New Zealand election 2023: a missed opportunity for indigenous co-governance

Co-governance loomed large in the Aotearoa/New Zealand 2023 electoral campaign. The arrangements between central or local governments and Māori Indigenous representatives have divided people across the political spectrum. Now that the votes are in, Valentin Clavé-Mercier examines the debate on co-governance, and considers its prospects

Why does co-governance matter?

Māori make up about 17% of Aotearoa/NZ’s population. However, they represent 52% of the incarcerated population and 69% of children in state care. Māori life expectancy is 6.5 years lower than non-Māori, and Māori educational qualifications and employment rates lag behind those of non-Māori. These are the contemporary socioeconomic ramifications of colonisation. Researchers have established that structural discrimination and systemic racism in political and policy-making processes sustain these shocking figures.

Co-governance arrangements ensure Māori participation in key governing processes and the consideration of their particular needs and aspirations

Co-governance, in which government representatives and Indigenous representatives have equal power and rights in decision-making processes, may successfully address these problems. Such arrangements ensure Māori participation in key governing processes and the consideration of their particular needs and aspirations. Co-governance arrangements recognise Māori Indigenous status and sociopolitical collective rights. They confront the country’s colonial history and embrace a power-sharing working relationship between Māori and the state.

Co-governance under Jacinda Ardern’s government

Over the past 15 years, different governments have gradually introduced co-governance arrangements over specific natural resources. More recently, Jacinda Ardern’s Labour government presented several initiatives with broader scope.

In April 2021, the government-commissioned He Puapua report was leaked. Tasked with implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), the report suggested power-sharing arrangements between Māori and the state to ensure compliance with Te Tiriti o Waitangi (a treaty signed between the British Crown and Māori chiefs and considered Aotearoa/NZ’s founding document). However, the Labour government has repeatedly insisted that the report is not official policy.

In July 2022, Ardern’s government created the Māori Health Authority, the principal aim of which is to close the health gaps between Māori and non-Māori. This independent government entity oversees existing Māori health services and develops Māori health strategies and policies.

The Labour government also introduced the 'Three Waters' reform, restructuring public water governance and infrastructure. The reform proposed the creation of four semi-autonomous regional oversight entities with equal membership between Māori and local council representatives.

Contentious electoral topic

As soon as these initiatives came to light, co-governance became a hot-button issue. As the election campaign progressed, it turned into a political football.

Judith Collins, then leader of the conservative National Party, branded Labour’s initiatives 'racist separatism'. Her successor, Christopher Luxon, said he had 'serious reservations' about co-governance, and that he opposed it in the provision of public services.

Similarly, the right-wing liberal ACT Party insisted 'equal opportunity' principles were being abandoned for 'racial targeting'. Its leader, David Seymour, claimed that co-governance was turning the country into an 'ethno-state' and called for officially renouncing UNDRIP.

These parties’ rhetoric frames co-governance as Māori privilege. They claim it constitutes an attack on liberal democracy and its premise of 'one person, one vote' or 'one people, one law'.

Following these critiques, Labour adopted an ambivalent stance. In late 2022, the government paused work on UNDRIP implementation. Chris Hipkins, Jacinda Ardern’s successor, changed tack during election year: he rarely spoke about co-governance and, indeed, implied it might no longer be a major Labour commitment. However, Hipkins defended his party’s co-governance initiatives in an electoral campaign launch at a Māori communal space and on Māori TV.

Right-wing parties’ rhetoric frames co-governance as Māori privilege. They claim it constitutes an attack on liberal democracy and its premise of 'one person, one vote'

The Greens, on the other hand, supported active promotion of co-governance. Te Pāti Māori (the Māori Party) considered co-governance 'the best way forward' for cooperating on common goals. Both parties emphasised that co-governance was key to honour Te Tiriti o Waitangi today.

What the election results mean for co-governance

Aotearoa/NZ’s general election took place on 14 October. In such a polarised context, the party or parties which form government will have significant implications for co-governance arrangements.

According to preliminary results, National and ACT have achieved an exact majority of 61 seats (50 and 11 respectively). However, special votes still need to be counted. In earlier elections, special votes meant that the right-wing bloc lost one or two seats. If this happens again, National would also need to get NZ First on board to be able to govern.

Any of these potential governing coalitions mean grim prospects for co-governance. National has promised to repeal Three Waters and disestablish the Māori Health Authority in its first 100 days in government. ACT has insisted that a referendum to stop co-governance was a non-negotiable part of its programme. Anti-wokism and anti-co-governance were the backbone of right-wing populist NZ First party’s comeback into Parliament.

Despite right-wing rhetoric, co-governance is a challenge to democracy to reinvent itself, not a threat

The potential for democratic innovation, restorative justice and Indigenous self-determination contained within co-governance arrangements will likely be cut short under the new administration. Despite right-wing rhetoric, co-governance is a challenge to democracy to reinvent itself, not a threat. As long as people do not perceive it as such, prospects for Māori political aspirations look bleak.

Transformative or shortcoming?

Tino rangatiratanga (Māori self-determination or sovereignty) sign at Ihumātao
Photo Valentin Clavé-Mercier

In spite of its transformative potential, several Māori leaders have portrayed co-governance as falling short of self-determination and Indigenous sovereignty. Māori generally received Labour’s co-governance initiatives as positive steps. However, these arrangements are still part of a political system based on values, worldviews and ways of doing that are different from the Māori ones.

Additionally, power, resources and accountability are still owed to and limited by the colonial state. UNDRIP’s Article 4 unequivocally declares Indigenous peoples have 'the right to autonomy or self-government'. Te Pāti Māori co-leader Rawiri Waititi and He Puapua coordinator Claire Charters both insisted that tino rangatiratanga (Māori self-determination or sovereignty) is at the core of Māori political aspirations. However, the important conversation on how to give it effect has become lost amid co-governance electoral controversies.

Does co-governance sideline Māori aspirations and reinforce democracy as we know it? Or can it represent a genuinely profound transformation of the existing political system? It seems that Aotearoa/NZ, and especially Māori, will still have to wait to truly find out.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Valentin Clavé-Mercier
Valentin Clavé-Mercier
Postdoctoral Researcher, Complutense Institute for International Studies (ICEI), Universidad Complutense de Madrid

Valentin holds a PhD in Politics & International Relations from the University of Aberdeen.

His overall research interest lies in how non-Western and decolonial political ontologies and praxis contribute to the rearticulation of contemporary political thought and political imaginaries.

His most recent research focuses on discourses and practices of Indigenous sovereignty, more specifically on their deployment by Māori in Aotearoa/New Zealand.

Politics of Sovereignty: Settler Resonance and Māori Resistance in Aotearoa/New Zealand
Ethnopolitics, 2022

Decolonising Political Concepts

Decolonising Political Concepts
Routledge, 2023

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