Edwina Merito (Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Pūkeko) is our Whakarangatira te Tiriti lead at MartinJenkins. Here she shares some tips for public-sector leaders who are concerned about meeting their Treaty responsibilities in changing times.

The expected introduction of a Treaty Principles Bill, restrictions on using te reo Māori names in the public sector, the removal of the specific Treaty duties section 7AA from the Oranga Tamariki Act, and of course the Hui-aa-Motu and other Māori-led responses to the coalition government’s agenda – this has all put te Tiriti o Waitangi squarely in the spotlight in 2024. 

New government priorities are also creating an uncomfortable level of uncertainty for public-sector organisations that are obligated to uphold the Treaty of Waitangi or its principles or have specific statutory obligations to Māori.

Some things are tolerably clear – like specific lawful ministerial directives to “stop”, “repeal”, or “draft” this or that. But then there are broader directives to, for example, “prioritise on the basis of need, not race” or “be driven by data and evidence” – these call for some sophisticated thinking from public-sector leaders about how to continue to meet existing Treaty responsibilities and specific responsibilities to Māori, especially statutory ones. 

This shifting context also needs to be reconciled with the fundamental principle underpinning the public service, that it must be politically neutral in service of the government of the day.

Edwina Merito (Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Pūkeko)

A kete of practical advice and tools

Some agencies may find it harder than others to respond effectively. At MartinJenkins, we’ve come across pockets of good knowledge and practice in the public sector in relation to te Tiriti, but that level of capability still isn’t widespread.

So we’ve been developing some practical tools and advice to help guide public-sector leaders in their policy thinking and their stewardship of their agencies. We’ve drawn on a range of sources, including guidance from Te Arawhiti and Te Puni Kōkiri, and married that with our own insights from our own experience.

As this article explains, we’ve captured the broad outlines of our kete of advice in three key phrases. “Keeping your whare in order” is about getting the basics right, about doing everything your agency is accountable for. It includes making sure you and your people understand your organisation’s current Treaty responsibilities and are properly set up to meet them. “Staying anchored” and “Being attuned to the vibes” then deal with some “softer” stuff about the relationships and knowledge you’ll need to ensure te Tiriti o Waitangi is a real part of the life of your organisation.

Connecting and engaging with Māori is a common thread running through all three of those different dimensions.


Understand your specific Tiriti responsibilities

It might seem obvious that a government agency needs a good understanding of the specific terms of its official Tiriti responsibilities under statute and ministerial instructions. But in our experience, it’s a point worth repeating. So we’d recommend that you start by going back and looking closely at your founding legislation.

For departments and other public-service organisations, your founding legislation will also include the Public Service Act 2020 (section 14), which refers to the role of the public service in supporting the Crown in its relationships with Māori under the Treaty. Section 14 also places responsibility on public-service CEOs, among others, for developing and maintaining the capability of the public service to engage with Māori and understand Māori perspectives, and for involving Māori in the public service. 

The previous government had also told all statutory Crown entities, in an “Enduring Letter of Expectations” of 2019, that it expected them to “embody the Government’s good-faith and collaborative approach to Māori Crown relationships” through a range of ways, including engaging appropriately and often with Māori and partnering with Māori organisations and businesses. However, the current government’s new Enduring Letter of Expectations of April 2024 doesn’t mention Māori at all. The Treaty is enduring, but each government has a different approach.

Treaty settlement legislation has also created important obligations. You can examine these through Te Haeata, a searchable online record of settlement commitments.

Statutory obligations vary from the general to the prescriptive

Some Treaty of Waitangi clauses in Acts can be prescriptive and detailed about how to comply with the Treaty. For example, the Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf (Environmental Effects) Act 2012 (section 12) says the government must, among other things, give iwi enough time and opportunity to comment on proposed regulations.

But other Treaty clauses, particularly in earlier Acts, are general and non-prescriptive, and can take a lot of interpreting. For example, the Conservation Act 1987 says only that:

“This Act shall so be interpreted and administered as to give effect to the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.” (section 4)

Fortunately, we now have 37 years of experience to help interpret general clauses like those. That experience includes some intensive testing in the courts – for example, in Ngāi Tai ki Tāmaki Tribal Trust v Minister of Conservation in the Supreme Court in 2018.  

But whether your existing Treaty provisions are general or prescriptive, you need to be thinking hard about how your organisation is interpreting and applying them in the context of your particular role and mandate – as a regulator, a system steward, a policy adviser, or some other function.

Know how your agency is engaging with Māori around your kaupapa and policies

Public-sector leaders need to know all about what their agency is doing to meet its agency’s obligations under te Tiriti to engage and consult with Māori around specific kaupapa or policies.

It’s vital to do due diligence before engaging, and this means understanding the context for those you’re engaging with. For example, your agency’s kaupapa might not be a priority for them, or they might have limited resources in people and time for engaging with you.

