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What happens if you say ‘co-governance’ three times in the mirror?


Apr 6, 2023 Politics

When Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stood down, announcing her dramatic news on a perfectly clear, seasonably warm Napier afternoon, soon-to-be prime minister Chris Hipkins probably never imagined that he would return only a month later to inspect a city under water, a region buried under a metre of silt, and a roading and rail network in ruins. In the early days of the sixth Labour government, conservative commentators would mock Ardern as ‘Saint Jacinda’, a politician floating somewhere above the clouds. The current prime minister might wonder if there was a pinch of truth in that. In the month after Ardern’s departure, Hipkins is handling the fallout from several heavenly events — the atmospheric river in Auckland, Cyclone Gabrielle in Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne, and even drought and heat waves in the lower South Island.

We can probably imagine the alternative universe where Ardern made a different decision, staying on to fight an election and finding herself in charge of responding to another disaster. She’d release generous government support — as per her handling of Covid-19 in the emergency phase — and (as my colleague Matthew Hooton says) she’d “emote”. The contrast with the prime minister in this universe is stark. Hipkins is a functional communicator. He says what he means and he means what he says. When he apologised to Hawke’s Bay and Wairoa communities for doubting some claims of looting, he simply noted he was wrong, apologised for questioning their accounts and moved on. No one would accuse Hipkins of being ‘saintly’ or even flash (his first viral moment was taking an early morning walk in a pair of speed-dealer sunglasses and a black hoodie).

Old-timers from Parliament often remark on the way Winston Peters always moves with a retinue. No matter where he goes — whether he’s walking to a select committee room or visiting an Auckland business — at least a handful of his MPs, staff and supporters tail him. But it seems to happen organically for leaders whose personalities are as strong as their politics. Ardern’s colleagues were famous for jostling for position at her shoulder, lining up like a shift of nightclub bouncers whenever the cameras were rolling. Hipkins does not have the same effect. When Ardern, or John Key, entered a room, whispers would travel across it; this rarely, if ever, happens for Hipkins. When he arrived at Rātana Pā, he was playing second fiddle to Ardern herself. When he arrived at Waitangi, he was playing second to Ardern’s memory. Yet this is precisely Hipkins’ appeal: his ordinariness.

Underneath the straightforward exterior, though, is an iron political will. Within Hipkins’ first fortnight, the Cabinet was reshuffled, policies were dropped and rhetoric shifted from comforting notions of kindness to ‘bread and butter issues’. In a way it was ruthless — dropping Minister of Finance Grant Robertson’s legacy child (income insurance), and reshuffling Minister of Foreign Affairs Nanaia Mahuta out of her passion portfolio (local government) and publicly signalling that the prime minister expects her to spend more time overseas. It takes an impressive degree of steel to drop the legacy project of the second-most-important person in government (Robertson) and communicate to the second-longest-serving Labour MP (Mahuta) that she is a liability.

On that count, reshuffling Mahuta and working to drop her most controversial legacy — 50/50 co-governance in the Three Waters reforms — probably isn’t an example of strength so much as weakness. It’s worth remembering the Three Waters reforms had to proceed through the Cabinet before making it into legislation. If 50/50 co-governance was acceptable to Cabinet then (a Cabinet which included Hipkins), what makes it unacceptable now? Polling, probably. In 2020, Opposition leader Judith Collins, with an ably racist assist from David Seymour, did her best to make He Puapua happen. In that period, when the Covid-19 emergency was the only political issue of much consequence, it never took. But three years later, as ‘bread and butter issues’ bite, co-governance suddenly seems like a woke indulgence.

The trouble for Hipkins is he’ll find it harder to drop than he may realise. As Cyclone Gabrielle made clear, everything is a co-governance issue. The government is releasing $15 million in specialised support for marae after Māori communities swung into action to feed and house people who were displaced in Hawke’s Bay, Wairoa, Gisborne and the East Coast. As a result, Te Pāti Māori is rightly calling for government resourcing for marae as a matter of course, arguing that they’re an essential part of New Zealand’s civil defence infrastructure. Most marae can be relied on for industrial kitchens, communal bathrooms and bedding for dozens if not hundreds of people. From this angle, co-governance in civil defence planning and response seems sensible.

The same is true in reverse. If co-governance can play a role in disaster response it can also play a role in disaster prevention. Erosion and slash on the East Coast of the North Island are partly the result of decades of government policy incentivising Māori land owners to invest in pine. The largest pockets of Māori freehold land are often poorly connected to roading, rail, port, water and education infrastructure. That often rules out horticulture or agriculture, both of which require water infrastructure and good connections to suppliers and distribution centres, leaving passive pine plantations as the owners’ best bet. Add to that the issue of access to finance for development — the Māori Land Act’s provisions against alienation can make accessing loans difficult — and the problem is reinforced. Pine plantations are not as capital intensive as, say, a working farm.

Co-governance in economic development, then, could also help prevent disasters like slash. Government investment decisions and rules incentivise Māori land owners to invest in pine. But what kind of economic opportunities would co-governance open? National’s Christopher Luxon and Act’s David Seymour want to frame co-governance as a woke experiment, but the famous Clintonism applies. It’s the economy, stupid. John Key and Bill English understood that. Will Hipkins eventually come around, too?

This story was published in Metro N°438.
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