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Learn to build Indigenous partnerships: Lil Anderson

12 October 2021

News and media


Image of Sunset Over Wellington, New Zealand

Creating good policy for First Peoples is a responsibility that extends across all parts of the public sector and one that depends on building strong partnerships with indigenous communities.

ANZSOG’s Future public sector leaders series for 2021/22 is offering a chance to attend a masterclass on Strengthening Indigenous partnerships with the Crown and learn more about Aotearoa-New Zealand’s Treaty-based approach. This session will be led by Aotearoa-New Zealand’s Lil Anderson, Tumu Whakarae (Chief Executive), Te Arawhiti – The Office for Māori Crown Relations.

Ms Anderson said the masterclass would discuss what government engagement with Indigenous communities should look like and what changes are required within organisations and at public service system levels to achieve this. She will also explore the features of true partnership that are starting to emerge in Aotearoa-New Zealand as the government begins to work differently with communities, particularly in a post Treaty settlement era.

In Australia, there is a growing movement for a different approach to Indigenous policy, where governments engage with communities on the basis of long-term partnerships rather than time-limited programs, and do not substitute engagement with data for engagement with people. ANZSOG explored this area in its online First Peoples Conference, Proud Partnerships in Place, in February/March 2021.

Experts, such as AIATSIS CEO Craig Ritchie, have called for a fundamental rethink of policy design and a recognition of the informal knowledge and capacity that exists within Indigenous communities and is often ignored in developing policy.

Much of Aotearoa-New Zealand’s government engagement with Iwi Māori (Māori tribes) is through the Treaty of Waitangi (Te Tiriti o Waitangi) settlement process, which aims to reset the relationship to allow for closer collaboration in future.

However, partnership building must and does happen outside this framework, and Ms Anderson said there were lessons for Australia to learn regardless of whether a Treaty framework was developed.

Ms Anderson said that public servants wanting to improve results for First Peoples needed to change their mindsets, become more open to Indigenous cultures and ways of thinking and to be aware of the history of engagement between governments and colonised peoples.

“The first thing that needs to be acknowledged is that responsibility for building partnerships doesn’t just lie with Indigenous public servants or with public servants working directly with Indigenous Peoples, it lies with all public servants and agencies to start building that understanding and ability to work with communities.

“The second thing is to start working effectively with communities, you need to start learning the basics about language and customs, as well as learning about history and worldview. You don’t need to become an expert, but you need to be willing and open to learning these things. Only then can you understand perspectives.

“The third thing is to build the relationship before you build the work program. People want to connect with you, your team and your organisation before they talk business and they also need to understand what your and their contributions to the work will be and what outcomes you both seek collectively and individually.

“We in the public service need to be open to doing things differently, and to being more flexible. You need to take time over making decisions and be open to sharing each others’ risks. The outcomes must be clear so that everyone knows where they are going, doing this from the start will save time in the long term.”

Building partnerships within and beyond a Treaty framework

Much of the New Zealand government’s modern engagement with Māori is through the framework of the Treaty of Waitangi. The Treaty was signed in 1840 by representatives of the British Crown and Rangatira (Māori chiefs), and recognised both British sovereignty over New Zealand as well as Māori rights to land and to self-determination.

It was effectively ignored for a large part of New Zealand’s modern history but in 1975, after pressure from Māori activists, the Waitangi Tribunal was established to hear claims related to the Crown’s breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi. These claims and the negotiations process became the basis for settlements with iwi that acknowledge, apologise, and compensate for breaches of the Treaty and loss of land.

Ms Anderson said that the Treaty of Waitangi recognised the respective roles of the Crown and Māori and included two concepts that are an important pointer for what true partnership should be based on.

“First was ‘kawanatanga,’ the ability of the Crown to make laws and regulations for all, and the second was ‘rangatiratanga’, the ability of iwi to make decisions about the things that matter most to them and to determine their own destiny, and this has been the one the most difficult to define.

