Prosperity: the modern Waitangi Day challenge

For three decades the Waitangi Day focus has been on rights for Maori. John Key goes to his first Waitangi Day celebrations as Prime Minister next Friday. Will he shift the focus?

Key’s deal with the Maori party has raised National hopes of detaching Maori voters from Labour.

Plenty of Maori do vote National. They are a fair proportion of the one-third of Maori voters who stick with the general roll. John Carter, MP for Northland which has a high Maori population, attributes much of his majority to Maori on his electorate’s roll.

High-ranking Maori — Georgina te Heuheu is an example — have also been traditionally National.

But large numbers of those who gave their electorate votes to the Maori party in 2005 and 2008 gave their party votes to Labour — vastly more than voted National. This was logical: the Maori socioeconomic profile is essentially a Labour profile.

In essence, by appointing Maori party MPs ministers in his government and locking in their support, Key has purloined some of Labour’s vote.

How can he keep it?

Go back to the first Waitangi Day. The issue for Maori was prosperity and security.

And down the decades after 1840 there were many benefits of living in one of the world’s richest economies, made rich by the British.

But most Maori were at or close to the bottom of that rich heap. The big disbenefit for Maori from the Treaty of Waitangi was that iwi and hapu were dispossessed of most of their economic base, sometimes by their own leaders but most often by the government and its agents.

Hence the past three decades’ focus on rights. Recovering lost mana by reactivating the Treaty of Waitangi was a first step back to the full participation promised in article 3. Mana and money sound very alike, as Sir Tipene O’Regan used to say.

For many Maori the focus is still rights. The Maori party was founded on a rights issue, the removal in 2004 of the right to pursue through the courts ownership of parts of the foreshore and seabed.

But the foreshore was a step too far for the overall majority. The rights push had reached a plateau. The government opted for a legislated path and Michael Cullen last year signed two heads of agreement which are, if anything, better than iwi might have got through the courts.

In fact, Labour for some years tried to shift the emphasis from rights to development. A summit was held early in 2004 to underline that. Helen Clark said then she wanted a “shift from a gaps focus to an opportunity focus”. John Tamihere, as Associate Minister of Maori Affairs, said there must be a move from “victimhood to nationhood” and the release of “innate potential”.

This followed a bullish Institute of Economic Research report which found the “Maori economy” grew faster than the general economy from 1997 to 2002, was more profitable, had a higher savings rate and was a net lender to the general economy — but return on equity was lower, reflecting a need for big governance changes.

What has changed?

First, Cullen’s flash-flood of Treaty historical grievance deals last year will recapitalise many iwi, making them commercial heavyweights in their regions. Second, a rising Maori middle class is injecting better governance (though that is still uneven). Third, iwi are starting to collaborate, multiplying their influence.

Fourth, a bigger asset base gives iwi scope to contribute to lifting life-chances for Maori children (who are a quarter of all children) so they will do well economically. Fifth, iwi could stimulate entrepreneurship with micro-finance.

That strand was evident at Wednesday’s hastily convened (but well attended) Maori economic workshop. But so were rights, in the form of “cultural priorities”. While some envisaged Maori in the “post-carbon era”, there was still a whiff of “pre-carbon era” thinking.

Pita Sharples is to appoint a taskforce to build on the workshop. The risk is that it may bury under rights and rank a cultural priority both ancient and modern: “innate (economic) potential”. Until the 1860s wars knocked them flat, iwi were vigorous players in the colonial capitalist economy.

There is no innate reason Maori can’t do that again. There are entrepreneurs, not least in the gangs which run the drug trade. Nor is there compelling evidence regular Maori don’t want what most everyone else wants: prosperity in our internationalised economy.

That was a big driver for Maori in 1840. If Key makes it the driver again, National might in time win more Maori votes — through upward socioeconomic mobility.

Waitangi Day is about rights. It is also about development. As Sharples said on Wednesday, the point of the Treaty’s article 3 is sharing in the benefits of prosperity. Food for votes for Key next Friday?