Professor Margaret Mutu. (Photo supplied)

Amid hateful attacks on Māori, squabbles over what words to use and much misinformation, three significant Māori rōpū have taken a united stand in support of co-governance.  

In this conversation with Siena Yates, Professor Margaret Mutu explains why they’ve done that, and shares her views on the government’s “loss of courage” on Māori concerns.


I’m a linguist, and in my field, we have something called the Humpty Dumpty Principle. Humpty Dumpty said to Alice: “When I say a word, it means what I want it to mean, neither more, nor less.”

It’s used to describe how, when people in power face opposition, they are quick to change what words mean to suit them.

That’s what’s happened with co-governance. It’s being used to redefine important things and to say hateful things about us.

So, this week, the National Iwi Chairs Forum quite consciously came together with the Māori Women’s Welfare League and the New Zealand Māori Council to release a statement in support of co-governance.

For some time now, we’ve been concerned about the increase of the extreme-right attacks around the Three Waters proposals for co-governance, and the level of nastiness and viciousness of those attacks — particularly against Nanaia Mahuta and our Māori ministers, but also against Māori in general.

There seems to be a very widespread concern that having Māori at the decision-making table is somehow a threat to Pākehā. We in the Māori world know that’s not true, and for extreme groups to be implying that, is just wrong.

It’s incumbent on those of us who’ve been given representative roles in the Māori world to say so on behalf of our people. Because it’s our people who are getting hurt by this, and we want to put a stop to that.

So, we came together to let the country know that this is a concern not just to one group or a few Māori, but throughout the Māori world.

If you take the time to understand what co-governance is about, it’s the wellbeing of everybody in this country. It’s not about Māori suddenly taking over and doing to the country what the British did to us when they came here. That’s not how we are.

It’s about an ultimate responsibility we have to look after this country and to look out for everybody in this country.

There’s been talk of changing the term “co-governance” because it has become so divisive. But it doesn’t really matter what you call it.

Our tūpuna invited Pākehā to come and live among us, and we’re bound by that invitation. And we invited Pākehā to come and live among us on the condition that they abide by the kāwanatanga of the Queen of England. Her governance would ensure that Pākehā who came and lived in this country abided by the law. It was never intended for us. That kāwanatanga was for Pākehā.

That’s what Te Tiriti o Waitangi was all about. It confirmed that this was a country where Māori would have the overall say, and we would exercise our mana and our tino rangatiratanga for the good of the country.

That’s all we’ve ever asked — that that promise made in 1840 be adhered to. But Pākehā overstepped that hugely and, instead of adhering to Te Tiriti, they decided instead to rely on the Doctrine of Discovery to run amok.

The doctrine gave European settlers permission to claim sovereignty over lands they “discovered” by either converting, enslaving or killing, the native inhabitants who they defined as non-human.

The Vatican has just repudiated the doctrine and our government must do the same. I don’t mean that as just some flash-in-the-pan idea. I really do think that our government repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery will have an effect because then we will finally talk about how it underpins the racism that exists in this country.

At the moment, we have the government agreeing to draw up a national plan of action to eliminate racism, but unless you understand and address the cause — which is the Doctrine of Discovery — it’s only ever going to be a superficial sticking plaster on the top of the problem.

We need to take the doctrine out of all the legislation and administration across all government departments, across the health sector, across the education sector, across every single sector. It’s a huge task.

But this country is in the mess it’s in because we weren’t allowed to sit at the decision-making table as agreed in Te Tiriti o Waitangi. We’re at a point where climate change is devastating communities, where people are getting poisoned and dying because of the quality of the water, where our health statistics are so bad that we die many years before Pākehā die.

All we’re saying is: “Let us make our own decisions about our own lives, and then watch to see how much that benefits the rest of the country.” That shouldn’t be a threat to anyone.

There’s been so much damage, and we’ve got to be involved in fixing it up. We’re saying to those in power that you can’t keep doing this because it’s not in the interest of this country in any way, shape, or form.

And I do think we can get there. That dream Moana Jackson had of achieving constitutional change by 2040? I think it’s doable.

And the reason I say that is because, in the more than 40 years I’ve been teaching in the university, we’ve had a huge number of people who’ve been trained quite specifically in this.

We have a very large number of Māori who are professionals in every field, who will no longer tolerate racism, and they’re making huge moves. And behind them is a whole lot of Pākehā who’ve had that same sort of training.

The professional face of this country is clearly changing, and that will lead to even greater change overall.

