The Maori Economy – A Fanciful Notion


The present Minister for Maori Affairs and the Maori business elites go on forever about “the Maori economy”. There is no such thing. It’s a myth. Some even go on about an “iwi economy” which is not just a myth and not just fanciful. It’s ridiculous.

It’a a myth unless you totally redefine “economy” to mean just the business activity of corporate iwi, settlement entities, Maori incorporations and trusts, and privately owned small and medium sized enterprises. And unless you don’t include the rest of us, the majority of the 810,200 Maori in Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia. But if you do redefine “economy” you would then be talking about the involvement of less than 10% of Maori, probably much less.

“An economy consists of the economic system in a certain region, comprising the production, distribution or trade, and consumption of goods and services in that region or country” – Wikipedia.

Maori business activity takes place within the New Zealand economy and is totally integrated into and reliant on it. Maori business uses mainstream banks, transport and communications. Its market is not Maori. In fact Maori are just a tiny portion of the market for their goods and services. Some of their market is an overseas market. There is no “Maori economy”. There is only Maori business activity within the New Zealand economy; unless of course you redefine “economy” to mean “business”.

The only part of the New Zealand economy that is Maori is some of the production, mainly in primary industry, and the distribution and trading of products. The political system that influences the economy is not Maori, the economic infrastructure including the financial infrastructure is not Maori, and the market is certainly not Maori.

Having said that it is true that Maori economic assets are increasingly being brought into more productive use. It is true that governance and management of those assets is becoming more professional, and that Maori business, particularly Maori agribusiness is growing as a percentage of the national productive sector. It is true that Maori business is making significant moves into the global market especially in China and other Asian markets. And that activity is highly commendable. But none of that amounts to a “Maori economy”.

And when you take a close look at that blossoming business activity, the big time players are mostly doing it with other peoples’ capital assets – the incorporations, corporate iwi, settlement entities, fisheries entities and the rest. Very few of the players are real capitalists, entrepreneurs and innovators doing it with their own money. Which is not to denigrate what they are achieving but it does bring a sense of perspective.

And who benefits?

In Aotearoa New Zealand the economic health and well being of New Zealand families is totally dependant on the global economy, and the state of the New Zealand economy functioning within the global economy. Their economic well being is influenced by political ideology and policy, both global and national.

Significant measures of the well being of New Zealand families are levels of employment and unemployment, average and median household incomes, and the quality of housing. Directly contributing to measurement of the relative well being of Maori families within those statistics is the level of educational achievement and qualification. Those measures over time are indicators of the number of Maori families that improve their well being, by moving into the socio-economic “middle class”.

So we need to ask, “How are Maori families benefitting from this so-called Maori economy, or how will they benefit, and what are the statistical measures that will reflect that?”

It is a matter of statistical record that in the advanced economies of the world the gap between top income earners and the rest has widened astronomically over the last twenty or so years. That trend is also evident in Aotearoa New Zealand. Those at the top of the economic pile are doing rather nicely thank you, much better than they used to, and paying much less tax than they used to, if any. Those in the middle are doing it tough. Those at the bottom are struggling, still. Change will eventually come, but not any time soon.

Which Maori families then will benefit from this surge of business activity based on the improving productive capacity of Maori economic assets?

For the most part they will be and are the elites who control those Maori economic assets, whether in governance or management. For the most part they are the only ones who will and do personally benefit from the assets they control. There is some downstream benefit but not a lot. Certainly not enough to make any difference to the overall social and economic statistics for Maori. I do not expect the economic health and well being of Maori families to be significantly influenced by the “Maori economy”. Most of us do not play any part in that “Maori economy”.

This misnamed mythical “Maori economy” can in some respects be seen as a gilded metaphor for asset and resource capture by the elites for the primary benefit of the elites.

See also: The Myth of the Maori Entrepreneur

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