Oct 9, 2013

The iwi power rankings: who are the most powerful iwi in 2013?

Pita Sharples and Ngai Tahu members with reprsentatives
 from the China Development Bank

Pita Sharples claims that the Maori economy is worth $37b. BERL calls the Maori economy a “sleeping giant”. Jamie Tuuta characterises the Maori economy as a “developing economy within a developed economy”. What does it all mean? It means that the Maori economy is a synonym for Maori power.

The Maori economy can’t be separated from a discussion on iwi power. But power is more than that: it’s cultural, political and it might be esoteric. I’ve adopted a fluid definition. Iwi power is measured against three factors: cultural power, economic power and political power. Each ground is subjective – I might value profitability over asset value while another person might reverse that – but I’ve tried to apply each consideration consistently.

The Breakdown

That Ngai Tahu topped the rankings will surprise no one. In the year to June 30 2012 the tribe enjoyed a net profit of 95.7m. In the year to June 30 2013 the tribe declared a net profit of 77.9m. Ngai Tahu Holdings Corporation owns assets worth almost $1b.

But Waikato-Tainui can claim similar numbers. Ngai Tahu emerged at the top on the strength of two factors: its stability and support for its members. Ngai Tahu isn’t burdened with cumbersome governance structures nor plagued with internal warfare. Parts of Ngai Tahu Holding’s profit will be spent on funding a superannuation scheme with 18,000 iwi members. Waikato-Tainui is behind the ball on these counts.

But others made the list for different reasons. Ngati Porou only recently settled, but they exercise a disproportionate pull on Maori politics. The highest ranked Maori minister in Cabinet – Hekia Parata – is from Ngati Porou. The highest ranked Maori minister in the last Cabinet – Parekura Horomia – was Ngati Porou. Some of Maori society’s most celebrated politicians – think of Ngata – were Ngati Porou.

Te Arawa isn’t the wealthiest iwi, but Rotorua is the centre of Maori culture. Thousands of tourists pass through Mitai, Te Puia, Tamaki and Whakarewarewa. They experience a few aspects of Maori culture, but it’s Maori culture presented through Te Arawatanga. Don’t underestimate the power of that.

Nga Puhi is the largest iwi. And here’s an interesting fact: the Maori mythology that’s presented in society often reflects Nga Puhi mythology. When Mataku - the drama series – dealt with Maori death the show used the Nga Puhi perspective that spirits depart from Te Rerenga Wairua. In Struggle Without End Ranginui Walker (despite being Whakatohea) uses Nga Puhi traditions to pin point the location of Hawaiki. Nga Puhi’s conception of the Maori world has a disproportionate influence on how we see ourselves and how others perceive us.

The Rankings

List of iwi

      1. Ngai Tahu

One of the headlines of the year goes to the Christchurch Press for this effort: The Wisdom of (Mark) Solomon. Make that Sir Mark Solomon.

Ngai Tahu sits on the Land and Water Forum. The Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Authority is obligated to consult local and regional council and Ngai Tahu. The government is also paying out what’s owed under Ngai Tahu’s relativity clause. Solomon has been critical in each respect.

Ngai Tahu is strategic. It helps having the capital and labour (in the form of young Ngai Tahu tradies) that the government needs for the Christchurch rebuild, but Ngai Tahu knows better than any how to put its economic leverage to work.

Ngai Tahu also secured the hosting rights to the next Te Matatini Festival. It might seem insignificant, but Te Matatini is Maori Society’s equivalent to the Rugby World Cup.

Ngai Tahu’s influence reaches across South Island: from aquaculture in Southland, farms in Kaikoura, tourism in Queenstown and property in Christchurch. There’s only one other iwi with such widespread economic influence…

      2. Waikato-Tainui

On July 3 Waikato-Tainui announced its annual result at The Base – the iwi’s $99m mall at Te Rapa. Waikato-Tainui is on track to become the most important component of the Waikato economy.

Ngai Tahu tends to go it alone. Waikato-Tainui hasn’t. In the last decade Waikato-Tainui has developed strategic partnerships with Accor Hotels, Auckland International Airport and several other companies. Those partnerships allowed Waikato-Tainui to build the Novotel Hamilton and the Novotel Auckland Airport.

