Apr 9, 2013

Imposing the market on Maori land

Neoconservatism is a dirty word. Conservatism isn’t inherently bad, but the addition of neo loans a sinister quality. The same principle applies to neoliberalism: yuck in name and wrong in practice. The sinister impression is well suited. Neoliberalism is more than an economic ideology, it’s a political theory too. Shrinking the state, imposing market imperatives and disciple on intellectualism, and supressing unions and other proletariat movements is as economic as it is political.

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"

*For further reading here is a semi-recent discussion on neoliberalism from Paul Buchanan. Also see the Wikipedia entry for a neutral (albeit undercooked) outline. 


  1. I hear what you're saying about the need to locate and engage owners of Maori-owned land. But updating ownership records for Maori land titles can be an horrendous administrative exercise, and expensive too.

    Have the old trust and incorporation instruments used to get some form of economic activity on Maori land reached their limits? If so, then further debate/discussion via this report is probably worthwhile.

    1. Shows how much you know. 1. Engaged owners and their trustees can do what they like as long as they don't sell the land. I have been a trustee for 25 years and we have no dealings with the MLC apart from getting them to rubber stamp our trustee changes. 2. Mediation is what the court does now. If you had any idea of what actually goes to the court you would be surprised about the role the court and the staff there play in encouraging settlement of disputes by our own means. I know because we are called into court as land or marae trustees when one or two mad people try and take us to court. Most of the time we ask for our own hui and mediation.

      What we really need is to educate our own people on how to be good governors of the land. Changing the law won't change trustee and owner incompetence. We also need to have the addresses of owners kept up to date. That would be a huge help.

      I also agree Godfrey minimum shares will be the final raupatu. Big or small your share is your passport into the huis and the court to have your say. My hapu opposes minimum shares.

  2. For me, the problem is that a category called 'Maori land' exists at all. I'm captured by someone else's ideology that says we must not lose anymore Maori land. Actually, I go along with that myself - we must not lose anymore Maori land. But I'm not a sole owner of any Maori land. I'm a shareholder and those shares are tied up so that I can't do what I want with them. If I could sell my shares, the land would still be there, the other shareholders would still be there. But no! Te Ture Whenua captures me as a shareholder and forces me to put up with incompetent, sometimes corrupt, management - trustees who can't read a Financial Statement, trustees who can't get their act together to hold an AGM, trustees who are not even shareholders, Board members who make shonky investments without consulting the owners and then lose millions of dollars, and on and on.
    There should be a way that shareholders can realise their assets whist retaining the blocks of land. If I were Pakeha I would never be forced into this position.
    Some readers will be offended by my remarks so let me just say that I know my whakapapa back 25 generations, I'm active on my Marae, I know the history of the Treaty and of colonisation and I know about the injustices of land confiscations and theft. As I said before, I agree that no more Maori land should be lost. But I own more than 2 million dollars of Maori land shares and I receive under $2000 a year in dividends from those collective assets. And you won't be surprised to learn that I'm poor and I'm sick. And I'm fed up!

  3. Well that's what communal ownership of kin assets means. It does not mean individualisation. That's when things went wrong. Turning our hapu custodianship into individualised tradable commodities. The whole idea of shares and shareholding is an alien imposed western concept that is the antithesis of tikanga Maori. If you can find owners to buy your shares, just like with any private company, good on you. So the remedy is there. If no one in this private market can buy them, ah well. Also, like most of us you probably inherited most of your shares and did not pay for them. How is it that you think the land needs to support you? I don't get that. We are the custodians of land for our lifetimes, nothing else. "Owners" is another tauiwi concept. And I'm half Pakeha.

    I agree that trustees and committees are often completely incompetent but that's all we have to work with it seems. Would you deny the right of owners to elect Mickey and Minnie if that's who the "engaged owners" want? People we get who we deserve because we keep voting for them. Come to Tuwharetoa, we have major issues of incompetence but they are still there, some of them. Good on the Maori Land Court for sacking some, they deserved it, losing millions. But they are still on Lake Taupo and East Taupo Land Trust and they lost heaps of money. I mean seriously most of them can't even read the accounts. I've seen them bumble their way through AGMS and if it wasn't for the Pakeha accountant they would be even more lost.

    Many trusts however operate well and provide returns to owners as well as grants. With the new Maori Trustee in place that too is increasingly a better option than it has been in the past.

    As for shonky investments and failures, Maori do not have a monopoly on that. Heard of the GFC? The 1992 Asian crash? The 1987 crash? Pakeha history is littered with the corpses of failed investments and embezzlement disguised as "the market".



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