Explainer: What is co-governance?

Wed, Mar 15

This story was first published in August 2022

There's a C-word you may have heard bandied about in recent months: co-governance.

But what does co-governance actually mean?

Essentially, it's the Treaty of Waitangi partners, the Crown and Māori, having equal seats around the decision-making table.

The clue to its meaning is in its very name – “governance”. It's not about handing over ownership, it's about partnership in management.

Co-governance is nothing new, first coming into practice over a decade ago.

Treaty settlements created partnerships between iwi, and local and central government to manage natural resources.

For example, five iwi and the Crown manage our longest river as the Waikato River Authority.

And Ngāi Tūhoe and the Department of Conservation share guardianship over Te Uruwera’s forests and lakes.

Co-governance is also a key part of Three Waters plans, with mana whenua having equal representation with local councils in a top-tier governance group.

This group has oversight over a board charged with operational management, but no operational authority.

The establishment of Māori wards in local councils is rapidly becoming the norm, with 35 Māori wards being contested at the upcoming local elections, an increase from just three nationwide in 2019.

Supporters see co-governance as a crucial part of the Crown meeting its obligations under Te Tiriti, obligations which they say haven't been met historically.

That might look like the te reo Māori version of the Treaty guaranteeing rangatiratanga or self-determination for iwi, or interpreting Treaty principles of partnership, participation and protection as a way to address inequities and to deliver better outcomes for Māori.

But opponents have called it divisive and say it's “dismantling democracy”. The ACT party has even started a petition calling for a referendum on the issue.

Discussions around co-governance beyond the management of local resources have certainly got people's attention, but the debate has also become a target for anti-Māori sentiment online.

With the Government exploring further co-governance options under New Zealand's commitment to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, it's looking like it could be a highly politicised issue right through to the election due next year. That’s another reason to make sure we're schooled up on what it actually means.