Without the Māori-Crown relations ministry Te Arawhiti, Kelvin Davis says Māori outcomes would regress and anger would rise

It’s been nearly four years since Te Arawhiti, the Office for Māori Crown Relations, was launched to help bridge the gap between government agencies and Māori.

The responsible minister, Kelvin Davis, says the name translates to ‘bridge’, and comes from a vision for Māori and Pākehā to cross from one world to the other “flicking in and out of languages and cultures and customs with ease”.

While getting all the public service on board is a continual work in progress, Davis says there’s a desire to do better by Māori, and for Māori. “It’s making chief  executives think really specifically about outcomes for Māori in terms of the work they’re doing,” he said.

At a professional development meeting of 600 public servants not long after the ministry was formed, Davis was blunt when he laid out his expectations.

“I said I don’t care where you are on that bridge as long as you’re prepared to step on it, and if you’re not prepared to, I question your place in the public service.”

Davis said he was worried he’d gone too far at the time, but he received a lot of feedback that the bridge vision had helped solidify what they were trying to achieve.

“It’s not about Te Arawhiti solving all the other agencies’ problems, it’s helping them to engage in the right way … and so Māori don’t have to continually justify our world view to government agencies.”

“They see us as a shining example, but we haven’t got it perfect.”
– Kelvin Davis

Davis accepts there will be some within the public service, including chief executives, who aren’t completely sold on the Government’s vision for Te Arawhiti.

“I think most are on board but probably still hesitant, a bit fearful, and also there’s probably some who think they’re doing right by Māori already – but if you ask Māori, they will say it’s not as good as they’re making out.”

The ministry has found its place in the public service, Davis told Newsroom, and if it were to be scrapped under a future government, he says Māori would suffer as a result.

“I think other agencies value the support Te Arawhiti gives and if it was removed, they’d struggle. We’d see outcomes for Māori regressing and anger from Māori rising.”

Davis points to examples where Te Arawhiti has done the behind-the-scenes work but purposely stayed out of the spotlight when it comes to the acknowledgements.

Creating the Matariki public holiday and bringing the country together with events to mark it was an example of Te Arawhiti “playing a role in the background to get it where it was and on the day letting everyone else shine, which is how it should be”.

Davis also acknowledged the work the ministry’s done in improving relations at Waitangi commemorations in Northland after the 2017 “shambles” that saw some political leaders boycott the day and public feuds over who should and shouldn’t be able to speak at events.

“It wasn’t a good look for Ngāpuhi and I said this needs to be sorted. Over the years Te Arawhiti has been at the front leading it, but also in the background.

“Now at Waitangi you have media saying there’s not a lot to report on because it’s going so well – that’s a sign of success,’’ he said.

There have been 10,000 Treaty settlement commitments to date and part of Te Arawhiti’s work has been going through them all and assigning them to the right agency for action.

“Every minister now knows how many commitments they’ve got and there’s a database that everyone can access to see how things are progressing.”

Davis says each agency is now accountable for making sure it delivers on those commitments and iwi, hapū and whānau have an easy way to check in on progress and see the various timelines for how that will be done.

“I said I don’t care where you are on that bridge as long as you’re prepared to step on it, and if you’re not prepared to, I question your place in the public service.” – Kelvin Davis

New Zealand has been navigating a Treaty partnership for 182 years and Davis said other countries are now looking for help as to how to start their own processes with indigenous peoples.

“We do still have a way to go, we’re not perfect.”

Six weeks ago, he visited Australia and has continued conversations since his return about how the country might formalise its own treaty with First Nations’ communities.

“They’re really grappling with it, and I said, 182 years later we’re still fixing mistakes, but you guys are in this most incredible moment in time of your nation’s history – you’re in the moment of time I wish I was in 182 years go – so don’t stuff it up,” Davis said.

The advice for Australia is “as much about what not to do as it is about what to do”.

“They see us as a shining example, but we haven’t got it perfect,” Davis said.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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