COVER STORY Maori Governance – Meeting the cultural challenge

Maori organisations are grappling with growing need to embrace the sometimes arcane but absolutely necessary practices of corporate governance. Iwi responsible for negotiating Waitangi Treaty claims suddenly find themselves administering multimillion-dollar settlements. And individuals find themselves thrust into roles as trustees and directors with clear legal and fiscal responsibilities and little or no experience or preparatory learning.
Waikato’s Tainui tribe, for example, discovered the hard way that going from zero to $170 million in cash assets overnight brings mixed blessings, particularly if governance structures are found wanting. Former iwi adviser, economist and now consultant with The Boardroom Practice, Brent Wheeler thinks high profile failures of several Maori organisations following Tainui’s fall and subsequent rise, has provided massive wake-up call for iwi.
Following losses of $47 million few years ago, Tainui suffered 15 months of public humiliation. And, says Wheeler, based on the popular perception that entities like Tainui repeatedly plunder “public money”, it’s hardly surprising Maori organisations hit the media spotlight whenever there’s hint of sloppy governance. And growing realisation by iwi shareholders that Maori organisations will only get one crack at doing it right means good governance is suddenly in demand.
Maori interest in governance is driven both by the size and scope of Treaty settlements and recognition of the need to develop best practice governance structures to profitably manage newly acquired assets. Nevertheless, it surprises Wheeler that the Fisheries Commission has never put up governance models for Maori organisations to compare, despite the more-than $800 million in fishing quota assets recently allocated to iwi.
Not surprisingly, many Maori organisations feel singled out for trial-by-media, while equally failed mainstream companies seldom attract the same sort of media attention. Consequently, Wheeler stresses the importance of driving through the “emotive hype” to focus on the real issues. Being Maori organisation is an unwarranted distraction when it comes to attracting attention.

Maori success
Wheeler argues that in fact, it doesn’t take much effort to discover more success stories for every one publicised Maori organisation that fails. Some of these include:
• The Whakatu and Mawhera trusts: Both have made inroads into dairy farming and property investment in Australia.
• Tohu Wines: limited liability company owned by three Maori organisations, the Ngati Rarua Atiawa Iwi Trust (Motueka), Wakatu Incorporation (Nelson-Marlborough), and the Wi Pere Trust (Gisborne).
• Kaikoura Whale Watch: private company owned by Ngai Tahu Holdings and the Kaikoura Charitable Trust.
• Te runanga o Ngai Tahu: The governing body that oversees South Island tribe activities comprising elected representatives from the 18 runanga or tribal councils.
According to Ngai Tahu chairman Mark Solomon, Maori organisations are making “quantum leaps” in the governance stakes by sharing information and networking on both these success stories and past failures. The penny’s finally dropped that Tikanga or “things Maori” – like songs and prayers after meeting – can make good governance look, at best, ambiguous, he adds.
In other words, Maori organisations now recognise that the “mana” (authority) individuals might have on marae doesn’t necessarily equip them to manage millions of dollars in assets. And every Maori organisation these days, including maraes, is expected to turn profit. “Just because you’re Maori organisation doesn’t mean you’re above the law,” says Solomon, who’s charged with managing Ngai Tahu’s almost $500 million in assets. “We have the same compliance obligations as any mainstream business.”
The proliferation of Maori organisations established in response to recent treaty claim settlements is spreading the wealth of governance experience and judgement. Maori organisations, to varying degrees, are flat out learning the fundamentals and application of good governance Pakeha-style.
Solomon reports greater willingness by today’s movers and shakers in Maori, like Paul Morgan (Federation of Maori Authorities), John Tamihere (Labour MP), and Shane Jones (Waitangi Fisheries Commission) to mentor across all levels of Maori. And because of their success, organisations like Ngai Tahu, Tainui, and Tohu Wines are now considered blueprints for other Maori organisations. The “knowledge” is no longer concentrated in handful of high profile Maori icons like Sir Tipene O’Regan, Doug Graham, Sir Paul Reeves or the late Matt Rata and Sir Robert Mahuta.

Governance initiatives
What, specifically, is Maori doing to learn more about governance processes? One of the most recent initiatives is the Trade and Enterprise NZ (TENZ) Biz Trustee Training Programme that focuses on the fundamentals of governance for Maori land trustees. It’s envisaged that several NZQA-recognised units currently being offered by polytechnics and other training providers will ultimately lead to certificate in Maori Governance encompassing 60 credits over nine months.
In addition to Wananga (best practice) courses, Maori business networks, and other embryonic public-arena initiatives – through Te Puni Kokiri (TPK) aka the Ministry of Maori Development – tribal meetings like Hui Taumata 2005 also highlight governance as key driver of Maori success. Strategies for advancing sound corporate governance were presented during Hui Taumata by keynote speakers, including chairman of the Business Roundtable Rob McLeod and public law expert Mai Chen. There’s also growing vanguard of prospective Maori trustees being groomed for future governance roles through courses hosted by both the Institute of Directors (IOD) and the Government’s governance watchdog, the Crown Company Monitoring Advisory Unit (CCMAU).
But, says iwi adviser Jim Gray, while Maori have no hesitation attending these and similar courses, the course material might immediately be parked in the garage on the pretext it doesn’t relate to their experience. What, according to Gray, many non-Maori simply don’t understand is that for most Maori people the initial step into mainstream governance is often just “too big”.
Trustees of Maori organisations are all too often more preoccupied with power-plays than focusing on governance. “Tainui, for example, had to go through painful process because they moved into areas of business based on traditional values and occupied governance positions by virtue of their local standing and genealogy,” says Gray who has sat on 26 Maori authorities over the past 15 years.
Much of the current debate within Maori is around relating governance to Maori situations. Iwi is, according to Gray, currently wrestling with how to recognise the unique features of Maori without compromising the fundamentals of good governance.
But as the principles of any code of governance apply equally to Maori and non-Maori organisations, Wheeler doesn’t see Maori organisations developing their own model. He thinks Maori considerations relate less to commercial areas and have more to do with the distribution of resources. “The biggest hurdle is people saying – ‘because it’s Maori it’s different’. The expectation that Maori organisations will be treated differently or that Maori governance is fundamentally different is both intellectually bankrupt and fraught with danger.”
TPK’s chief executive Leith Comer doesn’t believe good governance should be shanghaied by culture. But he’s also quick to refer to international research that suggests governance bodies reflecting the cultural practices of collective are more successful than those which don’t. The principles of effective corporate governance must be located within the Maori world view, he says. “There’s increasing recognition within Maori organisations that trustees must have expertise and experience in governance. But th

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