Partnerships are crucial to iwi development. Waikato-Tainui appears to recognise this better than most. Iwi can’t raise capital through share or bond offers. It’s also iwi policy to maintain a debt ceiling of 30% and retained earnings (the money that is retained by Tainui Group Holdings rather than distributed) are not as high as you'd immediately expect. That makes joint ventures crucial to financing iwi investments like the inland port at Ruakura.

But it’s that ambition – coupled with the notorious instability mentioned earlier – that puts Waikato-Tainui in 2nd place. Ambition could turn to overreach and internal instability could do the rest. The inland port and associated developments at Ruakura are estimated to cost $3.5b. The Herald reports that:

[Waikato-Tainui will] develop a massive commercial inland freight hub… 6000 to 12,000 jobs will be created, more than 2000 houses will be built and the Waikato area's GDP will increase by $4.4 billion.

$3.5b appears to be a cost that Waikato-Tainui’s balance sheet can’t bear. Ngai Tahu appears to be in a (comparatively speaking) more sustainable position. But I hope to be humiliated in 10 years’ time when the development is finished and it’s proven that Mike Pohio was right to say “don’t bet againt our ambition”.

      3. Ngati Porou 

Forget the economy for now. Ngati Porou is powerful for different reasons – cultural and political reasons.

Ihimaera's Whale Rider
Some of Maori society’s best are and were Ngati Porou. Best thinkers (Moana Jackson); best writers (Witi Ihimeara); best composers (Derek Lardelli); best speakers (Kāterina Mataira) and best politicians (Apirana Ngata).

Ngati Porou have had and still have a disproportionate sway over Maori society. 

When the Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004 was passed Ngati Porou managed to negotiate a "comprehensive package of rights and protections(with the help of two of their sons in Cabinet – Parekura Horomia and John Tamihere). No other iwi did so. In fact, it might not have crossed their minds. Ngati Porou can tap its talent in government to achieve the outcomes it needs. A rare thing. 

In the current government the highest ranked Maori minister is from Ngati Porou.

      4. Nga Puhi

122,000 Maori, or around one in five, identify as Nga Puhi. Nga Puhi is power in numbers.

For much of the 19th century the North was the home of British power. Nga Puhi hosted the first Christian Mission, Kororareka became the first European settlement and the Bay of Islands had become one of the most important ports in the country. Shrewd Nga Puhi leaders took advantage of that. But power has shifted south to Auckland and Wellington, but Nga Puhi retains a pull on Maori society and the national consciousness.

Enter Waitangi Day. Arguably, Nga Puhi has the power to determine the mood of the nation on our founding day. Will it be protest and a mood of indignation or peace and a mood of reconciliation? Nga Puhi has pedigree in the Maori renaissance too. Many of its former leaders and leading lights – for example Hone Tuwhare – and current leaders – Hone Harawira – are Nga Puhi. Nga Puhi is pervasive and through weight in numbers it manages to influence Maori society iwi more than most other iwi.

      5. Ngati Tuwharetoa

Geothermal power is New Zealand’s most reliable renewable energy source and Ngati Tuwharetoa controls most of New Zealand’s geothermal fields. (For clarity, Ngati Tuwharetoa doesn’t control the geothermal energy itself - there are various statutes which deal with that – but they own the land where many bores are located).

Ngati Tuwharetoa also plays an important role in the Kingitanga. Iwikau Te Heuheu, the paramount chief of Ngati Tuwharetoa at the time, was approached to take the Kingship. He declined. In theory, the Kingitanga could pass to Ngati Tuwharetoa. After all, the Te Heu Heu whanau still play an important role in Ngati Tuwharetoa, the Kingitanga and Maori society.

The iwi is also making inroads with tourism ventures in Taupo and they’ve engaged former Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen as a Treaty negotiator. Shrewd. Having already settled in the Treelords settlement and the Sealords settlement, Ngati Tuwharetoa is poised to become one of Maori society’s most powerful iwi. They sit on strategic resources and they're set for a significant cash injection. I wouldn't bet against them.

Honourable Mentions: 

  • Ngai Tuhoe
  • Te Arawa
  • Ngati Whatua o Orakei
  • Ngati Kahungungu 

Where to now? 

If Waikato-Tainui call pull off their inland port at Ruakura they'll dominate the rankings for years to come. Ruakura will be a strategic resource. It's going to be at the mid-way point between Auckland and the Port of Tauranga (New Zealand's largest freight port), located on the Waikato Expressway, built on the East Coast Main Trunk Railway and close to Hamilton (which for some reason is one of New Zealand's fastest growing cities).

