Stale colonial views have held dominance over our unique systems of government and politics for too long, not reflecting the Tiriti partnership and tending to shut Māori out of decision-making

Comment: Among most students, colleagues and government officials we work with we see a desire to deepen connections to Aotearoa by learning about tikanga and te reo Māori and mātauranga Māori. We see a desire for just relationships.

We all benefit from focusing on developing and maintaining such relationships in our society. If we prioritise mutual respect, balance, and benefit in relationships within and across our diverse communities, we enable different voices to be heard in decision-making and encourage participation in all areas of public life. Everyone is encouraged to bring their strengths and knowledge together to address the social and environmental challenges we face. Everyone wins when we have good, balanced, respectful relationships with each other and with the world we live in.

For too long, tired ideas have allowed injustice and a privileged minority to dominate. Stale views from far away have held dominance over our unique systems of government and politics. Narrow notions of liberal democracy, crafted in Europe, and British colonialism have been widely criticised by scholars for being founded on assumptions of Western superiority, and the imposition of Western forms of government over Indigenous peoples and their forms of government.

Such ideas have led to ‘stale, pale, male’ political dominance and decision-making. At a local government level, this has produced representation that does not reflect the Tiriti partnership at the heart of our democracy. Decisions about the environment have tended to shut Māori out of decision-making, often with negative results, such as draining wetlands or discharge of effluent directly into waterways where families used to swim.

At a national level, the failure of the healthcare system to adequately support Māori to design and deliver primary healthcare to Māori has contributed to the severe health inequities experienced by Māori.

We no longer need these stale ideas. They should be retired.

What we need, and the demand we see from students, colleagues, community groups and government officials, are solutions that draw together our different strengths to create more just relationships. To recognise rights and obligations, and to generate better outcomes for us all.

Our ancestors bravely initiated a shared path for us under Te Tiriti o Waitangi, where respectful, balanced partnerships would embrace tino rangatiratanga and kāwanatanga. That is the basis of our unique liberal democracy: less about JS Mill and more about Aotearoa.

We need to bring together our strengths, such as the intergenerational knowledge Māori have of eco-systems, and use protection mechanisms, such as rāhui, alongside Western science knowledge systems and ways of approaching the environment.

Te Tiriti provides a framework for shared decision-making based on the recognition of rights and a respect for the exercise of tino rangatiratanga and kāwanatanga. Properly giving effect to the relationship established in Te Tiriti opens up opportunities for respectful and innovative collaboration. Working together, we can all share the benefits of a flourishing environment and community wellbeing.

We can already see examples of more just relationships developing. Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act, which gives legal status to the river, has been credited by Whanganui iwi leader Gerrard Albert for moving beyond co-governance in caring for the river to ‘community governance’. The act establishes a 17-member collaboration of hapū, iwi, local government and other community interest groups all working together effectively, “removing barriers to co-operation and making democracy work better for all”, Albert says.

Other local and regional examples include the Waikato River Authority. Created in 2010, the authority involves iwi and the Crown working to support the health and wellbeing of the Waikato River. Riparian planting, restoration of tributaries, enhancing people’s access and connections to the river are unlocking better outcomes for all in the catchment.

In Auckland, the Pourewa Creek Recreation Reserve is governed by Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei Reserves Board and Auckland Council. The area used to be a pony club but in the past few years has been transformed into a native plant nursery, and is being replanted with native bush and food gardens, for the benefit of the iwi and all people of Auckland.

Each of these examples was the result of negotiations for the settlement of claims of historical breaches of Te Tiriti. In each case, Māori fought for decades to have their rights recognised.

But there is no reason those arrangements need to be tied to historical wrongs. They each seek to restore respectful, balanced relationships between people and with the natural environment. They ought to be the kinds of relationships that are business as usual in Aotearoa.

We have many examples of the steps other communities in Aotearoa are choosing to take on the path to more just relationships. These steps help to create a stronger democracy, uniquely grounded in Aotearoa. Which is why we should do the people of Aotearoa, and the environment, a favour and retire the stale ideas that narrow our vision and limit our potential.

Associate Professor Maria Bargh (Te Arawa and Ngāti Awa) is from Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington' Te Kawa a Māui, School of Māori Studies.

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