It's time to make Maori rich

What does a third-world nation want most? To be as rich as a first-world nation.

There is an exception. Bhutan’s official measure of performance is gross national happiness. Bhutan is very poor. Four-fifths of its population are subsistence farmers and it ranks 134th out of 177 on the United Nations Development Programme’s index.

No matter. Bhutan is happy — officially. It is preserving its culture and tradition (though it is occasionally inventive about the latter).

Some Maori, perhaps a lot of Maori, would happily Bhutanise this country or at least its Maori component. They put cultural integrity and tradition first.

For 30 years this has been the side of Maori activism most visible through our media. The result has been a spectacular recovery of the culture and its status in the public and, increasingly, private life of the nation.

There is still a multitude of settlements to be done and a great deal of argument and tension over Maori delivery agencies and over taonga and this will keep activists and the media excited for a generation. But the critical battles are over.

What next? That was the point of last week’s stagey Maori economic development summit (hui taumata).

The what-next is to get Maori richer. Maori are a sort of third-world nation lurking within this supposedly first-world one.

If they don’t get richer the nation’s economic potential will be seriously blunted. The demographics make that inescapable point: Maori are a quarter of the population under 15 and so, inevitably, their proportion of the total population will climb towards to that level.

If Maori continue on average to get less well educated and less skilled and get lower-paying jobs than non-Maori, that will cut overall economic performance, make the country less attractive to investors and high-flyers and generate a downward spiral. Some, National leader Don Brash among them, would argue we have been sliding down that spiral for decades already.

This is part of the positive point buried under the fuss over the Waananga o Aotearoa: the waananga has been getting illiterates on to the bottom rung of the educational ladder and motivated to climb. Mainstream institutions had failed and thereby failed all of us.

The hui taumata was not the election-year gimmick National grumped about it. I wrote about it in these pages 16 months ago. By focusing on electoral manoeuvring, National risks missing a boat its friends in the Business Roundtable are firmly aboard.

Sure chair Rob McLeod (Ngati Porou, from the next-door bay to John Tamhere’s, and active in iwi affairs) was a keynote speaker at the hui, on his favourite topic of the wasted wealth locked up in substandard performance. But flinty Roger Kerr also pointedly attended throughout and added his name to McLeod’s to a congratulatory press release afterwards.

McLeod and Kerr know something few have yet registered:

* There is a proliferation of modern, market-driven businesses run by Maori in much the way anyone runs a business.

* A younger generation of Maori is turning mind and energy increasingly to educational and economic development, rather than fighting land and cultural battles.

* And that younger generation is preparing to challenge the stultified, culture-based and thus uneconomic management of iwi assets.

This sort of new Maori does not give quarter on culture. Speaker after speaker at the hui said economic development must not be at the expense of a loss of the culture. There were several references to the immutable place of “taonga land” among iwi assets.

These comments gave the impression that most at the hui felt the recovery of the culture has been so recent that it is still fragile and at risk and in need of protection. So expect to hear a lot about culture and tradition for a good long while yet.

But over time, as Maori grow surer the culture is secure, getting richer is likely to count for more. And that will change the way iwi assets are managed.

Ngai Tahu’s 38-year-old chief executive Tahu Potiki, himself steeped in culture, foreshadowed a changing emphasis as “democracy” over time drives a “dedicated focus on performance, with express permission to trade out of deadweight investments”.

“This will take a significant leap of faith and courage from Maori leadership,” Potiki said. Put another way, Maori will need the courage and confidence to modernise and adapt the culture, to defrost tradition.

That is what happened in the Anglo-Celtic countries: industrialisation and globalisation drove massive cultural change. If Maori are to “live as Maori and be citizens of the world”, as Professor Mason Durie put it, the culture will change to meet that world.

The message was not lost on the hui. When a woman harangued it on the Maori party’s righteous mission, the usual attentive quiet in the hall gave way to a low murmur, which subsided when she sat down — rather like the murmurings and mutterings that silence a boring or wrong-headed speech on a marae.

The hui taumata’s thrust was educational improvement, iwi independence, less reliance on the government and more on other partners and more Maori in business on their own account, taking advice from the best, not just their tribal connections, all underpinned by strong families (whanau).

It is hard to imagine Brash and National disagreeing with that thrust. Indeed, those themes should logically have National’s stamp all over them, not Labour’s. Instead, National’s rhetoric on Maori issues is still locked (negatively) into the rights debate — at the very time the government and increasing numbers of Maori are moving beyond rights to development.

Getting richer, after all, was what the Treaty of Waitangi was principally about for Maori in 1840: access to modern technology for economic development (and to beat old enemies with new weapons). The rights arguments came later, after Maori society and its economy were destroyed in the second half of the nineteenth century and Maori were made an economic underclass.

Are there lessons for business? Three.

The first is a negative. The great majority of Maori live as a social and economic underclass. Bringing the average Maori contribution up to match the overall average — McLeods’ goal — is a decades-long transformation. That transformation is only just beginning now in the primary schools and there is no assurance of success.

The second less for business is a positive. A Maori middle class is now fast emerging, though still relatively small.

Middle classes — professionals, managers and entrepreneurs — are economic drivers and political democratisers. So there will be more businesses run by Maori (independently of any new bureaucratic entity, as scoped by Fran O’Sullivan in the Business Herald on Monday). And as the middle class democratises iwi, iwi will modernise their governance and so open up scope for business partnerships.

The third is a big positive.

One hui session focused on creativity. Prime Minister Helen Clark noted that Maori artists had been chosen, on merit, to represent this country’s art in two major international showcases.

That reflects an energy that is also reflected in the other arts, especially music. A distinct brand — unstuffy, modern and national, not parked in a traditional Maori corner — is developing off which business can piggy-back to advantage abroad.

And it comes just when Maori are getting into business seriously. There is money to be made. But not in Bhutan.