27 Mar 2023

Co-governance at the coalface

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 27 March 2023

Newsroom's Nikki Mandow went hunting for organisations run using a co-governance model and found some have been doing it quietly for years. No power grab, no stolen assets. The Detail hears from leaders of these bodies about what co-governance looks like in practice, and asks - does it work?

A mural of two school students performing a hongi.

A mural at Western Springs College - Ngā Puna o Waiōrea Photo: Newsroom/Nikki Mandow

For Bob Penter, chief executive of the Waikato River Authority, co-governance is just the norm - how things happen at the board table for the country's longest waterway. 

For 13 years, five iwi members and five Crown members have got together every two months to make decisions about how to improve the health and wellbeing of the polluted river. Everything's done by consensus - there's no voting. And if meetings take a bit longer while the 10 representatives nut out points of difference and come to a joint decision, the quality of what's decided is the better for it, Penter says. 

That's different from a more traditional board, or the way councils work.

"The way that our decisions are made is by the merits of the argument; it's not about rushing into a show of hands, and 'oh, it's 6-6, or 7-7, I'm the chair, I'm going to use my casting vote, and let's move to the next item on the agenda'. 

"With co-governance, we have to pause and work through issues a bit further than perhaps we might have. And invariably, that results in better decisions, because they are far more weighted, far more considered."

It wasn't always that easy, Penter says. When the co-governed Waikato River Authority was first set up in 2010, as part of the Waikato-Tainui treaty settlement, members of the regional council were seriously worried; they lobbied ministers to unwind certain aspects, including co-governance. 

Does that remind you of something? Something water related?

Tukoroirangi Morgan was one of the founding co-chairs of the river authority and part of the treaty settlement team which fought to have co-governance as the decision-making model. 

Now he's the newly-appointed chair of the iwi representative group for 'entity A', the largest water body under the Three Waters reform, and he finds himself fighting again.

"This is about politics, about the political machinery having a go at a government which has had the courage to take something successful, and put it in a situation where the outcome will be positive for everyone. And that is a major problem for people like me, because I've seen the fruits of co-governance."

Morgan is frustrated at what he sees as the political right playing the race card for their own ends.

"It makes me really angry that they continue to trot out this nonsense about a Māori power grab. Co-governance was always about sharing decision making."

At Auckland's Western Springs College - Ngā Puna o Waiōrea, a co-governed school, principal Ivan Davis and tumuaki Pa Chris Selwyn find it hard to square the rhetoric around Three Waters with their own reality.

They believe the long-running co-governance model has been critical in the success of the school, in particular in lifting the performance of Māori students. 

"[The anti-co-governance rhetoric] saddens me, if I'm being honest, because of knowing what can be achieved through co-governance," Selwyn says.

"It saddens me when people just go, 'It's not the norm, it's not going to work. Get rid of it'. Well, we're showing how it can work on a day-to-day managerial and at a governance level as well."

Hear more about how co-governance works in these organisations in the full podcast episode.

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