Democracy, pluralism, and social cohesion

How we govern ourselves is at the heart of our society. But as we become more divided and polarised it becomes harder to discuss this well, whether in parliament, the media, or our homes. The leaked release of He Puapua in 2021 sparked a national conversation on “co-governance”. Has Aotearoa New Zealand “reached a maturity where it is ready to undertake the transformation necessary to restructure governance to realise rangatiratanga Māori” as He Puapua suggests? Or does this represent, as others have said, “the most acute constitutional challenge since the Land Wars of the 1860s”?[1] Making matters more complicated, the debates around co-governance are nested within broader questions of social cohesion and pluralism in an increasingly diverse society.

Fortunately, polling we commissioned suggested that 72 percent of New Zealanders agree or strongly agree that “people in New Zealand from different cultural, ethnic, and social backgrounds can find common ground and build a shared future.”[2] Only eight percent of respondents disagreed. It is with this spirit of hope that we convened a conversation to explore the following questions:

  • Why does this issue matter, and is it on the agenda in the way it should be?
  • What are the most important principles for how we govern ourselves in New Zealand?
  • What does this imply for contemporary debates about co-governance or partnership?
  • How can we promote national cohesion and a shared future, and pluralism in an increasingly diverse society?
  • What does this imply for conversations about bi-culturalism or self-determination?
  • Which moments in our history should determine our future, and why?
  • What does this imply for the role of te Tiriti o Waitangi / the Treaty of Waitangi or commitments like the UN Declaration on the
    Rights of Indigenous Peoples for how we govern ourselves in future?
  • Can we learn from other countries’ experiences, or do we have the solutions here in New Zealand?

The Inkling was created to support better conversations about important issues like this. That’s why we host thought gatherings that bring leaders and experts together, including a discussion of this topic at the Wellington Club on 21 July 2023.

We also inspire discussion in families, communities, and workplaces, and we’ve used our experience with that event to create this backgrounder.

It’s designed to help anyone who’d like to have a conversation about this topic so in the next sections you’ll find some material to inform and inspire your discussion—key facts and figures, as well as relevant issues and arguments.

We’d love to hear from you if you’ve used this resource and have any feedback, or if you’ve got other ideas about supporting better public conversations.

We hope you find it helpful.


He Puapua’s “Vision 2040” (which marks the 200th anniversary of signing of te Tiriti o Waitangi / the Treaty of Waitangi):[3]

Diagram 1: Rangatiratanga/Joint/Kāwanatanga Spheres
  • The rangatiratanga sphere “reflects Māori governance over people and places.”
  • The kāwanatanga sphere is the area of Crown governance.
  • The joint sphere is where “Māori and the Crown share governance over issues of mutual concern.”

Prof. Margaret Mutu on the joint sphere: “Where Māori and the Crown work together they will do so as equals in the ‘relational [or joint] sphere’ where the Tiriti relationship will operate. The report notes that the relational sphere is ‘where a conciliatory and consensual democracy would be most needed’.”[4]

Research from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government Project on American Indian Economic Development found:
“When Native nations make their own decisions about what development approaches to take, they consistently out- perform external decision makers—on matters as diverse as governmental form, natural resource management, economic development, health care and social service provision.”[5]

Polling commissioned by The Inkling found that similar numbers of New Zealanders support and oppose the idea of co- governance.[6]

 However, when given a specific example of a co-governance initiative, twice as many people opposed it as supported it.[7]

Social cohesion is about:[8]

  • Respect between the public and the government, and among private communities and organisations, and trust that there will be cooperation for the good of society as a whole;
  • Believing that belonging, inclusion, participation, recognition, and legitimacy are universally possible.

Source: Te Tai Waiora Wellbeing in Aotearoa New Zealand 2022


The General Social Survey suggests that[9]:

  • The majority of the community are socially connected, politically engaged, and also report high levels of social trust. Similarly, most members of the community report comfort with diversity and openness to inclusion within their communities.
  • This level of trust has trended down over time.
  • Generalised trust scores for Māori are around 10 percent lower than
    those for Pakeha. However, reported discrimination is also higher for Māori and Pacific peoples.

Pluralism refers to the recognition and inclusion of diverse perspectives, identities, and interests in decision-making processes, allowing for the coexistence of different viewpoints and the representation of various groups in society.


