This text is an essay included in “Back to the Māori Future” in Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis, Max Rashbrooke (ed.), Wellington, Bridget Williams Books, June 2013.
Better by Design: back to the Māori future?
At the creation
It is interesting to speculate on the vision that the Māori leadership of the nineteenth century had in mind as they signed the Treaty of Waitangi, and what they may have envisaged a co-created Aotearoa New Zealand – and their role in that nation-building exercise – would look like.
A genuine blending of the Māori worldview, with its dynamic, community-grounded customs and values held in a frame of reciprocal responsibility to each other and the natural world, and the equally dynamic Western model, with its technologies and capital market economy and systems of management, would have been a heady mix indeed.
We do enjoy, fortunately, a unique Aotearoa New Zealand approach to life, one that shapes our view of both each other and the external world. But the merger – to date at least – has been a largely one-sided affair, with the indigenous instinct being overwhelmed by the globally dominant Western frame. It has taken a long time for Māori to tack their way back into the contemporary field, and the relatively impressive progress of late is still tentative and fragile.
Simultaneous with this quiet Māori return to the mainstream, the foundations of the Western development model are being shaken, and hard. From massive instability in financial markets to widespread civil protest across the globe to the ever-lengthening shadow of climate change, the underlying assumptions of the global orthodoxy are being called into question.
The Māori collectives now arriving back on the scene are currently playing by the inherited rules, the received wisdom of the majority. While they do have distinctive indigenous icons, it often seems that their traditional values – their true North Star – are, unnecessarily, left at the boardroom door as the price of entry.
But this time of great change – in which we see a confluence of burgeoning Māori capacity, international market turmoil, and the pressing need to identify new ways forward – could be a chance to revisit the co-creation opportunity that was passed up in the mid-1800s. And perhaps this time round the new kids on the block, the emerging Māori institutions, might show us the way.
A gradual return to form
During the past three decades Māori collectives, in the form of land trusts, re-emergent iwi authorities and new pan-Māori ownership structures, have begun to reassert themselves.
They are uniquely embedded in their communities, combining in single entities the interests of shareholders and stakeholders, citizens and investors and social agents, and, most fundamentally, close family members. They are microcosms of wider society, having to represent, and then reconcile, the demands of these multiple interests. And these tensions are all navigated in a context of significant long-term poverty. But from modest beginnings, these entities are gently rousing the sleeping capital in their midst. Building on their modest legacy assets and more recent Treaty settlements, they are now collectively responsible for marshalling some $40 billion of financial capital.
These assets are, however, most often being deployed in an unthinking ‘me too’ fashion, mimicking the activities, values and measures of success of the Western, single-dimension, profit-maximising model. Where does the welfare of Tangaroa feature in the decisions by pan-Māori fishing entities to undertake bottom-trawling techniques that destroy seabed ecosystems? How are the core human values of whanaungatanga and manaakitanga reflected in the poor working conditions of the foreign crews utilised by these same companies?
What do we make of tribal authorities selling land assets returned to them in the Treaty settlement process as token recognition of ancestral lands lost last century? Can we see evidence of these groups using their increased financial capacity to, over time, repatriate historic pā sites, or increase their quota holdings in culturally important fish species, or reclaim other icons of their proud histories?
What are we to make of the inevitable defence that each decision to not exercise these newly available options “increases the bottom line” and “ensures maximisation of shareholder return”?
We might well ask whose frame of reference and whose values are being used in this family of emerging ‘me too’ organisations. We might equally wonder if these single-focus, profit-maximising outcomes are consistent with the vision held by the Māori signatories to the Treaty, or the tribal leadership’s vision across the long intervening generations.
The seduction of pragmatism
Of course, we must not assume simple answers to these questions. After six or more generations of dispossession, not only from one’s assets but also from the experience of managing them, it takes time to re-establish institutions, and to build the human capital required to run them. It takes time to rebuild reputation and trust, both with external parties and with internal stakeholders.
