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Mode of ambition

Jim Mather, the head of Te Wananga o Aotearoa, has written a controversial thesis that examines what’s helping and hindering Maori economic development.

Jim Mather with partner Annabelle Lee at last year’s Maori Sports Awards. Photo/Mather Family Collection

That can’t be right. I clear the calculator on my phone for the third time and punch in the numbers again: 42 million divided by 22,000. The same answer comes up, but still the number looks too small.

I should have brought it up in the interview. I’ve just spent two hours with Jim Mather, the former chief executive of Maori Television, who has written a stunning 300-page thesis on Maori economic development for his PhD in Business Studies at AUT. It’s a sweeping panoramic history, from first foothold on Aotearoa, through the land confiscations of the mid-19th century, to the urbanisation of the 1960s, the Treaty settlements of the 1990s and beyond. He had deeply personal reasons for writing it and we’ll get to that too.

Mather, now head of Te Wananga o Aotearoa, uses his own iwi, Ngati Awa, as a case study as he evaluates what is helping and hindering Maori economic development. Ngati Awa is the 10th largest iwi, numbering about 22,000 today. By the end of the 1860s, it had lost 168,000 acres in land confiscations to the Crown. If you struggle with how much land that is, you know what we used to call a full house section? The quarter-acre ones? Well, 672,000 of those.

But back to our calculation at the beginning of this story. In 2005, Ngati Awa settled with the Crown for $42 million (for context, John Key is worth more than that). On today’s tribal numbers, that works out at about $1909 per person. Sorry about all that land. Here’s two grand.

Of course, Ngati Awa didn’t simply divide up the money. They’ve been trying to grow their paltry settlement so it can last for generations. Like Ngai Tahu and Tainui before them, they’ve done pretty well, more than doubling their asset base to $111 million over the past decade. There have been failures with Treaty settlements too, like Ngati Tama, the Taranaki iwi, which had lost most of its 2003 payout of $14.5 million by 2012.

Mather’s thesis casts a critical eye on what’s working for Maori economic development and what’s not. Some of his conclusions will be controversial. He tells the Listener that an obsession with consultation is holding Maori back and calls time on the old guard of Maori leadership.

“There is a reluctance on the part of the old guard in some instances to move on and accept that they have made their contribution and it is time to hand over the reins. I don’t see a lot of commitment to leadership succession and development. I really do think this is an area wider Maoridom needs to look at very closely. How do we actually create opportunities for our young leaders to come through and make their contribution? Because if those avenues aren’t provided, they’ll be lost.”

Jim Mather at recruit training in Waiouru, 1982. Photo/Mather Family Collection


We’re so used to hearing negative statistics about Maori that it’s tempting to grab a positive number and hold on for dear life. Mather’s thesis tracks the value of the Maori economy as estimated by NZIER from $9 billion in 2001, $16.5 billion in 2005 and $37 billion in 2010 (New Zealand’s GDP is now about $230 billion). Mather quotes political journalist Colin James, who wrote, “Stop thinking about Maori in the economy, which can be depressing. Start thinking about the Maori economy, which has been doing well and has lots of potential.”

Mather himself, though, isn’t so impressed with the numbers. “I am sceptical of the whole philosophy of a Maori economy. The reality is Maori are not running on separate tram tracks from mainstream New Zealand. There is no separate economy that operates in a segregated, isolated way.” He says the $37 billion Maori economy becomes “a little bit fantastical” when you consider it includes the private homes of those who identify as Maori. “I have talked to many Maori and I have yet to find one who would be prepared to commit his or her home to a greater cause of Maori economic development.”

That said, he does believe Maori “have the potential to be major players” in the economy of post-settlement New Zealand. Both Tainui and Ngai Tahu have turned their $170 million settlements of the 1990s into huge asset bases, each worth more than $1 billion. Ngati Whatua is coming close to the big league too, with assets rising $38 million last year to $631 million and little of that is the result of its Treaty cash settlement, a mere $18 million in 2012. So what can other iwi learn from these success stories?

“Ultimately it comes back to a very simple concept: effective leadership,” says Mather. “You can come out with the most comprehensive, accurate and well-defined strategic plan, but if you don’t have people to implement it, that is all it is – just a plan.”

Who qualifies as an effective leader changes with the challenge. The leaders who fought for the best settlement may not be the ones who manage the assets once the deal is done. “Those who won the war might not necessarily be the right leaders to win the peace.” He gives the example of Ngai Tahu replacing “war-time” leaders such as Sir Tipene O’Regan. “They had a plan to disestablish the war cabinet and replenish it with the right leaders to take it through the important part of winning the peace.”

Large, successful iwi have also taken care to separate the tribal and commercial arms, often moving assets into a holding company. Mather backs the model but adds a qualifier. “You’ve got to ensure that the tail doesn’t wag the dog and that the commercial arm understands that they are there to serve the people and not the other way around, which has been the case in some circumstances.”

Jim Mather (rear) at age seven with siblings (from left) Rose, David and Karen. Photo/Mather Family Collection


So plenty has been done right in Maori economic development. But Mather also sees things that worry him. He’s highly critical of the quality of governance in some Maori organisations, citing Te Kohanga Reo National Trust as an example of poor leadership succession.“One could argue zero leadership succession when you have lifetime trusteeship roles,” he says. “When you have lifetime positions, you don’t have the opportunity to vote people on and off the council and so the only way that can change is if you change the entire governance structure, and it takes a lot of momentum to get that to occur.”

