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What does it mean to have mana whenua at the decision-making table?

What does it mean to have mana whenua at the decision-making table? 

Earlier this year, we chatted to Liz Kelly, the Ngāti Toa Rangatira representative on Wellington City Council’s committees and subcommittees, and Jill Day – who at the time was a councillor at Wellington City Council. We had a stimulating discussion about the power of having mana whenua at the decision-making table. 

 It’s a long korero – but we encourage you to read it. Liz and Jill’s insights and concrete examples of how beneficial the partnership has been for the entire community is inspiring.  

 The key takeaways are: 

  • Partnership needs to be more than lip service. There needs to be sincerity for it to work from the top - across governance and management. 
  • Mana whenua bring a perspective that’s far beyond a council's 10-year long-term plan. From a Māori perspective, that's not long-term at all. They help with ensuring that what’s proposed isn't a short-term solution that doesn't have longevity or intergenerational benefits. 
  • What benefits Māori benefits everybody. And, if you’re talking about the environment, the things we want for our environment benefit everybody. Nurturing and protecting the environment is hugely important in the Māori worldview. 
  • Sometimes, people feel that by having another seat at the table (for Māori) someone else is losing it. But in Wellington City Council's experience, they strengthened their decision-making process and made the Council more powerful and connected to the community. 
  • Remuneration is important for your mana whenua representative. That person has to spend a lot more time connecting with iwi, and that takes time and energy. It's important is to make sure that councils put aside operational resource to be able to support effective partnership.  
  • It's important to acknowledge that it won't be perfect, and one seat may just be the start of a growing relationship., When stepping into this space we must not let perfect be the enemy of good.   
Can you tell us how the partnership agreement between mana whenua groups and Wellington City Council will benefit the city and the region? 

Jill: Both Wellington City Council and mana whenua are focused on improving life for all Wellingtonians. There's a collective, shared, common goal for us.  

From a council perspective, mana whenua’s voice has been side-lined for too long. So, we know that we don't have that perspective in decision-making. You just have to look at the state of our water infrastructure and the quality of our waterways to know that we have not taken mana whenua views into account. It’s degraded well beyond a point of what we would say is acceptable, particularly as Māori.  

Historically, Councils are known for not improving the wellbeing of Māori. But this is now an especially important goal to us as a city. But we can't lead that - we need to work with mana whenua on this and be guided by mana whenua in how we do that.  

It’s really about equity. We know mana whenua have been here for a very long time and have a long understanding of the Whenua here. 

Liz: A good example is recently we signed the Tākai Here partnership agreement with all parties. Ngāti Toa, Taranaki Whānui, Te Ātiawa, and Wellington City Council.  

I spoke at that partnership hui, and I went off script a little because I thought that it was appropriate to share that I do believe in this partnership and its sincerity - and I believe it isn't just lip service. Because there have been several attempts to include us previously, but it’s only been lip service. 

I shared a particular example. This paper came to council from Wellington Water, and it was a noting paper. It was back when there was a lot of fuss about how no fluoride has been in our water for a couple of years. Initially, they said this was the case for only a few weeks - and then it was exposed that it was a couple of years.  

So, I was reading this big noting paper and what captured my attention was another issue - Wellington Water was advising council it was unachievable to not have any overflows of sewage and wastewater, based on the current state of our network, and were proposing a standard to allow 20 overflows per 1000 connections. 

Anyway, I was listening to the conversation all about fluoride and after about 45 minutes I started getting frustrated. They were all talking about the fluoride – but no one was raising the bigger issue, which was this pollution of our waterways.  

So, I bought this to their attention, and I could see from the look on the councillors' faces that they weren't aware of this part. So, I did a bit of a Haka, and said “This isn't acceptable. I don't care what you are saying. You need to do whatever you need to do to ensure that we don't have wastewater and sewage going into our waterways."  

The outcome of raising this issue and firmly stating it was unacceptable was that we passed an amendment - a recommendation that said Wellington City Council would do everything in their power to ensure that wastewater and sewage didn't go into our waterways. And I thought, "Well, this is a test. Let's see if they accept this." And it got passed.  

