Former public servant Deb Te Kawa says she expects parliament to become a lightning rod for protest and activism. (Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone)

Deb Te Kawa, a consultant and former senior public servant, has been taking a close look at the new government’s policy programme. Here’s her analysis on the coalition agreements, and what they might mean for te ao Māori.


Te ao Māori is more durable than a rock that’s been pounded by waves for thousands of years.

Numbers and youth are on our side. Our stories grow from strength to strength. We still love and celebrate one another, and find joy and pride in our collective being. And there’s a generation coming through — the “kōhanga generation” — that’s ready to play a part in the future of Aotearoa while overcoming the seemingly insurmountable barriers the state creates.

But there’s no doubt that some whānau have been left behind. It’s critically important that the state sets its sights on reducing the institutional obstacles and administrative burden on those rangatahi and their whānau, so they can enjoy the same benefits and outcomes of participation and achievement that others enjoy.

If the state chooses not to do this, or tries to deliver a solution from Wellington, or the new Māori conservative politicians in the coalition government try to play political games with these whānau, there’s a genuine danger that the state will create a racial situation that will have severe consequences for Aotearoa.

This is the context that the new National-led coalition government has failed to understand — if their list of policies unveiled last week is any indication.

The electorate voted for minor changes, not reform — and certainly not a culture war. And the policy lists released so far are not only insufficient for the promised change, they also contain major contradictions that only officials can help resolve. Which means ministers will need to provide urgent space for free and frank advice from officials on how these will be implemented.

But there may not be the capacity or the goodwill in the public or third sectors to deliver on the lists, nor to reconcile the contradictions in the current lists. And, given the scale of the change, public sector productivity could decrease.

So, there’s a genuine risk this governance arrangement won’t go the distance.

Buying a culture war

First, the incoming administration seems to have overestimated its social licence. It doesn’t have a landslide mandate. I’m not convinced the electorate voted for reform along the lines of 1984–1993. Given the success of Te Pāti Māori, it’s hard to argue that whānau Māori voted for reform to their own hard-won rights. And given that the centre-left has 55 seats in a 122-seat House, and they campaigned against removing the hard-won rights on the coalition’s hit list, it lacks credibility to claim Pākehā New Zealand is entirely on board either.

An excessive number of items on the coalition’s list buy a culture war that Pākehā New Zealand isn’t ready for. Believe me when I say that te ao Māori is prepared.

The current government may not remember the colonial wars, but te ao Māori sure does — like it was yesterday.

That said, I’m sure te ao Māori will bide its time to see if Matua Winston and Tua Rua Shane deliver on the promises in the north, which many will agree are much needed and long overdue. But that patience will quickly run out. Especially because many hapū leaders, some whanui and many institutions want to protest now.

If the new government and its supporters think winning an election is enough, they haven’t watched politics for the last few decades. Winning an election is the price one pays to play. Maintaining the electorate’s trust, confidence, and support is entirely different and discomforting. Complexity and inexplicability increase, and intractability and paradox play into every decision.

Ministers have to govern in the national interest, so plurality matters, and networks with shifting alliances have to be brought along on the journey. Demands for greater participation and devolution mean ministers have to put party loyalty, their base, and their funders aside.

And ministers with a technocratic or bullying style usually get crushed and ignored within the first few months. Those technocrats and bullies who don’t get crushed usually produce sub-optimal results and quietly move on.

Disconnected and incoherent

Second, the sum of the policy lists is both too much and insufficient. The lists are very “list-y”. They’re long, disconnected and riddled with incoherency.

The sum of all the lists appears to add up to something entirely different, and falls short of the stated goal. The stated goal was outcomes-based governance to improve public services, so that those services would mitigate the cost of living crisis and help grow the economy while ensuring we all feel safer.

Instead, we appear to have a government that has painted a target on its own back by picking fights across the board while asking the public service to do more with much less, while making some communities less safe.

We also have a government that appears to want to exit from services that improve community safety and social cohesion, so it can invest in evidentially ineffective law and order policies.

Without being too dramatic, I suspect our domestic security system is blinking red today.

Will ministers have listening ears?

Some of the items on the list are contradictory. The most obvious example is the free-fees policy. On one hand, the government wants to grow the economy through infrastructure investment. The free fees in the final year might make sense if you think university students benefit most. But the primary beneficiaries of that investment have been tradies and construction workers, and the small businesses who’ve used that investment to take on more staff and get them through their two years of study.

The same is true of any number of retail workers, hairdressers, and other service workers. Some of us don’t appear to realise how skilled, and qualified, some of our service professionals must be.

The public service will need to step up and help the government resolve these contradictions, as a matter of some urgency. The risk here is the incoming government won’t listen to the free, frank, fearless, and without favour advice of officials. It will be interesting to see if ministers can create the space for officials to now reconcile the contradictions, prioritise the various tasks, and build the sufficiency and performance assurance systems so the government has an outcomes story.

If ministers don’t have listening ears, the likelihood of implementation failure and our own Robodebt is high.

Deb Te Kawa (Ngāti Porou) is a former public servant. (Photo supplied)

Public sector capacity and goodwill

It’s a risk that there’s not enough capacity in the public sector or goodwill in the third sector to deliver on the lists, let alone resolve or mitigate the harm from the various contradictions.