Ngai Tahu will remain solid. They're in a sustainable position and the Christchurch rebuild has presented incredible opportunities for iwi development (both financial development and development for whanau through job creation, papakainga housing and so on).

The most interesting movement will be among iwi like Te Arawa, Tuhoe and Ngati Whatua o Orakei. Tuhoe are soon to settle for $170m and are in an incredible position on self government issues. In that respect, Tuhoe will be a template for other iwi. Ngati Whatua o Orakei is in an interesting position too. Auckland is growing rapidly and Ngati Whatua o Orakei are asserting themselves as a central part in that development. Watch this space.

Is Tuhoe Mana Motuhake the next step?

Defining iwi - Iwi is a modern concept. For the most part, Maori society organised itself along hapu lines. But for ease of reference I’ve used iwi in its ordinary sense. But the term becomes problematic: for example Waikato-Tainui is a confederation. It’s made up of various iwi and those iwi are made up of various hapu. Iwi is the overlay. For the purposes of this post, iwi is used as synonymous with the settlement body (i.e. “the large natural grouping”).

This isn't a wholly serious exercise: don't get carried away with this or gutted with the analysis. This isn't a definitive list. It's more of a discussion. Feel free to add your opinions in the comments section. 

Disclaimer: I primarily identify with Ngati Awa and they didn't make it - there's no bias here.  


  1. Ahem, the so-called cumbersome structure of Waikato-Tainui that you describe is what is safeguarding that tribe's assets from being stolen by a few self interested & narcissistic tribal "leaders".

  2. Cool! Very insightful

  3. Great article, it's always sad to see that tourism is the only thing my Iwi (Te Arawa) can rely on.

  4. When is the 'sleeping giant' going to 'wake up'? I need some money :-).

  5. Let's clarify the $37 bill, which comes from a (TPK commissioned?) report by BERL (headed by Ganesh Nana).


    The model includes Maori who are self-employed or employers (begging the question how we delineate Maori as economic players from non-Maori...) Factoring out these two groups we have the following, made up of Maori Boards, trusts, incorporations etc. And that component equals $10.6 billion. Nothing to sneeze at but the correlation with the growing 'Maori economy' is declining economic security for too many of our people.

    1. Kia ora Simon,

      The figures comes from Sharples himself who is (I assume) citing the BERL report that was commissioned by TPK. Like many economic models, it's elaborate and glorified guesswork. Your figure of $10.6b is probably more accurate. I have no idea how they delineated Maori employers from non-Maori employers. The methodology (I imagine) was suspect. In the end I decided to go with the $37b figure because it's the most authoritative figure we have (unfortunately). I'm not aware of any other recent attempts to value the Maori contribution to the economy.

  6. These iwi may be powerful in financial terms but are their iwi members any better off, the only trickle down I have seen in any sense is the Ngai Tahu savings scheme. Perhaps the creation of new jobs might be a great help in some quarters, but ordinary iwi members need to see some gains. At the moment they hear large sums of money being talked about, but not much else.


    1. Good points.

      $1b in assets sounds impressive, but it's not. Earnings were unusually high for Ngai Tahu and Waikato-Tainui because of their relativity payments in the last financial year. Expect a decreased profit in the next financial year.

      Unfortunately iwi aren't in a position to, say, pay out iwi members regularly. They have to find other ways of distributing wealth. Most often that means making local investments. Many iwi do that, but have some way to go before they can dent the deprivation that exists in many Maori communities.

      Iwi aren't government. I think it's slightly unrealistic for our people to expect their iwi is in a position to work magic overnight. After all, the government is still the only one with the power to change the structural settings in our economy. The kind of change that'll make an immediate impact on our lives.

    2. Yes very true Morgan, iwi aren't Government but they do have a responsibility to their members. Perhaps there is a need for some clearer communications about the short, medium and long term intentions of each iwi. For me, job creation is one area that iwi can make a difference. The fisheries model is not one that should be emulated. Did anyone really think at the time of settlement that iwi would be the ones to be exploiting overseas nationals to fish for quota - more Māori were expected to be employed than has been the reality and it has all turned into a big mess.



1. Anonymous comments will be rejected. Please use your real name or a pseudonym/moniker/etc...
2. No personal abuse. Defamatory comments will be rejected.
3. I'll reject any comment that isn't in good taste.