Newton Central School has honed its co-governance model for a quarter of a century. Its board co-chairs talk to Nikki Mandow about why shared leadership is a critical part of Aotearoa’s future.

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

In June 2022, as the Government relaxed its Covid schools masking policy, the board of Newton Central School in Auckland met with a critical issue on the agenda: whether to continue its own mask mandate. The majority were in favour – and on most boards that would be enough. A quick vote and onto the next item.

But that’s not how things work at Newton. The co-governance model in place for almost 25 years has an eleven-person board with an almost even split of co-opted Māori members (chosen by agreement at a whānau hui) and elected parent and teacher representatives. 

Most importantly, under the co-governance model, decision-making is by consensus; everyone must agree. 

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Mask mandates are controversial, and some Newton Central board members had concerns – how would parents feel about their children having to still wear masks, would there be exceptions and how would that work, and could the board really articulate its reasons for a continued mandate?

The board co-chairs got to work.

Hannah Andrews didn’t even know Newton used a co-governance model when she was shoulder-tapped for the board. Photo: Supplied

“We drove into why we were doing it, into what it was that made people uncomfortable, into what could be done to soften it or add more flexibility to make them comfortable,” Hannah Andrews, one of the co-chairs and a former corporate lawyer, tells Newsroom.

 Once there was consensus on the board, the decision was easier to sell to the school community, Andrews says.

“If there are divisions within the board, it divides the community. We had parents who didn’t agree with it, but we were able to go out as a board with a consistent message about the reasons we had all decided this was fair.

“It would be easy just to take a vote and move on, but the people not supporting it feel thwarted at that point, and that’s not a good basis from which to govern.”

More recently, majority voting might have saved some six hours of meetings when it came to the appointment of a new tumuaki, or principal, says iwi leader Margie Tukerangi, now Newton’s other co-chair. The discussion was “robust”, she says, but the outcome was, again, a better decision.

“It’s about people not just having their say, but being heard, so people understand where you are coming from, what your point of view is,” she says.

“Our people go into co-governance with apprehension. People are dealing with the wrath of being burnt, and they are looking for authenticity.”  
– Margie Tukerangi, Newton Central School

“Our co-governance model is based on the Treaty settlement. It provides us the opportunity to participate for Māori in Ti Tiriti partnership in terms of equity.

While most of the heat around co-governance in New Zealand, certainly in terms of media and social media, has come from the Pākehā side, often fuelled by politicians, Tukerangi says Māori are also hesitant.

“Our people go into co-governance with apprehension. Given the history of dealing with race through the Treaty of Waitangi, it’s natural for people to be reluctant. So we have to demonstrate something genuine. People are dealing with the wrath of being burnt, and they are looking for authenticity.” 

From her experience at Newton, Tukerangi has two recommendations for government, councils and others pondering co-governance models.

First, she says, the idea of partnership needs to be reflected right through the organisation, not just at the top. Newton Central started its first Taha Māori programme almost 30 years ago, and launched Te Uru Karaka, its total immersion unit, in 1997 and Te Whānau Awahou, its bilingual unit, in 2005. 

Margie Tukerangi sees co-governance as a stepping stone to greater self-determination for Māori. Photo: Supplied

“If you are going to have partnership at the top, you have to have partnership at the bottom,” Tukerangi says. “In non-Māori organisations, the structure is often top down, but we operate the other way. The basis of iwi/hapū leadership is that leaders are no greater than the people they represent.”

Having a co-governance structure at the top of an organisation which doesn’t have partnership right through, is “a box-ticking exercise”, she says. Iwi are fed up with box-ticking.

The second critical thing for co-governance is consensus decision making. As Newton Central looked at formalising its co-governance structure into the school’s constitution, the board talked about adding a voting option B in case of an impasse – for example, a trustee who blackballs a decision they don’t like, blocking decision-making.

It’s never happened at Newton Central School, but it’s one of the concerns often brought up about co-governance. The ‘rogue board member’ argument.

The Three Waters legislation, as it stands, has safeguards against someone using the consensus model to hijack the process. Clause 30 of the Water Services Entities Bill as drafted last year covers “Decision making by regional representative group” – being the top tier of decision-making at each new water entity, and the part which will run using a co-governance model (equal mana whenua and council representatives).

According to the legislation, decisions must be made “(a) by consensus if consensus can be reached by regional representatives taking all reasonably practicable steps to reach consensus in accordance with a procedure, and within a time frame, specified in the constitution; and (b) in any other case, by 75 percent of the regional representatives present and voting.”

That ‘vote-as-a-last-resort’ option was a potential as Newton went through the process of formalising its constitution. But the risk was, if the option was available, a future board might start to use in the wrong way.

“If it got to a point where it was too hard, some board might say, ‘it’s too hard, let’s have a vote,” Hannah Andrews says.

Newton is now looking at mechanisms where in the case of a deadlock, dissenting members are invited to come up with alternative solutions they can agree to.

“Yes, our hui are longer,” Andrews says. “But the value of those… It sends shivers down my spine what we manage to achieve.” 

The issue of long meetings, frustratingly long meetings, is another criticism people level at co-governance, particularly from Western people outside (or sometimes inside) the process.
It’s another example of two different worldviews, Tukerangi says. 

“The Western concept is all about time – finish your meeting and leave. The Māori view is about the richness of connection. This is who I am, this is where I am from.” She doesn’t have problems with long hui “as long as there’s substance in the kōrero”.

Andrews says widening out the co-governance model into other organisations isn’t just a nice to have; it’s critical.

“We are living in Aotearoa. There have been so many wrongs, this is a way to make it right.”

Andrews got shoulder tapped to join the Newton Central board soon after her son started school – someone heard she was a lawyer.

“It blows my mind how much co-governance is disliked by people who have never experienced a co-governance organisation.”
– Hannah Andrews, Newton Central School

“I had no idea it was co-governance when I came on. I went in completely open-minded and oblivious and I found a structure completely different to what I was used to as a corporate lawyer, where everything is fast, and black and white. 

“It has made me slow down and think about things and understand there are different perspectives out there.

“Democracy is all about voting and I understand that. But consensus means everyone gets there and works together. It’s not about winning.”

She says the vitriol about co-governance is coming from people who don’t know what it means in practice.

“It blows my mind how much co-governance is disliked by people who have never experienced a co-governance organisation. 

“The past three weeks in Auckland it has become obvious we have to do things differently. We have to acknowledge the Treaty of Waitangi, and the knowledge and expertise Māori have.”

Tukerangi sees co-governance as an essential first step, from Māori operating in an equal partnership but within Pākehā structures – on a board, for example – to more self-determination.

“These kura kaupapa kids come out of school and it’s a phenomenal change. They are a different breed in terms of their ability to stand in both worlds. Co-governance is the starting point, but I see Māori even greater than that.

“Māori leaders are coming through with a rich understanding of who they are and recognising being angry doesn’t work.

“It’s a stepping stone. Now it’s about adding their own mana motuhake, or self determination.” 

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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