In poetic irony at its finest, neoliberalism best demonstrates Marx’ law of increasing poverty (the rich get richer and the poor get poorer). A 2006 report found that the neoliberal American economy “consistently affords a lower level of economic mobility than all the continental European countries for which data is available” and a comparative report from Victoria University highlights “persistent and widening inequality and increasing concentration of wealth” in New Zealand. With this and more in mind, Maori must exercise caution when applying neoliberal values to Maori land.*
The Minister of Maori Affairs and the Associate Minister of Maori Affairs (Chris Finlayson) have released an expert discussion document on Te Ture Whenua Maori Act 1993 – the Maori Land Act. There’s a lot to like: proposition 1 will transfer more power to engaged owners and reduce the need for the Maori Land Court and proposition 4 recommends that disputes are referred to mediation (in the first instance) rather than the Court.
However, proposition 2 would allow the appointment of an external manager to “administer and develop” underutilised land where the owners are disengaged or unable to be located. That’s not wrong in itself, but shouldn’t the first priority of an external manager be to attempt to engage or locate the proper owners? Isn’t it wrong in principle to have an external manager “utilise” land that she or he has no cultural right to and might be unsure of its purpose? Land might sit idle for a reason (Wahi Tapu, Rahui etc). It seems wrong, in the first instance at least, to blithely assume that idle land must generate an economic return.
The last proposition suggests that only engaged owners with a minimum threshold interest can make decisions in their land. The rationale is to prevent fragmentation of Maori land and streamline decisions. Well, that might make utilisation easier, but it seems wrong in principle. Owners have a whakapapa right to the land, no matter the size of their shareholding. After all, some owners can possess more shares than others through accidents of history rather than legitimate claim to the land. In an effort to encourage utilisation, the proposal could throw legitimate owners out with the bath water.
On the whole, the report speaks a lot of sense. I’d like to see most of it implemented, but I’m wary of the emphasis placed on increased utilisation without a proper discussion about the reasons for idle land and the consequences of utilising it. There’s a careful line between imposing market imperatives on Maori land and destroying the mauri of the land:
"Neoliberalism encourages the privatisation of Maori communal assets, the commodification of Maori land (and) the extension of market forces into Maori areas previously untouched"