Bemused by the political furore, nay fury, Nikki Mandow went hunting for examples of shared governance in action.

Seats at the Table series: Co-governance is nothing like you think | Tūpuna Maunga Authority | Newton Central School – Te Kura a Rito o Newton | Kotahitanga mō te Taiao Alliance | Waikato River Authority 

Every two months, ten people sit around a table to talk about the Waikato River. More specifically, “the restoration and protection of the health and wellbeing of the Waikato River for future generations”.

Five of the ten board members of the Waikato River Authority are iwi appointees, selected by Māori from the five iwi that border the river. Five are Crown appointees. There are co-chairs, one from each side.

And their job – one they and their predecessors have been doing for 12 years, since a Treaty settlement led to $220 million being vested in a new river authority – is to work out how to spend money to look after and clean up the Waikato.

* Trouble at Tūpuna Maunga Authority
‘It sends shivers down my spine what we manage to achieve’
Reframing co-governance: Jackson’s warning to Labour
The Detail: Co-governance – Time to get on with it

Co-governance at work is shockingly tame, after the recent sometimes violent rhetoric. Not the “culture war” that ACT’s David Seymour says defines co-governance. Nor the undemocratic tribalism described by National’s Simon O’Connor.

No assets are being stolen, no power is being grabbed. It’s just a bunch of people on a board doing board stuff – getting together, making decisions, and sharing accountability for financing and outcomes. Just with a couple of distinguishing features. 

First, there’s the mandated 50:50 council-iwi split: five elected people representing local community interests, and the same number of ‘selected’ people representing Māori. 

The authority has spent tens of millions of dollars on river catchment restoration work since 2011. Photo: WRA video

And alongside that, in what’s possibly the most radical bit about the Waikato RIver Authority and most other co-governance models, is the fact it makes decisions by consensus. 

Consensus. Unanimity. Definition: All participants around the table working toward reaching agreement as a group. Not the majority being OK with what’s being proposed; not the chair having a casting vote to get on with the next item on the agenda. It’s about discussion and re-working and coming back around the table until everyone is happy.

If that’s radical, it’s not in the way David Seymour or the Three Waters protestors see co-governance as radical.

David Seymour see co-governance as 'culture war'. Photo: Lynn Grieveson
David Seymour see co-governance as ‘culture war’. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

And if Newsroom’s investigations of co-governance in action are representative of how the model works, mostly it’s not radical at all. 

For this Seats at the Table series, we looked for, and found (mostly through word of mouth from our reporting team), five organisations using co-governance as their modus operandi – one in Whangārei, two in Auckland, one in the Waikato, and one in the north of the South Island. 

Then we talked to leaders – at least one person representing the iwi members and one the non-Māori side (mostly but not always Crown or local government) for each organisation – about the history of their particular co-governance model and how exactly it worked. 

“For us, having co-governance, the balanced voice at the table, makes life a lot easier.”
– Bob Penter, Waikato River Authority

We wanted to know what the board looked like, how it made decisions, and what were the benefits and the challenges of co-governance as they saw it. 

And at the same time as the anti-co-governance rhetoric grew in the political arena, and debates got more heated in the media (social and otherwise) at Rātana and Waitangi Day celebrations, and with co-governance tied up with what constitutional law expert Margaret Mutu called ‘extreme attacks coming in which are very, very hurtful’, the stories Newsroom heard from co-governance practitioners were quite different.

Co-governance was normal, it was hard work (but not more so than any other leadership), it worked well, and seemed to produce good decisions. It was, as mentioned above, surprisingly unexciting. The people Newsroom spoke to were largely bemused by the recent furore.

Shared decision making

Bob Penter has been involved with the Waikato River settlement since the mid-2000s, when he was the senior crown-appointed advisor to the Waikato River Guardians Establishment Committee. Now he’s chief executive of the river authority, and co-governance is just how things are done.

“If we were just a normal board, we might have one or two people at the table appointed to give the iwi perspective. But in my view it can be quite difficult for those people, looking across the table at eight other people that perhaps have a different perspective than they do. And they have to be that sole voice at the table.

“For us, having co-governance, the balanced voice at the table, makes life a lot easier and really helps bring the iwi perspective into all our decision making. Not just a one-off, long-term view, but everything we do.”

Co-governance “just feels normal”, Bob Penter says. Photo: Supplied

Waikato-Tainui leader and former MP Tukoroirangi Morgan, commonly known as Tuku Morgan, was one of the founding co-chairs of the Waikato River Authority in 2010, alongside former National MP John Luxton. Now he’s the newly-appointed chair of the iwi representative group for ‘entity A’, the largest water body under the Three Waters reform.