Be aware too of what other agencies are doing, so you avoid the “five Crown cars up the driveway” problem.

Ensure your agency is reflecting what it learns in its work

As a leader you also need a clear picture of what your agency is doing with what it learns from engaging with Māori. You need to be aware of how – or whether – the results of all your kōrero with Māori are being put to good use and flowing back into the agency’s core functions and systems. For example, are there opportunities to improve policy or delivery through partnerships or other mechanisms?

What your agency learns should be reflected in its understanding of the cultural capability and capacity it needs in order to achieve results. Have you looked at your recruitment and retention policy to ensure you have the right talent and skills in the right places and the right time? What you learn from engaging with Māori also needs to be reflected in how you’ll monitor your agency’s performance.


"Staying anchored” means nurturing your trusted relationships with your own kaimahi Māori and with Māori in your communities and networks. You need to continually invest in staying connected, so that you’re not suddenly trying to create constructive relationships just when you happen to need them.

The effects of not being connected can be really damaging for your organisation’s work and credibility, and this is particularly important amidst the current changes. Multiple Crown cars up the driveway can of course be a problem, but an even bigger problem is if, because they’re grappling with uncertainty, government agencies stop swinging by for a kōrero at all and so are not keeping on top of issues and opportunities.  

Ātea a Rangi (Star Compass) in Waitangi Regional Park in Karaewa Clive, Te Matau-a-Māui Hawke's Bay. It was designed and carved by the Ātea a Rangi Educational Trust. (Adobe Stock)

Lean on your trusted relationships with your own kaimahi Māori

To stay anchored, you need to start with nurturing strong, trusted relationships with those people who are right in front of you, which usually will be your Māori staff. Seek their advice in meaningful ways – your kaimahi Māori will often know what’s happening on the ground and can keep you informed about what’s ahead. 

This might involve scheduling regular face-to-face time with them, or enabling Māori staff to wānanga together and then hearing from them on key issues.

But be sensitive too to the personal toll your kaimahi Māori may be experiencing amidst the current uncertainty. Make sure they’re not having to shoulder too much responsibility in keeping your organisation on track.

Nurture your relationships with Māori in your wider networks and community

Stay anchored too to your longstanding connections with Māori outside your organisation. Form and maintain trusted relationships with iwi and Māori in your area and your industry, including Māori networks, Māori leaders, and key iwi and Māori organisations. Make sure you engage with them early and often – not just when you want something or when something has gone wrong. 

In this way, particularly as now when the context is changing, you’ll maintain a better understanding of the waters around you, and avoid straying into choppy ones.


If staying anchored is mainly about the who, being attuned to what we like to call “the vibes” is more about the what: it focuses on the issues and all their complexities. If it was in a government agency competency framework it would probably be called “political savvy” – but we like our description better.

Get amongst the issues, the discussions, the nuances

Feeling for “the vibes” is really the fun bit, and it’s also where leaders need to be spending most of their time. So get across all the issues, understand their context, know what’s been said before, and recognise the subtleties and nuances that are critical for enduring relationships.

There are a wide range of useful sources. These include official ones, like current and past Waitangi Tribunal hearings and reports, and select committee hearings.

There are also many different Māori forums and networks you can connect with, including environment, business, international, social and health, and creative. Stay tuned also to iwi radio and other Māori media.  

If you can’t sense the vibes, you’re not doing enough of the right things

Here’s a hot tip: if you can’t sense the vibes, then you know you’re doing something wrong, that you’re not connecting with enough people and places. There are hui, wānanga, and events going on in every pocket of the country, on every topic, so get amongst it all.

That way you’ll avoid being blindsided by issues, and be well-placed to see and understand the relative impact of different policies or regulatory settings and the dynamics of Treaty relationships on the ground. Or, at the least, you’ll be able to connect with someone who can support your understanding.


Leaders of NGOs also need to think about and understand where and how their organisation fits into the Treaty context and how the Treaty may connect with their values and goals. Look across the sector or system you operate in to see where Treaty issues and biculturalism are relevant.

Recently we’ve noticed more recognition among NGOs and the private sector of the importance of the unique Treaty and bicultural foundations in Aotearoa, as these NGOs and businesses work to develop distinctive value propositions and strengthen their position and credibility in their communities.

Foundation North, for example, is a community trust that invests in programmes and services in Auckland and Northland, and it has notably advanced its commitment to biculturalism and the Treaty of Waitangi.

Foundation North’s development as a Tiriti-led organisation flows through all the different dimensions of their organisation and how it’s run – from governance, to leadership, strategy, decision making, organisational culture, and more. 


Treaty stewardship in today’s context is about having a good grip on all the fundamentals, all at the same time. With your whare in good order and through being anchored and tuned in, you’ll be well-placed to lead with confidence in changing times.  

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