“A genuine partnership is one that balances these two aspects bringing about the third article of oritetanga or equity. This is the space that benefits everyone and where the magic happens.”

One of the main areas of evolving partnerships is around the environment: incorporating Māori understandings of people’s responsibilities to nature and the management of natural resources.

“The Whanganui River is a genuine partnership where it was agreed that no one owned the awa (river), because you cannot own your ancestor, but it has people who are its guardians and its voice who must act in its best interests and they are selected both by the Crown and by Māori. We’ve ended up with a system where we do not just get what the Crown wants or one that focuses solely on the Māori spiritual view of the river, but one where the decisions are made about the health and wellbeing of the river.

“Another partnership that has happened outside the Treaty process is the rebuilding of the Manawatū Gorge replacement route (a major piece of infrastructure which has collapsed and been unusable for the last 18 months).

“The NZ Transport Agency has created a fantastic governance structure with representation from iwi, and the iwi are involved in making decisions about everything from the planning, to the placement of pylons to other issues in respect of the site. This means that, decisions that might usually be made through litigation or through the Environment Court, there is involvement from the beginning. Everything is shared and everyone’s contributions are recognised.”

Ms Anderson said that the Treaty settlement process has its limitations and that the settlements negotiated were only a starting point to a new relationship between iwi and the Crown

“There was a thought that the Treaty process, that once claims were settled, we would see everyone walk off happily into the sunset. The reality is that the work is ongoing, we have settled 92 Treaty claims but what does the next stage of the Treaty relationship look like if we are able to restore relationships. We then need to sustain it and build towards true partnership”.

Recognising Indigenous strengths and resilience

Ms Anderson said that successful partnerships needed to recognise the strengths and resilience of iwi and acknowledge the importance of communities to Indigenous Peoples.

“The first thing to recognise is the permanence of Iwi. They have lived in these communities, on this land, for hundreds of years. They continue to have a permanency and investment in relation to that place and a heavy investment in that place and the wellbeing of all of the people in that place – because they will live there forever. When it came to COVID, the natural response in New Zealand was to go and work with the iwi, because they are there and they can reach the community,” she said.

“Iwi have the ability to work through problems in a different way. There is a very direct and upfront style, they have enough good relationships that they don’t have to be polite all the time. Decisions can be made literally in an hour.”

However, she said that public servants needed to recognise that Indigenous communities had limited capacity for implementation of policy and that needed to be supported and nurtured by governments, including taking steps to decentralise public sector services and shift decision-making and capacity-building to local areas.

“It’s an area that needs work. We don’t lean in enough to build capacity within iwi – instead we take it because we need it too,” she said.

“Iwi feel that they are being pulled in a lot of different directions and their capacity is limited, and it is being spread across a huge number of reforms and policies – all while COVID-19 is a risk. A lot of the feedback is that ‘you’re not helping us enough; you’re asking us for our experience as a freebie and think that we have unlimited resources to help you to do your job’.

“When the Crown broke the promises they made in the Treaty they didn’t only take land and lives, but also the structures around how Māori made decisions. Some of these are starting to be rebuilt, but I think we need to make some more deliberate decisions as to how we support capacity.

“Part of that needs to be making sure we send out our policy makers to the regions, because too much of our thought process is still coming from Wellington.”

The Strengthening Indigenous partnerships with the Crown – an opportunity for public sector leaders with Lil Anderson will be held on 9 February 2022 and is part of ANZSOG’s Future public sector leaders’ series – a series of short and engaging online masterclasses designed to fit around the busy workday’s of public servants and provide a forum to discuss future challenges. Agencies can mix-and-match from the series to focus on areas of particular interest to them.

This masterclass will benefit agency leaders, senior staff and anyone who has a public facing leadership role or working towards one, particularly if these roles involve Indigenous populations and/or the issues that face these communities, as well as those interested in learning about new engagement and partnership approaches and/or approaches to policy work or large reform processes.

Find out more about ANZSOG’s Future public sector leaders’ series here.

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