Morgan, who spent eight years on the authority board, says co-governance is about collective decision making between iwi and the Crown on important issues, like cleaning up the Waikato River, or ensuring New Zealand has the infrastructure needed for clean drinking water and safe treatment of sewage.

No more, no less.

Tuku Morgan became co-chair of the Waikato River Authority in 2010. Photo: Getty Images

“What makes me really angry is people continue to trot out this nonsense about Māori and a power grab. Co-governance was always about sharing decision-making, equal numbers of iwi, equal numbers of Crown representatives at the table and all down to consensus.

“Unlike these councils that scrap and disagree and have extreme views, here we have two chairs, both of us from different worlds, marshalling our two sides. Never in the eight years I was chair and the Honourable John Luxton was chair, did we ever have to go to a vote. Where there were differences we talked and talked until we came to a consensus decision.

“The defining thing that made this work is that we all had a common purpose – the health and wellbeing of the river. It wasn’t about whether you belong to the National Party or the Labour Party, or ACT, or the council; the supreme and paramount issue was what was best for the river.”

The spirit of te Tiriti

Travel a few kilometres up the North Island from where the river meets the sea, and Auckland’s Western Springs College is also run on a co-governance model. 

The school is actually two schools on one site – the mainstream college, and the te reo Māori immersion kura Ngā Puna O Waiōrea. But there’s a single board structure, which brings together the two principals, plus student, staff and parent representatives from both schools. 

It’s a big board – 16 people – and decision-making is by consensus. The co-governance model, including strict criteria about the ‘election’ of the Western Springs College board members by a vote and the ‘selection’ of the Ngā Puna o Waiōrea members in a series of hui, was inspired by a co-governance model developed at Newton Central School more than two decades ago, and was enshrined in the high school’s constitution in 2019.

Western Springs College past principal Ken Havill once called co-governance his greatest professional achievement. Photo: Nikki Mandow

Moving to a co-governance and consensus model has been a gradual process over a number of years, says Pa Chris Selwyn, the tumuaki or principal of Waiōrea. It was driven originally by wanting to lift the achievement levels of Māori students.

“It’s been a natural development of working towards mana motuhake [self-determination], demonstrating Māori have the voice, the autonomy to be able to self determine, in conjunction and alongside our Treaty partners.”

Selwyn argues the school’s academic success is tied to its co-governance principles. The percentage of Western Springs students with NCEA Level 1 or above in 2021, the latest year the Government’s Education Counts website lists results, is higher than the Auckland average and significantly higher than the all-NZ figure – 93.5 percent for WSC versus 91.2 for Auckland and 87.3 in NZ.

“It saddens me when people say about co-governance: ‘It’s not the norm, it’s not going to work, get rid of it’, because here we are showing how it can work on a day-to-day managerial and governance level.”
– Pa Chris Selwyn, Ngā Puna o Waiōrea

And there’s virtually no difference between the performance of Māori students and their Pākehā counterparts – 93.9 percent of Māori students got a Level 1 qualification or better versus 94.1 of Pākehā. In fact, in 2021 Māori students outperformed the average for the school as a whole – 93.9 percent versus 93.5. 

“They are doing something right out there by the zoo,” wrote Metro magazine in its “Best Schools” feature.

That something is, at least in part, co-governance, Selwyn argues. “Our structure and our policy and practice is something that produces the type of results we achieve.

Pa Chris Selwyn says different organisations will adopt different models of shared governance. Photo: Hugo Stewart

“It saddens me when people say about co-governance: ‘It’s not the norm, it’s not going to work, get rid of it’, because here we are showing how it can work on a day-to-day managerial and governance level.”

One of the main criticisms of co-governance from its detractors is that the 50:50 Māori-non-Māori split flies in the face of the population numbers, where Māori make up less than 20 percent.

As former ACT MP Muriel Newman, now head of the NZ Centre for Political Research, says: “The crux of Labour’s co-governance agenda is representatives of a 17 percent minority of the population who identify as Maori will be given the same voting power ‘at the table’ as representatives of the 83 percent majority.”

That ignores the principles behind Te Tiriti o Waitangi, says Western Springs College principal Ivan Davis. It’s not what was agreed.

