The regional role of iwi
Bill English has made a splash in the last few days, both for his sheep shearing skills and his first-time appearance at the Big Gay Out. Unfortunately, two of his earlier acts as Prime Minister that explored key aspects of this Government’s approach to regional development went largely unnoticed, flying under the media radar.
First, his State of the Nation speech outlined the continuance of the largely “place based” Regional Growth Programme. This programme allows regions to negotiate policy change in response to local needs. Second, in his Waitangi Day speech at Orakei Marae he is on record saying, “In the regions, and I include Auckland in that, I would say that almost without exception the organisations that are most committed to development are the local iwi.”
Even proponents of place based regional policy admit that it is high-risk. It can create strong incentives for “pork barrel” type regional spending by politicians looking for re-election, and for private enterprises to game the system; moving into the area to realise a share of the money on offer and then moving on when government incentives end, pocketing the benefits for themselves. What English’s comment at Orakei highlights is that one way to offset these risks is to ensure that the stakeholders are actually committed to long-term local development for reasons other than simple, short-term profit. In the modern era of bank closures and struggling towns, who would the government be better placed to work with?
As Simon Wilson highlights, as ongoing treaty settlements are reached and we see examples of iwi investing wisely, “iwi are economic powerhouses in the regions and major agents of social cohesion.” For a long time it has been far easier for many to tell a negative story, highlighting that many regional areas of deprivation have large populations of Maori. This emphasises the economic dark-side of commitment to place – when a significant part of the labour market is committed to a place in decline and relatively immobile, this can lead to forms of locational deprivation. While acknowledging that more needs to be done, Bill English rightly pointed out the role that iwi can play in bolstering long term development in their areas, stating that “Ngati Whatua’s future is New Zealand’s future.”
Part of the reason for this is what Naomi Simmonds and John Ryks point out in their chapter in Rebooting the Regions entitled “Here to stay: shaping the regions through mana Maori.” They discuss the Maori concept of “te ukaipo” as describing a place where “someone can go to gain physical or spiritual sustenance,” like a child returning to their mother’s breast at night for sustenance and belonging.
This understanding of place creates a responsibility to steward land and resources so that our children and their children can still be “nourished” by the place we occupy and use today, even in the face of decline. As alluded to by Prime Minister English, this sense of permanence and guardianship across generations is key for sustainable development, especially in regions that are currently struggling.