It makes no sense to me that the new government has painted such a big target on its back and engaged in so many fights across so many fronts — with iwi, hapū, whānui and whānau, the hauora and kura collectives, the anti-smoking groups, the climate change and taiao activists, the climate change scientists, justice sector advocates, the anti-lobbying and integrity advocates, students, local government officers who now have to throw out six years of work, developers and planners who no longer have certainty, let alone the unions and advocates representing the unregulated health workforces, doctors, nurses, clinicians, teachers, lecturers, tutors, academics, police, soldiers, sailors, aviators, regulators, engineers, scientists, border workers and security professionals.

I’m sure all of the protestors and public professionals will do what they’re lawfully enabled and required to do, but what the professionals won’t do is give that extra unpaid hour or two at the end of their shift to fix up or resolve the contradictory policy they’re being asked to implement.


And this is the fifth risk: public sector productivity will go down. Productivity falls when engagement falls. Engagement decreases when complexity increases, and people are asked to do more with less. Complexity happens when a government can’t commission a coherent policy agenda.

The likelihood of implosion

The agreements are very prescriptive. They don’t give each party enough room to change course when new information or evidence comes to light. Politicians need room to move, especially if they discover their grand idea can’t be implemented or, if implemented, will result in the opposite outcome.

Because the lists are riddled with illogic and contradiction, the prime minister and his staff must exercise strong command and control governance. They must quickly organise the lists into a coherent strategy and governable plan. The plan will need some outcomes and some measurability.

Chris Luxon has an enabling and delegation style, not an enforcement one. He has promised ministerial accountability and results, but the public-facing documentation is silent. If the PM (or his chief of staff) doesn’t exercise quick command, opportunist ministers and sneaky officials will have undue influence. Undue influence creates lopsided decision-making. Lopsided decision-making creates winners and losers. The losers hate losing. Bad faith and toxic governance ensue.

Institutions across the motu are already lawyering up. The contradictions in the lists and the lack of a plan create uncertainty. Uncertainty creates risk. Risk needs to be mitigated. I suspect a lot of the new government’s programme will end up in the courts in the coming months, with several items getting their stop-work notice.

I also expect parliament to become a lightning rod for protest and activism. Where the New Zealand First agreement relies on existing instruments and can be done without much parliamentary scrutiny, almost everything on the Act list has to travel through parliament.

So, while NZ First gets on with delivering change with its senior coalition partner, Act will draw both NZ First and National into intense public debates. Debates that, on the face of it, only NZ First can credibly front. Act is anti-Māori, uncomfortable in te ao Māori, and resentful about their disconnection from it — and, surprisingly for a personal responsibility party, it seems unable to do anything to build those connections.

Also, Shane Reti and Tama Potaka have huge portfolios, and I don’t expect they’ll be happy about putting that work aside to clean up after Act’s messes day after day. Act’s culture war will be a negative drag on the government’s ability to govern.

I’m confident te ao Māori can endure these debates. Indeed, I know a number of rangatira who will delight and relish in them. But the Pākehā community and their institutions will struggle.

Te ao Māori’s relationship with the state since its inception has been one of constant and enduring conflict. But iwi/Māori know how to drive positive outcomes from the negative parts of the state.

And, while it’s a deep struggle to get the state to perform or get out of the way, Pākehā New Zealand is genuinely uncomfortable with the politics of struggle and conflict. Look, for example, at how their sensibilities were shaken by the anti-vaccine and anti-mandate protests organised by the anti-Māori and violent extremists on the right.

Also, politics is personal, so I don’t know about you, but racist Uncle Albert is going to be shut down very quickly and left to sulk at Christmas lunch this year. Aunty Catherine, who’s seriously thinking about divorcing him, wants him to stay home with his “Stop Three Waters” sign so she can enjoy her new mokopuna’s first Christmas.

In the past, the public service has been able to look to the likes of Kara Puketapu, Tā Wira Gardiner, Dame Margaret Bazley, Mark Prebble, Simon Murdoch, Sir Maarten​ Wevers, and Dame Helene Quilter to steady the public service waka. With the current Public Services Commissioner signalling he’ll retire in February, ko wai te central agencies? No reira, ko wai te takere nui o te waka? Who will they look to now? Who will provide the service with the strength, stability and courage it will need to deal with the problems coming down the pipe?

The risk here is that senior officials won’t be supported by ministers to fulfil their constitutional roles and responsibilities, because the purple zone is a battle zone.

I see they don’t have the PIF (performance improvement framework) process or a set of outcomes to be measured against. One of the things the PIF did was encourage the government to clarify their priorities and dependencies with the senior public service.

This process was facilitated by the PIF reviewers, who were outstanding operators and trusted by politicians and officials. Those reviewers also confirmed the scope of core business and the related effectiveness and efficiency measures for ministers and officials.

In return for this level of clarity, politicians got assurance as well as a performance and outcomes story. Officials got the mandate they needed for delivery and channels to report back to ministers.

I want to end on an optimistic note. If I’m right about the context, and the new government doesn’t take steps to mitigate the risks, the kawanatanga (Crown) will probably be weaker in five years.  

I think the centre-right will also be weaker. It’s taken a huge risk in transforming itself from a block of patricians presiding over the status quo into an activist administration defending extreme positions, offering conspiracy theories as policy, fighting unwinnable culture wars, and overseeing a significant transfer of capital to the upper North Island.

But, in welcome contrast, the institutions of te ao Māori will be strengthened by the bonds that come with resistance and taking care of one another.

Āke, ake, ake. Aotearoa keeps revealing herself.


Deb Te Kawa (Ngāti Porou) is a former public servant. She now runs her own policy and governance consultancy, with clients in public, private and community organisations across Aotearoa and Australia. She is also a PhD candidate at Canterbury University.

© E-Tangata, 2023

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