Ivan Davis (left) says having Māori at the table enhances rather than derails decision making. Photo: Hugo Stewart

“If we are committed to a Treaty partnership, as we are as a nation, it has to be a real partnership. Not ‘sorry guys, there’s more of us, we’re the majority, so this is what we are going to do’. We can’t operate like that if we are true to the spirit of the treaty.

“Irrespective of numbers of people, it was a partnership. We talk about ‘walking side by side, hand in hand, waka hourua, double hull canoe’. All those metaphors describe the relationship, and it was never one of majority rule. It was always founded on co-governance, meaning consensus decision-making.”

WATCH MORE: Newsroom’s short video about shared governance at Western Springs College – Ngā Puna o Waiōrea

YouTube video

Davis says having Māori at the table “is enhancing decision-making, not derailing it”. 

“In all the time I’ve been here there’s never been a vote in relation to any particular decision. It’s always been a consensus. Sometimes long board meetings, as a result of that, but always consensus.”

Another key criticism of co-governance is it isn’t democratic. Instead of decisions being made by people voted in at an election, “co-governance embeds iwi elite into a position of power that cannot be challenged,” argues Jessica Short from Democracy Action. 

In fact, argues Pa Chris Selwyn, in practice at his school pretty much the opposite is true. The average New Zealand school board ballot draws in around 15 percent of eligible parent voters, and it’s worse when it comes to parents actually bothering to come out to a “meet the candidates” – almost no one turns up.

By contrast, the selection process for Waiōrea board members involves lots of whanau coming together at the marae and plenty of discussion. “It’s very transparent, very open, very democratic.”

What co-governance isn’t

Another thing muddying the waters of the co-governance debate is detractors using organisations which are not run using a co-governance model to illustrate what they see as the pernicious creep of co-governance.

Te Aka Whai Ora (the new Māori Health Authority), for example. The Te Aka Whai Ora board has six members, all with iwi affiliations and all appointed by the Ministry of Health. 

Not co-governance.

Te Urewera: Not co-governance. Under the Te Urewera Act 2014, the board managing the former national park, now its own legal entity, is made up of six Tūhoe and three Crown members. While there is a provision for Te Urewera to remain “a place for public use and enjoyment”, any role the Crown plays in Te Urewera through the Department of Conservation is essentially a subservient one, former Treaty Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson told Newsroom’s The Detail podcast.

Te Urewera board member Tāmati Kruger put it even more strongly, talking to Whena Owen on Q+A last year. “Co-governance is not our term. Our term is mana motuhake (separate identity, self determination). We are committed to washing away dependence on the Crown.”

Māori wards – not co-governance. 

The new Three Waters entities, on the other hand, have co-governance as a crucial part of the proposed reform – as it now stands.

‘If anyone disagrees, we haven’t done the work’

At the top of the South Island, the Kotahitanga mō te Taiao Alliance brings together 16 organisations – eight iwi, six councils, the Department of Conservation, and The Nature Conservancy Aotearoa NZ – a New Zealand-based environmental not-for-profit.

The goal is to develop and fund collaborative conservation projects across the Buller, Marlborough, Nelson and Tasman regions, with more than a dozen projects set up so far.

Both the alliance, which was set up in 2017, and the individual projects are run on co-governance principles, with mana whenua and council around the table and consensus decision making. 

Project Mahitahi field staffer clearing weeds along the Maitai River. Photo: Nelson City Council

David Johnston (Ngāti Porou) is Alliance co-chair and general manager for Ngāti Kuia Trust, but spent years in banking and management, clocking up decades of experience of corporate and local Government decision-making. By contrast, he says co-governance is “incredible”.

“Look at a council, you might have 49 percent of people around the table who disagree with what’s being decided. We’re the opposite, the whole collective has to agree before we decide to do something. if one person disagrees, we haven’t done the work.

“We’re not making decisions based on three-yearly election cycles, or what is flavour of the month, or what someone said was good. We are making decisions on what is going to make the biggest difference.”

Martin Todd says the alliance allows a scale of project DoC could never consider alone. Photo: Nature Conservancy video
Martin Rodd says the alliance allows a scale of project Department of Conservation could never consider alone. Photo: Nature Conservancy video

Martin Rodd is chief advisor for strategic partnership at the Department of Conservation and the other Kotahitanga mō te Taiao Alliance co-chair.

“A real strength of co-governance is you get this incredible wealth and diversity of knowledge and when you listen to that, even if it’s just one voice saying ‘hang on, hang on, something’s not right’, you will get a better product.”