Mather also says an obsession with consultation is holding Maori business back. “There is this fixation on widespread consultation with every man, woman and child who feels they may have a right to contribute something. I think that effective leadership should cut through all that, because [otherwise] what you get is committees trying to design thoroughbred horses and coming up with three-hump camels every time.”

He says leaders must be appointed and then trusted to lead. “We have to have the confidence in them to make the right decisions and not have to come back to me at every decision making time for my view. If I tried to run my organisation like that, nothing would get done. In fact, it would probably grind to a halt, so I am not surprised that some of these organisations are in that situation.”

Mather says it’s simply not realistic for kaimahi (general workers) to be involved in big strategic decisions. “There seems to be an unwillingness among Maori leaders to actually make bold decisions without having said they’ve consulted first. I just think that is something that we need to get beyond.”

Jim Mather at his Officer Cadet School graduation parade in Waiouru, 1986, prior to receiving the Sword of Honour. Photo/Mather Family Collection


Mather’s own tribe of Ngati Awa is not exempt from his critique of Maori leadership. While turning $42 million into $111 million over 10 years is impressive, he says more clarity and unity is needed from the leadership. “We are like any other tribe. We lurch from an internal issue at the leadership level and then something else arises. It just demonstrates that the actual leadership have not got that sense of unity of purpose. Agendas arise and come to the fore and there will be recriminations and all of that is just a major distraction that shouldn’t be occurring.”

Casting his eye more broadly, he says rapidly evolving technology has created a “tipping point” where new tribal leadership is required across New Zealand. “We have got social media as the catalyst of instantaneous communication and I would say that on many of these tribal boards these things are beyond the comprehension of many of our leaders.”

Mather believes these leadership failings are one of the reasons about 85% of Maori are disengaged with their iwi, especially the young. “About 5-15% of your tribal membership live in the traditional region, in the rohe, and the vast majority have left, seeking better employment or educational opportunity. That should be a real concern to most iwi – how to remain relevant to their tribal constituents.”

Remaining relevant is also about showing the benefits of engagement. “There is a view that there is a tribal aristocracy that exists and a network that precludes the flax roots connecting with their rununga. When I ask my own whanau what they think about what’s happening, often the response I get is ‘moumou taima’ [a waste of time]. It’s a flippant comment, but it represents the fact that most don’t want to engage or see much benefit there.”

As chief executive of Te Wananga o Aotearoa, Mather is well placed to judge how young Maori are approaching education. Things are changing and there are many positives. “I think many young Maori are realising that if you want to be a professional rugby league player, there are only 13 guys who can get into the team. It’s not a high likelihood of success and then it’s game over at 35.”

Those who are going to university are doing different things. At Te Wananga, he’s seeing more interest in computer graphics and IT. “There is a recognition that we have to move out of our sunset sectors and look at the sunrise sectors, and technology is a big part of that. It’s pleasing to know that every young Maori going to university now doesn’t want to be a Treaty lawyer any more,” he says, laughing. Maybe that’s a sunset industry too? “One would hope it would be and they’d apply their skills in a more useful way in that whole area of tribal development.”


Mather cerebrates completing the Te Awamutu half-marathon in June. Photo/Mather Family Collection

Let’s not forget that Mather has gone back to university himself and this month will graduate from AUT’s business school. His CV looks like a promotion for lifetime learning. He grew up in Mangere and Otara and joined the army at 18. He became an officer but wanted to go further so studied for a Bachelor of Business at the Open Polytechnic, became an accountant and then landed a job as chief financial officer at a Swiss company. By 40 he was chief executive of Maori Television and he’s now into his second year as chief executive of Te Wananga o Aotearoa. He clearly has a strong thirst for knowledge, but that wasn’t his only motivation for writing his thesis on Maori economic development.

“I wanted my sons to be able to pick it up and know that, no, they weren’t part of a population that is over-represented in prison and unemployment figures but that they were the descendants of the greatest maritime explorers that the world has ever seen.”

And that’s all in the thesis – the fact that historians, including Michael King, compare Polynesian exploration of the Pacific as a human achievement to rival the space exploration of the 1960s. The journeys, covering half the Earth’s surface, took place at a time when most European mariners weren’t venturing much beyond the continental coastline.

There’s a great story in here about the ancestors of Ngati Awa arriving on the mighty Mataatua waka captained by Toroa. Toroa takes the men to climb the hills to Kapu-te-rangi, leaving the waka with the women. But it begins to drift out to sea. Toroa’s daughter Wairaka starts up a chant: “E! Kia whakatane au i ahau” (“Let me act the part of a man”), and the women break with protocol and paddle the waka back to shore, giving the land its modern name of Whakatane.


There are some sad stories in here too. Mather went to live with his maternal grandparents for three years at Te Teko in 1971 when he was seven. They were both native speakers of te reo Maori and had led traditional lives. But they never once spoke Maori to him or shared the tikanga.

“I was strongly encouraged to learn the ways of the Pakeha, which entailed getting a good education, speaking English well, finding employment and hopefully never experiencing the hardships that they had to endure,” he writes. “It was a profound first-hand experience of the impact of pervasive assimilation practices which had been widely accepted by our Maori elders at that time.”

So that is really why he wrote this thesis. And it only now fully dawns on me as I finish this story. I guess he wrote it to show that it doesn’t have to be one thing or the other. He’s done all the things his grandparents wanted and he’s also deeply immersed in the history and the ways of his people. Not only their past but also their future.

“I think for the most part we have moved out of that grievance mode and we have to move into the mode of ambition. It is up to us to make this work and we have got to get out of reliance on government and social service agencies and actually take charge of our own destiny.”

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