I was pretty chuffed, and the proof was in the pudding about a week later. Wellington Water brought a paper to council asking for an extra $20 million to go and do this work on improving our systems and networks. It got passed unanimously.  

That's a meaningful success story and proof that this partnership isn’t lip service. There's a real sincerity for it to work from the top - across governance and management. 

That’s a great example of how mana whenua and council work together, and what that process actually looks like. 

Jill: I’d like to add a couple of background bits on that example. So, the wording in that paper about the wastewater overflows said that engineers considered that a one in six-month event was a good outcome. That was the language. And so, what Liz brought to that conversation was saying, "We cannot compromise," and she was very firm.  

But also, what was powerful was Liz sharing her perspective from her whanau. That included what it's been like to live in a place and watch the environment degrade over your lifetime and hear about what it used to be like.  

Liz shared about being able to collect and eat the shellfish in Porirua Harbour, which had a significant impact on the councillors around the table. Many of us don't have that long-term perspective on the environment and haven't seen it degrade in front of us.  

Liz has that unique ability to share experiences of decisions that have been made, and the impacts those decisions have had on the environment. It was so important when you consider the challenges we’re facing as a community, particularly, when it comes to our waterways. It’s hugely powerful. 

Liz: There seems to be a belief that Porirua Harbour has been polluted for forever. But I grew up with the kai moana straight from the harbour. I'm from Takapūwāhia, and Porirua Harbour is our back door. So, I said how I would have at least four meals a week where I was fed from our harbour.  

Years and years ago, my uncles raised concern with the council when they noticed what was happening. Manufacturer’s waste was going directly into the stream from Takapu Road- and it was coming out in Porirua Harbour.  

They had said, "You need to stop this. You need to stop them putting this stuff directly into our waterways." But nobody wanted to stop them because that meant money, and it would cost money to find an alternative - so they didn't stop it.  

To make matters worse, they went and straightened the stream that runs from Takapu Road to the harbour. Just in case you don't know, streams and rivers naturally meander. They do so because it’s a natural filtering system and by the time water gets to the harbour or the open sea it's filtered out all the muck along the way.  

But they went in and straightened it! My uncles went and kicked up again and said, "What are you doing?!" And to add insult to injury, they piped most of it - and the pipes weren't big enough. So, now there's always overground flooding because the water must go somewhere. This made me do my Haka, and go, "You have to listen to us. When are you going to listen? If you'd listened to us years ago, this wouldn't have happened." 

I feel for the generations that have come after me. Porirua Harbour was our food basket and our playground. But it isn't that anymore. And I'm not that old… 

Jill: Right now, we’re making decisions around our district plan. And the flooding issues through Tawa are quite significant for the properties near it. Regarding what Liz was saying, given these waterways have been artificially straightened, when riverbanks are naturally sloped. This means there are properties that are too close to the river and as a result they suffer from serious flooding. 

It's interesting, because now we’re trying to create a district plan that works. But, if we'd listened to mana whenua in the first place and not artificially altered the environment so much, we wouldn't be in such a predicament.  

So, it's a compelling argument for why we need that mana whenua perspective. Because when we haven't listened, we've created big, long-lasting problems for ourselves. 

Liz’s voice does carry a particular perspective, which everybody has respect for. Doesn't matter what part of the political spectrum you are on. There is respect for the fact that mana whenua has a perspective that has not been listened to. But across the table, her perspective is really respected. It also speaks to the fact that we know that there's been a problem. 

So, this partnership doesn't just benefit Māori, but all people of Aotearoa? 

Jill: Yes. One of the things that shocked me when I first got into council was that council's long-term plan is for 10 years. From a Māori perspective, that's not long-term at all.  

It speaks to Liz's example about the stream being altered, that was a short-term solution. People wanted to put houses in a convenient space, so they straightened the stream. But if we’d looked at the long-term outcome, you'd have seen that altering the natural environment to that extent means it's going to solve its own problem in the future, and that may not be convenient for humans. 

But the long-term view is an especially important one, which I think is really the biggest reason that our environment is under so much strain. If we had listened to the Māori perspectives and the value of taking a long-term view and putting our environment first, we would all be healthier as well. 