It’s a no-brainer, Johnston says. “Co-governance is about having that collective purpose that we can actually positively impact change, at scale. It’s a-political, it’s about doing what’s right to overcome some of the serious challenges we have.”

Ahhh, the politics

Newsroom readers are generally a thoughtful bunch. Intelligent, considered, polite. So if things are getting heated in the Newsroom comments section, you can only imagine what’s going on in the wider internet universe. 

And things are getting heated around co-governance. 

“Labour has absolutely no mandate for co-governance, of any kind. It was simply sprung on the electorate, in a dishonest and sneaky fashion… based on a distorted and opportunistic view of the Treaty as a ‘partnership’,” wrote one reader last week.

That reader was reacting to an interview Newsroom political editor Jo Moir did at Waitangi with Māori Development Minister Willie Jackson around co-governance-related abuse of Māori MPs, particularly former Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta.

As Local Government Minister, Nanaia Mahuta took much of the abuse around co-governance and Three Waters. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Mahuta, as the face of the Government’s Three Waters policy platform – and a wahine Māori politician to boot – had suffered unacceptable levels of personal abuse around the co-governance model at the heart of Three Waters, Jackson told Moir.

While not abusive, the views of this Newsroom commentator reveal the depth of misunderstanding of what co-governance involves in practice.

“The wholesale takeover of the country’s water assets, with the expressed intention of handing them over to an iwi elite is preposterous,” he wrote.  “A new centrist government will need six years to root out, and repeal, all of the racist nonsense that this dishonest Government has instigated.”

The misinterpretation of what co-governance means in practice isn’t random, it’s being deliberately stoked by politicians on the right, Jackson says. 

“David Seymour and Christopher Luxon have successfully transitioned a section of the New Zealand public into thinking that co-governance is all part of a Māori take-over.”

Labour says National and ACT have fanned the flames of racially-motivated anti-co-governance sentiment. Photo: Nikki Mandow

Co-governance is “a term of many layers and of real potency, as often misunderstood as it is used to drive agendas across the political spectrum, says MinterEllisonRuddWatts in its Mettle publication. “Often mistakenly believed to be about the ownership of assets, it in fact refers to partnership in their governance.”

The term “co-management” gets a better rap, and is sometimes used interchangeably with co-governance, but in general is less accurate. In the same way as a company has a management team doing management stuff and a board team doing governance stuff, most of the co-governance models Newsroom looked at are on boards working at the big-picture strategic level. 

For example, it’s the Waikato Regional Council which manages the river; the Waikato River Authority’s role is governance. At Kotahitanga mō te Taiao Alliance, by contrast, both are in play – the alliance uses a co-governance model to shape the overall strategic direction, but individual projects involve co-management at an operational level.

“There’s this political rubbish, this fear that we just want to own everything… It’s not about ownership, it’s about working together… It’s about having different perspectives around the table that actually help make good decisions.”
– David Johnston, Kotahitanga mō te Taiao Alliance

Alliance co-chair David Johnston says there’s a massive and unjustified fear around co-governance.

“There’s this political rubbish, this fear that we just want to own everything, that we want to do this and that, when that’s not what it’s about.

“If you want to break down Three Waters, it’s pretty simple. We want to be able to drink the water, we want to make sure the storm water is going out, and so on. And like what we are doing with Kotahitanga mō te Taiao Alliance, it’s about thinking big, not getting into silos – this little council, this little iwi. 

“It’s not about ownership, it’s about working together to improve things for all of us, efficiently. It’s about having different perspectives around the table that actually help make good decisions.”

It’s about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, co-chair Martin Rodd says. “It’s just that that reality has got lost with all politics and all the power plays.”

‘I hadn’t thought of it that way’

At the Whangārei District Council, forms of co-governance became part of the mix during Sheryl Mai’s three terms as Mayor from 2013-22.

In particular, there was a standing committee made up of eight hapū members and eight council representatives, which met alternately in the council chamber and on marae and made recommendations to council on decisions relevant to Māori, but didn’t have decision-making power.

Later, a housing committee, set up to explore priorities and develop and sign off council’s housing strategy, operated on a co-governance model, with three members from council and three from hapū.

Sheryl Mai sees co-governance as a model which could be adopted more widely in councils. Photo: Nikki Mandow
Sheryl Mai sees co-governance as a model which could be adopted more widely in councils. Photo: Nikki Mandow

“There was a request from our hapū partners to be involved in creating the strategy,” Mai says. “And we could see that would be a really good start for a co-governance committee which had a specific focus. And it just worked brilliantly.”


