Turning problem into opportunity and ambition

Opportunity or omen? John Key will meet United States President Barack Obama on June 20 United States time, 11 days after a seismic shock in Iraq — and, coincidentally, eight days before the 100th anniversary of Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which triggered world war one (WW1).

So a routine handshake to “highlight our increasingly close relationship with New Zealand” (to quote the White House) gives New Zealand an opportunity for input at an edgy time.

The immediate issue is Iraq’s and Syria’s fragmentation into tribes, complicated by sectarian antagonisms and vicious violence. Secular thugs used to keep both artificial countries more or less unitary. George Bush’s removal of Iraq’s thug and the rebellion against Syria’s have unleashed toxic forces, including one said to be worse than Al Qaeda and likely in time to target the west.

That does not say something like WWI is about to erupt. The 1914 circumstances were unique: a clash of empires in the dusk of Europe’s imperial age.

But the Middle East/Arab region is more inflamed than for 100 years and a spark can set off a forest fire. If conflict continues to spread, oil supplies could be cut and other countries drawn in.

Key will be on the spot as, or shortly after, Obama decides on action or not. If well-briefed (for example, by Security Council aspirant Jim McLay, whose quest he will push in New York), Key could contribute a useful small-advanced-country’s perspective.

Key’s Obama chat also is two weeks after another anniversary: 70 years from the allied invasion of Normandy, a pivotal moment of hope in world war two. After millennia of wars, Europe west of Russia is now a region of peace and opportunity.

While up north, Key might ponder two other proximate anniversaries.

On June 14 30 years ago Sir Robert Muldoon pulled a snap election, triggering a generational takeover which summarily executed his “ordinary bloke” populism and the Keynesian mixed economy. The election three months from now will be another stage in the transition to the next generation of policy makers, including some in Key’s remarkable remake of a quarter of his caucus.

The second anniversary involves another war (and postwar) story: the 150th on April 29 of the Gate Pa battle at Tauranga, where the British army was humiliated by a much smaller and much smarter Maori force. That contains a complex message for today’s policymakers.

The British eventually won that civil war, which they fought to force Maori to give up land to settlers. They exacted a fierce postwar price with extensive confiscations which crippled iwi economies and Maori spirit.

In that war Maori showed how they could and did quickly and effectively learn and apply modern new (military) technology. In fact, some had also begun to do that in the economy before the war.

The war and subsequent assimilation stalled that drive. Since the 1980s reversal of assimilation and then the Treaty of Waitangi settlements, it has been re-emerging.

Maori are a rising commercial force, through iwi, trusts and private businesses.

There was a lick of that on Friday at the Ahuwhenua — Maori excellence in farming — award in Tauranga.

Around 900 turned up, including the Governor-General, for an evening showcasing opportunity and ambition.

Sir Apirana Ngata and Governor-General Lord Bledisloe set up the award in 1932 to encourage Maori to adopt modern technology and management while preserving cultural values.

They were premature. Land was fragmented, with multiple ownerships which complicated management. Government oversight was paternalistic and stifling. Confiscated land remained lost. The spirit wasn’t there.

Now it is. Over the past two decades iwi and other trusts which amalgamate blocks of land or individualised titles have been reviving the pre-civil-war commercial drive. There are some impressive successes, such as the Tuaropaki enterprise northwest of Taupo, which has assets of $700 million, including a milk powder plant.

The three finalists showcased on Friday for the twelfth award since it was revived in 1993 are modern, investment-driven entrepreneurial operations that also aim to be environmentally sustainable and contribute to owners’ welfare.

There is now a real prospect Maori will over time double their 10 percentage share of total milk output as more land is brought into efficient production.

The focus is opportunity and ambition, not problem. Colonisation, enforced by war, made a problem, all too evident still among many Maori and in the prisons.

Much of the Arab world was colonised, too. Its peoples have not yet recovered opportunity and ambition and are warring instead of generating prosperity.

Obama’s message to Arabs recently has been lofty rhetoric and military withdrawal. If he wants friends there for the United States and not enemies he needs to think smarter and act.

A deep-thinking small-advanced-country leader from an ex-colonial place could help.