So, when we've got massive challenges like climate change, and the loss of the native biodiversity, and a housing crisis, you go, "Yeah. How could we not be taking a different view, and one that's well-informed?" 

Liz: I don't think that you can separate it and say, “this only benefiting Māori”, because whatever benefits us benefits everybody. And, if you’re talking about the environment, the things we want for our environment benefit everybody.  

The problem is the common theme that's got us where we are is people exploiting our resources, whether it's been water or our land. That's why we now have the problems that we do - because they haven't looked after it. And that's what Māori’s worldview is all about, looking after the environment. 

Jill: I totally agree. The saying “what is good for Māori is good for all of New Zealand”, is just true. It comes back to Māori values and the way that you see the world. It’s about more than you and your own individual needs. 

What do you say to people that fear co-governance? 

Liz: What’s there to fear?  

I was talking to one of our Kaumātua, and we were discussing co-governance and what it means. He suggested to me that the simplest way to think of it is:  

Somebody stole your car; you love your car. Your car's out there stolen, and you know who took it, but you can’t do anything. Years go by and you finally get a judge to support you and agree that your car was stolen but he says “Well, okay turns to the thieves - you’ve had it for this long now… I want you to share it," and the thieves turned around and say, "But that's racist." Think about that allegory.  

It's simple, isn't it? 

Jill: It goes to show how casually that term is used. People don't understand what they're saying, because they don't understand what has been lost, what has been stolen. 

Liz: So now, you’ve had all our land and done all what you wanted, and we're coming back to, "Well, okay. You need to share this now," and because currently there’s a real focus on co-governance, now we’re getting, "That's racist."  

It comes back to really understanding Te Tiriti and the 3 P’s that are often referred to as the principles of Partnership, Participation and Protection. 

Jill: From my perspective, what I've seen is people need to not be too quick to dismiss it. People think, "Oh, it doesn't make sense to me," so it's dismissed. But when you really break it down, it's about building relationships and getting to know each other. It's about sharing kai, sharing a drink, breaking down the barriers.  

When you figure that out, like Liz said, we do have common goals. We want to be healthy. We want our environment to be healthy. And we realise we have more in common than we don't. 

I saw through the process of establishing the mana whenua seats, we had a couple of colleagues who were very against the concept, but they changed their minds. And what changed their minds was they got to hear and speak with mana whenua and realise that their aspirations were in fact very aligned.  

To many people this seems theoretical. We need to break it back down to - you build relationships with your neighbour, or someone you might meet that you have something in common with. This is about building relationships for the well-being of the whole community. 

Also, through the process of establishing the Māori ward for Wellington City Council, we had a pakeha man come and speak to the council about his relationship and journey working with Māori and how he was trying to be a good ally.  

He discussed how he supports Māori to be in decision making positions. He shared his story with our council, and it was quite personal. One of the councillors who wasn't very sure said to him, "What changed your perspective?", and he said, "I saw my privilege."  

It was quite a poignant moment. Someone shared their vulnerability, but that was a moment where I saw some people who had some quite locked-in views suddenly go, "Okay, so if someone else who I look like, and has lived a similar life to me can make a change and still be having a great experience in the mahi that they're doing… Maybe it's okay."  

So, it’s that story-sharing, and exactly what you're doing with this kaupapa here as well, trying to share what co-governance is. It’s so important because it starts to break down those barriers. 

Liz: Ultimately, there's nothing to be feared. There's nothing to be afraid of. And that’s essentially because we do have the same purpose in mind.  

Jill: When we did the te reo Māori policy, there was a bit of a feeling from the community that by uplifting te reo Māori they were going to lose something. It was an unusual perspective. As if there’s a maximum capacity of what we can have in our world. But there's no maximum capacity to what we can benefit from.  

I think people feel that by having another seat at the table, someone else is losing it. But we have strengthened our decision-making process and made this Council more powerful and connected to the community. No one's lost anything. It's important to acknowledge that. 

Strengthening relationships with mana whenua is a key priority for Wellington City Council. How's this journey going? And do you have advice for other councils who aren't as far on this journey? 

