiriti every day. 

No-one, so far as I know, is suggesting that co-governance is an easy or straightforward thing to navigate. This 2016 report by the Office of the Auditor General reviews a number of arrangements to identify both the challenges and benefits. There’s clearly room for improvement, but nothing that could be described as a threat to national unity.

Yet to listen to Christopher Luxon you’d think we should all be rushing home to deadbolt our doors. He seems oblivious to, or tactically diverting attention away from, the many co-governance arrangements his own party helped establish in its previous terms. Lest we forget it was a National government in power when New Zealand became a signatory to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), out of which the highly controversial He Puapua report sprung.

That 2019 report, which is about wellbeing, inclusivity and structural pathways towards self-determination for Māori, suffered a fate similar to Labour’s fast-sinking Three Waters policy. Despite thorough examination by a range of reporters and analysts, Three Waters has been labeled by some politicians and interest groups as divisive, anti-democratic and separatist. 

These words shriek like a seabird in the dark, warning of dangers that simply aren’t there. Nevertheless, people respond the way they have been culturally conditioned – in a manner politicians shrewdly seek to exploit.

Logically, the fears of separatism are unfounded. Co-governance is not about ownership so much as partnership and shared responsibility. If co-governance is about power, it’s about who holds the balance of it. In the case of my almost-legal son who still lives at home, that balance rests with me. 

Though the relationship between Māori and the Crown isn’t a parental one, the analogy holds because the balance of power is currently held unilaterally by the Crown. The authority of our constitutional arrangements – the house – (or “one system” as Christopher Luxon refers to it) is not under threat. At best, co-governance is about how we can address inequity and look after and manage the household so that everyone, including the land and resources on which the house sits, is appropriately cared for. It is not about creating two separate houses.

We can extend the analogy. Leaders on the left and right of the political spectrum are like divorced parents who can’t stop gaslighting each other. Why shouldn’t Māori be indignant about that? Our ancestors did not sign Te Tiriti o Waitangi in order to become dependent on colonial masters who arm wrestle each other every three years in a bid for control. Is it any wonder Ngāpuhi were reluctant to let politicians speak at Waitangi this year? Who’d want to give hostile parents speaking rights at a whānau event if they can’t be trusted not to make the whole thing about them?  

Luxon says he rejects the accusation that his warnings about co-governance are racially charged. But his language suggests otherwise. In this interview, he emphatically declares he is “interested in advancing all Māori and all non-Māori” as though he is an authority about what’s best for Māori and how to achieve it.

National party leader Chris Luxon does not know what’s best for Māori better than Māori. (Photo: Kerry Marshall/Getty Images)

This is the kind of patronising language that sends defiant teenagers packing. It’s not for Pākehā politicians to dictate how to “advance” Māori wellbeing. That is for Māori to decide. Nor is it in a parent’s best interests to assume their way and their beliefs can be projected on their children without consequence.

Like parents who haven’t worked out when to let go, politicians’ attachments to Māori, particularly in an election year, look increasingly irrational. If you find yourself roaming the neighbourhood after dark in pursuit of a person who is well equipped to look after themselves, or giving speeches in which you are blatantly contradicting yourself in the same breath, there’s a good chance you look more deranged than vulnerable.

Everything to gain

The real question is: what might we gain as a society by examining the source of our fears in an attempt to consciously disarm them? Co-governance, if fully enabled, allows Māori no more than was guaranteed under Te Tiriti: the ability to look after, control and provide for our own. The benefits  are potentially limitless. For a start, co-governance could provide mechanisms for long term, enduring political coordination and planning, which is exactly what we urgently need to lift policy beyond the reach of fickle electoral cycles and meet the challenges of the climate crisis. Far from something to fear, co-governance is surely something to embrace. 

Similarly, I’ve been thinking about the benefits of night-walking. When I finally sat down to talk calmly with my boy about where he’s been spending all his time these past few months, the last thing I was expecting him to say was fishing.


My son and his friends cooking up their freshly caught kai. (Photo: supplied)

The reason he’s been leaving and returning at odd times, spending hours away off-grid and untrackable, is because he and his mates have been trying different spots around the southern coastline, following the tides. I’m not sure I would have believed him if he didn’t have the pictures to prove it.

Here was this kid, who never once ate kina when I tried to force it on him, slurping orange flesh from the shell and frying fish on the beach at sunset – developing the skills he needs to be self-determining in his own life and future. 

And what’s so frightening about that?

My dark suspicions couldn’t have been more off-track. (Photo: supplied)

This is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.

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