Isaac Davison

Isaac Davison is a NZ Herald political reporter.

Firing up Maori economic engine

Maori involvement in the 2011 Rugby World Cup, with its TV audience of hundreds of millions, was a highlight for the former ministry chief. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Maori involvement in the 2011 Rugby World Cup, with its TV audience of hundreds of millions, was a highlight for the former ministry chief. Photo / Sarah Ivey

The departing head of the Maori Development Ministry says Maori business has transformed in the past decade, and iwi are no longer considered a risk to the NZ economy.

Leith Comer has stepped down as chief executive of Te Puni Kokiri, the Ministry of Maori Development, after nearly 12 years in charge.

He believes that during his tenure the perception that Maori were an obstacle to economic progress and a politically correct "add-on" has changed dramatically.

"Maori culture and our way of doing business are now seen as enhancing NZ Inc rather than a risk to be managed," he wrote in his final annual report for the ministry.

Mr Comer has battled critics inside and outside Parliament who have questioned the ministry's success and whether Maori need a distinct economic development agency.

He told the Herald that Te Puni Kokiri could not claim sole credit for Maori gains in the past decade, but it had played a part in many of them.

"I would say, without boasting, that most significant advances that have occurred by Maori have been led by Maori, but Te Puni Kokiri has played a role, a small role, somewhere in every positive Maori advancement."

A year after he took on the role, the "Maori economy" was valued at $9 billion. Last year, Maori-owned tourism, fisheries, agriculture, forestry and other industries were estimated to be worth up to $39 billion.

The former army leader felt Maori success in business was "hugely important" to the wider perception of Maori culture in New Zealand.

He said that when the Tainui iwi made several poor investments after its historic Treaty of Waitangi deal in 1995, many New Zealanders questioned whether Maori should be granted settlements.

Better business decisions would silence those critics and help Maori companies, and Maori people, earn greater respect in New Zealand.

Mr Comer felt Maori had a distinct advantage in tapping into the global market of China.

"The Chinese way of doing things is very similar to the Maori way of doing things. They like face-to-face, they like to develop relationships and think about things in a longer timeframe."

Most gains in China had been made by traditional sectors - tourism, agriculture and fisheries - but new markets were also developing for Maori, including the sale of honey.

These business advances had been matched by greater political clout for Maori in the past decade.

The number of Maori politicians had increased, and four of eight political parties were led by Maori MPs. Asked whether the Maori presence in Parliament would be sustainable after Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia retired in 2014, Mr Comer admitted the party's transition would be difficult.

"Tariana will be a great loss. But Maori have a way of uncovering talent that will step up and I'm sure over time the Maori Party will find people to replace [co-leader] Dr Pita Sharples and Tariana."

Mr Comer applauded the increased pace of Treaty settlements, including deals with Tuhoe and Auckland-based iwi Ngati Whatua, over the past year.

His highlights as chief executive were helping set up Maori Television and the Maori involvement in the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

A TV audience of 1.5 million New Zealanders and hundreds of millions worldwide watched waka sail into Auckland's viaduct and a Maori-themed opening ceremony at Eden Park at the beginning of the tournament.

His low points included the failure of costly schemes, in particular the Maori agriculture initiative Tekau Plus. The $2 million scheme was designed to develop 10 Maori agribusinesses but was suspended after an inquiry highlighted questionable spending and possible conflicts of interest. He was also criticised for inappropriate spending of taxpayer money during the Rugby World Cup, and paid the money back.

Mr Comer is aiming to work in the private sector as a consultant on Treaty issues, Maori tourism, and Maori connections with China.

"Whatever is good for Maori is good for the country, and that's the best way forward. I'm very optimistic for the future of Crown-Maori relations."


Leith Comer
Te Puni Kokiri chief executive 2001-2012

Highlights:

• Establishment of Maori TV.

• Maori involvement in Rugby World Cup 2011.

• Progress with Treaty of Waitangi settlements.

• Improved Maori economic ties with China.

Lowlights:

• Failure of taxpayer-funded schemes, including Maori agriculture initiative Tekau Plus.

• Allegations of staff bullying at the ministry in 2006, and wrongful use of taxpayer money in 2011.

- NZ Herald

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