Mai says the housing committee was small but it was working on a gnarly issue, with a tight timeframe and during Covid – and it delivered.

“Perhaps it might not work as a structure to resolve every problem, but it certainly worked for the housing strategy. And because it did work, it shows it’s a model that could be applied to other aspects of council.”

“In a normal debating chamber, you’d be fighting for a position… Here there was more of a sense of ‘Help us understand how this decision will impact on you, and let’s all get to a point where we agree that’s the best outcome’.”
– Sheryl Mai, Whangārei

Mai says one of the things that surprised her the most watching co-governance in action at the Whangarei District Council, was the way putting hapū and elected members in the room in equal numbers changed the atmosphere – made it more collaborative and less combative. 

“Generally the discussion was a lot more relaxed and not as formal as you would have in a normal council meeting, where you could have one person speaking and then they couldn’t speak again. It was as if the rules of engagement were different.

“In a normal debating chamber, with a decision that needs to be made and you’ve got 16 people with 16 different positions, you’d be fighting for a position and trying to convince the other people that your position is the way it should go, that’s the decision that needs to be made.

“In the Te Kārearea Strategic Partnership Standing Committee, there was more of a sense of ‘Help us understand how this decision will impact on you, and let’s all get to a point where we agree that’s the best outcome’.

“You could almost hear people thinking ‘Ah, I hadn’t thought of it that way’.”

That doesn’t mean it was all sunshine and rainbows, Mai says.

“There were times when there were fiery debates and very firmly held positions, both with our elected council members and our hapū partners. But there was a genuine desire to find a way forward that suited everybody.”

Deborah Harding is a councillor for the Whangārei District Māori Ward and a business consultant for community trusts and Māori organisations within Te Tai Tokerau. 

She talks about “amazing debate and amazing work progressed”, particularly in the housing space. She says initially co-governance went largely under the radar – there weren’t too many people protesting, but that changed in the lead-up to the last council election.

“There seems to be a fear about it, as if you are handing over powers and authority, when that’s not what’s happening.”

From the inside, it’s hard to understand why there’s so much heat around the debate, Harding says. It’s about the perception, not the reality.

“Ask someone what ‘co-design’ is and they’ll tell you it’s people putting their heads together and coming up with something. Perhaps we should think of co-governance like co-designing a decision, rather than a thing.”

Speaking to the converted 

As a journalist, one problem with trying to understand something – in this case, co-governance – by talking to people actually doing that thing, is you risk being accused of being influenced by one side rather than the other.

They are bound to say that, aren’t they, could be the cry.

Of course, that’s the whole point of this series – to talk to people who are actually involved with a co-governance model, rather than people who have strong opinions about co-governance but possibly less idea of how it works in practice.

Still the risk of speaking to the converted is real, and recognising that risk, Newsroom did a bit of background checking. We rang people around the various co-governed organisations, and looked for other news coverage. 

There was hardly any historical coverage of the co-governance structure, either positive or negative, reinforcing what people told us – no one much worried about it at the time. Or it wasn’t known as co-governance. And media coverage of the organisations themselves didn’t necessarily add information for or against co-governance. 

The latest five-year report into the Waikato River Authority found improvements in some measurements of water quality, according to Niwa analysis, but more deteriorating indicators.

But that was less to do with any failure of clean-up measures, or the organisation leading them, and more to do with the long-term nature of the problem. 

”The Waikato River Authority are expecting about 80 years before they really achieve what they want, Niwa freshwater and estuaries centre manager Neal Hudson told RNZ when the report was released in 2021. “That reflects probably 80 to 100 years of human activities historically that have caused us to be in the situation we are today.’”

Meanwhile, the way the authority handled its long term financing was praised by a report from the Office of the Auditor General.

From the phone calls, we found a couple of people – both Pākehā – who bemoaned the time taken to make a decision on a co-governance board. Torture by meeting length. But would the alternative be preferable, we asked. No, the process was good, they said, and the outcome better. 

And that was it, until we started delving into one co-governance structure – the Tūpuna Maunga Authority. Then it got more complicated.

In part two, later this week.

Seats at the Table series: Co-governance is nothing like you think | Tūpuna Maunga Authority | Newton Central School – Te Kura a Rito o Newton | Kotahitanga mō te Taiao Alliance | Waikato River Authority 

Nikki Mandow was Newsroom's business editor and the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Business Journalist of the Year @NikkiMandow.

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