Neither can we take away from some very creditable early results. Ngāi Tahu has already distributed more to its constituents than it received in its 1998 settlement. Meanwhile, net funds under management have increased nearly threefold to approximately $600 million in 2012. As well as funding environmental restoration, education, cultural revitalisation, economic development, and community infrastructure programmes, the iwi has established subsidised savings accounts to bolster tertiary education, home ownership and retirement wellbeing for its members. These are potentially game-changing interventions in communities of considerable need, and should be celebrated. And perhaps it is fair enough, and only rational, that these newly energised entities should start by emulating the models with which they are now familiar.
In other words, for the Māori collectives reclaiming their seat at decision-making tables across the country, hard-headed pragmatism has served their communities well. Their people have survived, albeit across a wide spectrum of ‘wellbeing’. Wearing the clothes of the majority, they have increasingly found their way in the new world. They are reconnecting with their own attenuated membership, regaining their voice in regional and national affairs, and quietly reshaping their worlds in their own image.
Adopting the outsiders’ recipe has worked, at least as measured by the widely accepted standards of capital accumulation and financial returns. And we are seeing a steadily increasing flow of resources through these organisations back to their stakeholder communities. There is already much to celebrate; and it is still early days.
Yet these organisations carry out the same business activities as their non-Māori peers, measure themselves by the same standards, and in many – if not most – ways are indistinguishable from them. They tend not to explore and celebrate (and exploit for advantage) the cultural differences they have, uniquely, at their disposal. Too often they treat such traditional instincts as value-destroying, and therefore to be denied.
And so the hard questions remain. What, if anything, is uniquely Māori about these institutions or the way they operate or their investment and distribution decisions? What, if any, activities do these organisations deliberately avoid as a result of their unique ownership base?
If Māori merely mimic the dominant models of our time, won’t they reap exactly the same unsatisfactory harvest for their community members? Won’t they contribute to ever-lengthening dole queues, as labour continues to be displaced by financial capital, even though their own members are already over-represented in those same queues?
Won’t the future of their descendants, ironically, become even more captive to the decisions of remote policy makers, central bankers, and international agreements negotiated without their input? Won’t they be exacerbating climate change, the irreversible degradation of natural ecosystems, and the destruction of the realms of their own departmental gods?
Won’t they themselves be fuelling the very inequality that is considered by many to be directly responsible for a litany of Māori misery, including increased rates of imprisonment, obesity, teen pregnancy, and suicide?
It seems strange and more than a little disquieting that Māori might want to use their recently reclaimed voice and scarce capital to purchase more of these negative outcomes. And especially so when the adequacy and sustainability of the current economic orthodoxy is now in such serious doubt.
The confluence of old and new
Ideas have their purpose, in their time, and then we need to leave them behind. Ka pū te ruha, ka hao te rangatahi: The old net is cast aside, and the new net goes fishing.
We can understand how the values, philosophies and worldview of Māori were sidelined by the onslaught of the nineteenth-century settler society. We can see why the new has been adopted and the old put to one side.
But the model that supplanted the traditional Māori worldview some two centuries ago is no longer looking sustainable, or like a welcoming path to a collectively better future. The world no longer enjoys ‘business as usual’, and may never do so again.
Increasing climate variability now appears to be an indisputable fact. We have unprecedented disruption in global financial markets. We are beginning to hit natural resource constraints, whether in the form of Peak Oil, Peak Water, or a burgeoning world population that is already straining global food systems. And we are seeing civic unrest across the globe – from Occupy Wall Street to Idle No More to protests over a range of civil society concerns – and rising anger amongst the 99%.
Each of these world-changing forces threatens to further divide us into ‘have’ and ‘have-not’ camps. So where is the Māori institutional voice at this time? Where are the investments by Māori entities, individually and collectively, in alternative models that are rooted in community and that distribute their benefits back to those communities?