There are many different views on democracy, pluralism, and social cohesion:

Some argue that applying the same law to everyone equally is one of the most important principles of democracy. Others argue new constitutional arrangements—a transformation—are required to give effect to the Treaty/te Tiriti. Others go further still, questioning whether democratic principles should be our starting point at all.

Linked to this is a debate about equality. Some argue that legitimate government is based on political equality, for example, “one person, one vote”. Others argue that government should reflect a partnership between Māori and the Crown, which might modify this idea of ‘simple’ equality. In society more generally, some advocate for equity rather than equality, that is, treating people differently to achieve equal or fair outcomes.

Some argue that social change, like the rise of indigenous rights or movements like kura kaupapa Māori, needs to happen organically and incrementally. Others argue that this leaves us captive to the majority, and sometimes the Government or other leaders need to push transformation forward and secure justice for the minority. The counter-argument is that forced change can result in the “overreach of the elite,” causing a general backlash.

Some argue that good government and democracy mean that as many people as possible should participate in the political process, and that government decision-making should not take place behind closed doors but should be as transparent
as possible. Others argue there is a crucial role for leaders to deliberate outside of public scrutiny, trading transparency and participation for effectiveness.

Some argue that New Zealand has a strong track record of resolving cultural tensions through practical “problem-solving”
in areas like Treaty settlements, and that this is better than trying to resolve disagreements with abstract principles like sovereignty. Others argue that other countries like Canada and the United States are much better at recognising principles like self-determination and indigenous sovereignty and show how they can be put into effect.

Some argue that we are more cohesive than we think, that we are far more alike than different despite the efforts of some to divide us. Others ask, “if we are cohesive, what are we cohering to, and who decides?” For example, do we assume that Māori self-determination and identity is at the heart of social cohesion and belonging in New Zealand? Or do we assume that social should cohere around essentially Western ideas? Does pluralism allow us a way through, by uniting us in agreement to value and respect each other’s differences?

Some argue today’s leaders need a better understanding of the past to learn what worked and what was found wanting; to build on what has come before. Others suggested a future focus on “mokopunatanga,” drawing on past aspirations but considering the well-being of our grandchildren when we make decisions today.

Lastly, some point out that conversations about identity, indigenous rights and historic injustice can be sensitive and difficult, but that is nothing new and we shouldn’t be scared of them. If we can care about these issues without fearing them, we can talk about them constructively. Others agree that these conversations can be difficult, but point out that we’ve tended to focus
on the negative and difficult periods of our history—for example, Treaty settlements by their nature focus on injustice—and not on the peaceful and positive moments where we’ve come together. We need a holistic approach to our history and our future, they say.10


The Inkling was created in 2022 because we believe it’s vital to discuss issues like this with a generous spirit and in good faith. Unfortunately, public discussion often doesn’t live up to that standard.

That’s why we’ve created initiatives to help strengthen New Zealand’s conversational muscles, including our distinctive Inkling events.

We value rigour in debate, respect for others, humility about our limits, and curiosity about ideas.

The Inkling was founded by Ed Bachrach and is served by an Advisory Panel of distinguished New Zealanders. You can find out
more at


[1] C. Trotter, “What is Co-Governance?”, The Daily Blog, January 17, 2023,
[2] The Inkling Polling, conducted by Talbot Mills June/July 2023.
[3] Te Puni Kōkori, “He Puapua: Report on the Working Group on a Plan to Realise the UN Declaration on the Rights of indigenous Peoples in Aotearoa,” unofficiallyreleased 2021,, page vi.
[4] M. Mutu, ‘To honour the treaty, we must first settle colonisation’ (Moana Jackson 2015): the long road from colonial devastation to balance, peace andharmony, Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand (2021) 49:1, pp. 4-18,
[5] The Project on Indigenous Governance and Development at the Harvard Kennedy School, See also C. Buchanan,“Carwyn Jones: The value of sharing the decision-making,” e-Tangata, April 23, 2023,
[6] The Inkling Polling.
[7] The Inkling Polling.
[8] P. Gluckman et. al, “Sustaining Aotearoa New Zealand as a cohesive society,” (Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures, 2021)
[9] New Zealand Treasury, “Social Cohesion in New Zealand,” Background Paper to Te Tai Waiora: Wellbeing in Aotearoa New Zealand 2022 (2022),

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