Liz: When I think about relationships with council and the local iwi working well, I look at Tainui and I look at Ngai Tahu. You go down south and absolutely nothing happens down there without Ngai Tahu being involved - and look at how it's thriving. Not only the iwi, but the industry. The things they've been able to do collectively as partners. And then I look in at Tainui and the Waikato and the things that are happening up there.  

At home, Ngāti Toa, we've got a very visionary CEO who’s very energetic. We have a skilled governance group as well, and having the right management and governance is what's helping to grow Ngāti Toa. I’m told we now employ 500 people. So, the economic benefits for our area and the different things that have been established in our Rohe and wider, that's a win for everybody. 

But getting back to your question about the journey. For me, my role is all about relationships.  

One of the things that’s been key in helping my position at work is that I don't take sides. I might have my personal views, but I don't take sides. And you can ask any of the councillors, nobody ever knows which way I'm going to vote. 

Jill: You're coming with your own views, and it doesn't have to be a political view, or it can be. But you see that your role is to bring the mana whenua perspective, which is unique. And it doesn't necessarily have the same approach as maybe a councillor comes with. 

You are answerable to yourself and your people. That's your focus.  

Liz: Exactly. I spend a lot of time going back and talking with Ngāti Toa senior executives. And the good thing about that is we're all related - so we already have a relationship. But we all respect the role that we’re playing right now.  

There's been a couple of times when my personal view hasn't supported a position, but I know that the Iwi's view, and that's not just Ngāti Toa, but Te Ātiawa who’s view was in favour, and so I support it.  I believe that's me doing my job. 

Jill: It’s important to reflect on why the seats were established the way they were. We did have two mana whenua seats on all our committees previously, but the difference was that they didn't have voting rights and they weren't remunerated. Who's going to turn up to a sometimes very long meeting, take part in a debate that can be very frustrating, if you're not being remunerated and you can’t contribute to the decision by casting a vote? 

When we were discussing the remuneration, there was a lot of conversation about, "should it just be a portion because they're not necessarily having to do the community meetings and, meeting with constituents," and I firmly believe, "No, it needs to be the same because that person has to spend a lot more time connecting with the iwi, and we should be acknowledging that that takes time."  

So that was quite a change in people's thinking, that you are answerable to a community still and there is work that happens behind that. If we want people to be able to fit this into their world, then it must be remunerated fairly. We can't be in the situation where we are still running it down and making it hard for people to participate. 

It gives mana to it. It puts Liz on an equal foot with every other person around the table, and I think it's important that her seat is respected for what it is. 

Liz: So, I meet formally with the chair of the Rūnanga every month and give him a brief of where we're at. Then I do a report to the Rūnanga as well. And if I'm speaking on behalf of the iwi, or if I'm not speaking on behalf of the iwi, I make that clear. 

Jill: On that last question around how the journey's going and the advice. I think it is important to acknowledge that it won't be perfect, and when stepping into this space we must not let perfect be the enemy of good.  

If this was where our co-governance journey ended and we had no more improvement, I would be sad. This is the steppingstone to get ourselves to a better space. We need mana whenua at the table to advocate and to work for what is right in the future.  

One seat at a table is not adequate to be able to share your perspective. It is effective in the way that Liz is making it work, but it can't be the future for the way that we govern at a local level. 

And the perspective, I guess, of equity: one seat is one vote, and that’s a challenge. But if we hadn't done that at all, we would still be in the situation with mana whenua where we weren't taking part in decision making, which is a problem.  

I wouldn't want people to think we’re at the final resting place for co-governance. Let's keep thinking "Well, what would be better? How would we be able to do this more effectively together, and how could we better structure it?"  

Currently, we're in a situation where the balance is still not quite right, but the other thing that I think is important is to make sure that councils put aside operational resource to be able to support effective partnership. 

Liz: Well, I think it's hugely important, that part. For too long, Māori had been expected to participate without being given the resources to do it. 

I think the mahi that Jill has done to get so much across the line is down to her tenacity and making this all happen. Those are big wins that you've achieved in a short time.  

In fact, that's what I'd said in my speech when we signed Tākai Here as well. I never really believed that I would see the sort of change that's happening in my lifetime. I have always been hopeful that change would come, but I never believed that I would see it in my lifetime. And I think that's got to be a win for all New Zealand. 

Wow. That's powerful.