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Waikato Maori step up to help entire region

February 27, 2018

From the first settlement of Māori claims against the Crown for breaches of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi about 20 years ago there have been uninformed comments and accusations that the money iwi received went to a privileged few and most Māori saw nothing of it.

Many commenters still hold the belief that these settlements are a form of apartheid or separate development when everyone should be treated equally with no special treatment for anyone one.

The reality is that the settlements were designed, in part, to compensate iwi, not individuals, for the massive losses that were illegally imposed on them by colonial governments. The settlements were also an attempt to give iwi the opportunity to catch up to where they would have been financially and socially if they had not been dispossessed.

That may sound a little idealistic today but, prior to the New Zealand Land Wars in the 1860s, Māori were major players in the economy of the new outpost of the British Empire. Thirty years earlier, in mid-1830s, Waikato tribes were supplying a significant amount of the foodstuffs required by Auckland from extensive wheat fields, flour mills and livestock farms south of Mangatāwhiri. In Taranaki there were also flour mills and farms supplying Wellington. Along the east coast of the North Island, Māori were involved in coastal and trans-Tasman shipping.

Those flourishing industries were brought to ruin by the invasion of Taranaki and Waikato in the 1860s. It was near fifty years before these regions reached the level of pre-war agricultural production and Māori were excluded from participation through the loss of their most productive lands.

The best most Māori could aspire to were labouring jobs, usually on land they previously owned, or in agricultural support industries like shearing and the freezing works. These are of course generalities as there were Māori who became successful farmers and professionals as individuals but the thriving tribal economies of the past had been destroyed and many Māori generations were consigned to poverty until the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal in the 1970s

Rebuilding that tribal economic base has not been easy and, at almost each step, ill-informed detractors have taken the opportunity to attack the efforts of Māori leadership.

Most Māori leaders are not interested in dwelling on the tragedy of the past and, just last week, the real value of Treaty of Waitangi settlements become obvious with the announcement of a major 10-year Māori economic development plan covering skills and education, resources and business support – not just for Māori but for the entire region.

The plan, announced by Māori Development Minister Nanaia Mahuta, will be no quick fix and will require sustained hard work. The plan was developed by Waikato-Tainui, Te Puni Kōkiri, Waikato Means Business and the Waikato Regional Council and will be underpinned by commissioned research from Business and Economic Research Ltd.

One of the goals, of the plan is to return full fluency in spoken Māori for Waikato-Tainui youngsters but it is unlikely such a project will exclude others who want to learn the language.

The ambitious plan also includes a Waikato Māori economic brand used when partnering with government agencies, micro-finance opportunities for businesses, and better support and networking for businesses.

The plan comes at comes a time when many regions are struggling to fund economic development and Waikato has been omitted from the first round of a government-funded regional development initiative.

Minister for Regional Economic Development Shane Jones said on Friday the first portion of the $1 billion per annum spend will go to Northland, East Coast, Hawke’s Bay, Manawatu and the West Coast of the South Island. Waikato may be considered in future initiatives but Waikato-Tainui and their partners in this new plan are not going to sit still waiting.

One can but wonder where our economy, and the role of Māori in it, might have been if wiser counsel had prevailed and the Land Wars had never occurred. The Waikato Basin was already on the way to becoming the food bowl of the Upper North Island and most of our early exports to Australia were carried on Māori-owned and crewed sailing ships.

In reality this is the role Waikato Māori were always willing to play in the development of the new colony, and they said so many times prior to the invasion of their lands. That they are still willing to play that role speaks volumes for their philosophy of community integration and for the future prosperity of their region and everyone who now calls it home.