These questions are a reminder that a traditional worldview – one that has the health of the planet and respect for its departmental gods ahead of any assumption of human rights to harvest and benefit – may have much to offer in these troubled times.
Perhaps there is considerable value in a framework that recognises other living beings – including plants, animals and fish – as familial relations that share a reciprocal responsibility for each other’s long-term welfare. Perhaps a community model that assumes a collective responsibility for the welfare of all members of the collective, and then conducts itself accordingly, might help restore trust and community cohesion, and return meaning to both aspects of ‘civil society’.
Perhaps the traditional gift economy, with its wide unconditional distribution of seasonal bounty – and the associated explicit reciprocal obligations to pay it forward – might again have its place in a world that increasingly needs to move from a paradigm of perpetual growth to one of sufficiency.
Perhaps those past insights could be grafted back onto the Māori institutional rootstock that is now taking hold and beginning to flourish so vigorously. This could only be done by Māori organisations themselves, as the keepers of both the old and new elements of this potential hybrid.
These are of course the same organisations that have been contradictorily successful by copying models based on foreign philosophical assumptions (even as those assumptions are themselves being shown to be flawed and unsustainable) and by subordinating their unique needs and values to the desire to belong to the mainstream.
To achieve this step-change would therefore be to ask a great deal of these new entities, many of which have only been in existence for a short decade or two. And it is much to ask of a new leadership, especially when these novel ideas are not being actively discussed or explored at any practical level. Genuine leadership requires considerable courage, and remains a lonely business.
Back to the drawing board?
There are, regrettably, precious few explorations of alternative governance, management, and distribution models that might provide a more natural ‘cultural fit’ for Māori and their intergenerational outlook.
To date Māori organisations have not developed barter economies or crowdsourced funding vehicles, or established their own credit unions. Nor have they adopted localised food production and distribution systems, or created communal housing developments in urban areas, community-owned renewable electricity generation, or urban gardens.
These community-based solutions succeed on a platform of local community connectedness and relationships and reciprocity and active generosity; all strong characteristics of Māori society. It is therefore surprising that these myriad network-based mechanisms, which are being aggressively adopted and adapted everywhere from Pakistan to New York City, have been so little explored by Māori collectives. And especially so given their potential to reduce the burdens of poverty and inequality that are borne so disproportionately by Māori.
It is hard to put down the seduction of that which works, at least until it patently no longer does. It is always with great reluctance that we walk away from current practice and habit. Such is the downside of the stickiness that is collective ‘culture’.
But just as earthquakes make possible relationships and new ways of doing things that were incomprehensible before the event, so too do broader societal challenges offer the opportunity – and pressing need – for new ways of doing things. The rules are changing, fast, and irrevocably. And the continued payoff for mimicry is now doubtful in the extreme.
We now have a unique opportunity to revisit the possibility of co-creating aspects of our society. We can (re)turn the dial just a little more towards environmental consciousness and responsibility, and a little more towards a collective, shared responsibility for each other in our communities.
To find this place, Māori institutions will have to lead the way. It is their deep cultural instincts that are being called upon to re-ground our communities. It is their investment capital that is still fluid enough to be shifted easily into new patterns and relationships. It is their ties that bind us most effectively, to the land and to each other. And it is their human capital that will carry the burden of straddling the two worlds and weaving them together.
More than ever before we need the unique perspective and capacities of these re-emergent Māori institutions to help us co-create an inclusive path forwards; and they in turn deserve our unreserved support as we explore these uncharted waters together.
The first European settlers arrived in the Otago harbour in the early 1800s. They were ill-equipped to survive the conditions, let alone feed themselves. Local Ngāi Tahu provided them with fish and other foods, and shelter, to get them through the first winter and give them time to get established in that new environment.
Maybe it is time for our newly minted Māori institutions to revisit that old discarded net and use it creatively to provide for all of us again; but with the benefits being enjoyed more equally this time round.