A Voices for Freedom protester holds up a sign at a protest against Three Waters reforms, in Wellington, October 2022. (Photo by Lynn Grieveson/Getty Images)

The debate over the co-governance of water has highlighted how far we have to go in local government — and how the allergy to genuine power sharing is still widespread, writes Catherine Delahunty.


One explanation for the racist panic about co-governance is that it’s interpreted by some as “co-government”. Heaven forbid we share any power structures, let alone that we should start honouring Te Tiriti and its commitment to dual sovereignty.

Are we progressing or going around in circles on this kaupapa?

Now that I live at home on the Coromandel (and no longer commute to Parliament), the issues of local government and Te Tiriti are in the front of my mind, even though they’re barely referred to in the local papers.

So it was quite exciting when Len Salt, the newly elected mayor of Thames-Coromandel district, made positive statements in the paper about engaging properly with tangata whenua and learning about his own whakapapa.

I’ve lived in the Hauraki rohe off and on for many years and it’s the first time a mayor here has actually said that. Until now, we’ve only ever had one elected councillor who’s been proudly tangata whenua. By contrast, we’ve had plenty of absolute resistance from previous Pākehā leaders to building proper relationships with Hauraki iwi. And yes, tangata whenua have often stood for public office.

In the 1980s, I was appointed to the Regional Development Council. Initially, I was the only woman. There was a senior kaumātua on that council who was treated with such outright disrespect that even I, who’d barely started to grow an awareness of racism, was shocked to the core.

Our decisions weren’t influenced at all by a tangata whenua perspective because the leadership of the council wasn’t listening. It wasn’t even tokenism. It was just a blatant disregard.

Times have changed, but the debate over the co-governance of water has highlighted how far we have to go in local government and how the allergy to genuine power sharing is still widespread. In our form of democracy, populism rules if you want to get elected. Politicians in both central and local government often seem afraid to stand up for any real power sharing, let alone tino rangatiratanga in its full meaning.

Some local governments and lots of institutions don’t share actual power with tangata whenua, but they still want to be “culturally competent”. This tends to mean some Māori wards and some real commitment to them, some respect for tikanga in meetings, and some advisory positions and rooms labelled with Maōri names.

Is this a step-by-step evolution towards recognising Te Tiriti? Or is it a strategy that makes it look like were being fair while avoiding the fundamental issues?

Some councils and their majority voters are still way behind. The behaviour of the mayor of Kaipara, Craig Jepson, is a textbook example of the 1960s approach, and the only thing that’s changed is that his attacks on tikanga and co-governance issues is now news when before it was business as usual.

It’s not surprising when the electorates in some rural areas are in a state of hysteria over power sharing with regard to water. Jepson felt he had a mandate to behave in the interests of the white rural voting base who don’t want to share power, much less honour Te Tiriti.

The hikoi in Dargaville in response to the Kaipara mayor’s ban on karakia — “a textbook example of the 1960s approach” to power sharing. (Photo: RNZ/Samantha Alley)

Can the mayor of Kaipara and his ilk drag us back to accepting such behaviour? I don’t think so. I think the pockets of old-fashioned racism are scattered, but resistance to authentic power sharing can mutate into a dodgy modern formula or brand that also prevents Te Tiriti justice.

Tina Ngata, Tainui Stephens and Aroha Gilling have spelt this out in recent pieces in E-Tangata — and tangata Tiriti have to step up. We need to take responsibility for ourselves in this fraught moment, not just in calling out racism but in pushing for constitutional transformation.

I recently drove from near Wellington up to Hauraki and saw the billboards attacking Three Waters in many rural areas. The fact that the actual three waters under debate are predominantly an urban issue is irrelevant, because far-right voices have grabbed this opportunity to build a constituency based on the fear of power sharing.

However, most of the existing co-governance structures in communities are being ignored. They’re ignored because Pākehā people can live side by side with Maōri health providers and kura and kōhanga reo. As long as they’re not asked to think about their purpose and to face up to their underfunded struggles, all is well.

It’s when financially valuable assets like water might involve power sharing, and when some funding might go to tangata whenua participants, that the toxic rhetoric gains ground.

There are, of course, Pākehā community groups who tolerate Māori for Māori services, but that’s as long as most of the funding and power stays with them.

One of the criticisms of co-governance has been that it’s poorly described. You could also argue that any attempt at sharing power in a settler culture is automatically received like a cup of cold sick.

I see this in my work with Te Tiriti education every day. People can acknowledge the past unfairness, but when I ask them what their organisation will do with this new information, I draw a blank. They just want to stay overnight on a marae or learn te reo. My questions about recognising the power and authority of tangata whenua makes them uncomfortable.

Some people say we’re on a journey, slowly moving towards being a Tiriti-based nation. Some days (and especially in local debates) it feels more like a maze where we allow ourselves to be led away from the centre of the matter and back to the entrance.

When the mayor of Kaipara attacked a newly elected councillor for standing up for her tikanga, there were marches in the streets and support for her from across the nation.

The allergy to power sharing was weakened in some circles by his display of racist intolerance, although the far right can also be seen pushing their hate agenda. How long before we face the heart of the matter?

And the heart is not co-governance but Tiriti-based transformation of our structure. There’s no hope of that in this election year but, after October, better conversations and actions can and must continue.

Pablo Neruda, a Chilean poet, once said: “You can cut all the flowers but you cannot stop spring from coming.”


Catherine Delahunty is a Pākehā activist in environmental, social justice, and Te Tiriti o Waitangi issues. She was a Green MP for nine years and lives in Hauraki. She mainly works in the campaigns against multinational goldmining in Hauraki and is active in the national solidarity network for a Free West Papua. She is a writer and a tutor on social change issues, and a grandmother.

© E-Tangata, 2023

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