I’d hoped that this election year might be the year that we’d see a government that’s changing too. One that understands the issues faced by the Māori world, one with a depth of understanding that gives them the courage to say: “We know that the conditions that Māori live under have to improve, and in order to do that, we’re going to have to make some hard decisions.”

Instead, I’ve actually seen this government lose its courage in respect of Māori things. It’s trying to sweep Māori issues under the rug, and I’m saddened by that. I think part of that comes back to the viciousness of the attacks against people like Nanaia. People are afraid to stick their heads up above the ramparts on behalf of Māori.

To me, her treatment was unforgivable. I wish some of her Pākehā colleagues had stepped up to tautoko her far earlier than they did. That’s how you normalise co-governance. You have each other’s backs. But I haven’t seen it. I’ve seen a loss of courage.

What’s going to happen? I don’t know, but I do know that if any of the right-wing parties get into parliament, we’ll have to go into protection mode. It will be quite dangerous for Māori, because it seems that some of them are out for revenge because we’ve dared to say: “We’ll take responsibility for ourselves and you’re not going to dictate to us anymore.”

I don’t think they know how to cope with the fact that Māori are already here living our own mana motuhake.

With my whānau at home, for example, way up in the Far North, nobody can come anywhere near us, nor tell us what to do with our lives, on our marae, on our land, or with our own resources. We don’t have much. But for what little we have left, nobody can tell us what to do. No government department will ever be able to do that to us again.

We’ve been in that mode for at least 30 years in my whānau — and there are a lot of Māori communities throughout the country like that. That’s only going to keep growing.

So, don’t worry about mana motuhake. Our people are going to get on with that regardless. At the Iwi Chairs Forum, we have a programme to help our people draw up those plans and implement them for their whānau, hapū and iwi.

When it comes to governing the country, ideally, we’d have one sphere for mana motuhake and rangatiratanga, where Māori make our own decisions for our own lives. And then a kāwanatanga sphere where the government makes decisions for its own people, not for us.

Those two would work quite independently of each other until there are areas where we need to come together and talk. That’s what we call the relationship sphere. That’s where co-governance comes into play, and that’s where we always knew we’d need to do the most work.

We should be able to come together in a way that ensures our whānau, our hapū and our iwi are healthy, wealthy and prosperous.

So, it would mean us making sure that everything in our rohe was in order, that we were exercising our kaitiakitanga and then we’d sit down with our Pākehā neighbours, with those responsible for the kāwanatanga sphere in our area, and be able to make sure that when they wanted to do something in our rohe, that it wouldn’t impact negatively on anyone and that it would be for the benefit of all people. Not just Māori, but all people.

And furthermore, that sort of kōrero would be the norm. It would be completely normalised that you would call on the thousand years of knowledge that Māori have, join that up with the knowledge that your manuhiri in your area can bring to the table, and the decisions that you would make together would be the best possible decisions.

And — this is me, the linguist speaking now — this would be a country in which everybody would be fluent in both English and Māori. That would be natural for us.

Then we could just relegate to the history books the horrific 200 years we’ve just been through. I think it can be done. I do have that hope.

But we have to keep things simple.

One thing I’ve watched many, many people do is make things so purposefully complicated that only a very few individuals can understand. That’s never to the benefit of the people.

All we’re asking for is a world in which we make our own decisions about our own lives, the government makes its own decisions about its people’s lives, and we sit together and make decisions on matters that relate to us both.

I don’t know what others call co-governance, but that’s how we talk about it in the National Iwi Chairs Forum. When I talk to my people at home, that’s what it’s about. It’s that simple.

And we, as Māori, will stay flexible. If someone is redefining co-governance for their own divisive purposes, then we’ll use another word to say: “Māori will sit at the table and make the decisions for this country with you.”

You can change the meaning of a word however you like, but it won’t change our reality.


Professor Margaret Mutu (Ngāti Kahu, Te Rarawa and Ngāti Whātua) is Professor of Māori Studies at the University of Auckland. For the past two decades, Margaret has chaired Te Rūnanga-ā-Iwi o Ngāti Kahu. In that role, she represents Ngāti Kahu on the National Iwi Chairs Forum where she chairs Te Pou Tikanga, the Aotearoa Independent Monitoring Mechanism, which monitors New Zealand’s compliance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and Matike Mai Aotearoa — the Independent Working Group on Constitutional Transformation.

As told to Siena Yates and made possible by NZ On Air through the Public Interest Journalism Fund.

© E-Tangata, 2023

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