Catherine Masters reports on disputes in the country's wealthiest tribe and finds an uneasy mix between traditional Maori and Pakeha ways of doing things.

A couple of young men looking a bit scruffy in their tracksuit pants and T-shirts wander along a street in Ngaruawahia, population about 5000.

The little mid-North Island town is divided by State Highway 1, and cars and trucks thunder through, taking no notice of where they are.

Ngaruawahia, which means open the food pits, was here long before the highway.

The mighty Waikato flows through town too. The river is integral to the local people, Waikato-Tainui, and Taupiri mountain with its burial ground of ancestors is a sacred backdrop.


This is Tainui heartland. Turangawaewae Marae was built here in the 1920s and is the headquarters of the Kingitanga, the Maori King movement formed 150 years ago to unify Maori tribes and stem the loss of land to European settlers.

War and bloodshed followed in the Waikato and much land was confiscated.

All these years later, huge progress has been made on land and river claims, but not so much on unity within the tribe.

The men in trackies aren't keen on talking. Nah, they don't keep up with all that, they say, when asked about the latest bitter divisions and power struggles going on within their iwi, a federation of tribes named Tainui after one of the first waka to arrive in New Zealand.

But one puts his hand to his heart and says "kaupapa Kingitanga, that's us," and the men walk on.

Around these parts you find strong loyalty and pride in the Kingitanga but an iwi struggling to get to grips with how to operate in the wake of a historic apology and settlement - $170 million and land - signed off in the mid-1990s.

After a rocky start and some bad investments, the settlement has grown by the tribe's separate business arm to be worth $658 million and Tainui is now the country's richest iwi.

But the tribal leadership is in turmoil.

Though the post-settlement set-up makes Tainui the most democratic of tribes with its own large parliament, there has been in-fighting and power struggles, and lately what some are calling a constitutional crisis involving serious allegations about spending.

Former journalist and NZ First MP Tukoroirangi Morgan (of the flash underpants infamy) is a prominent protagonist.

Morgan is close to the Maori King, Tuheitia, and chairs Te Arataura, the executive board of Te Kauhanganui, the tribe's "parliament."

On the other side is the lesser-known Tania Martin, a former teacher and lecturer and the first woman to chair Te Kauhanganui.

Martin has challenged Te Arataura about its spending and alleges a blow-out of money from an annual $10 million dividend given to the parliament by the business arm for distribution in the form of grants and scholarships.

A bitter war of words and court action has ensued.

This is not new. The way Tainui was structured legally after the settlement is complicated, to say the least, and the history has been to rush to court.

In the post-settlement years sackings and resignations have become almost routine, but some say simmering away beneath the strong personalities and power struggles are deeper issues around how Maori with large settlements fit into Pakeha legal structures, which are limited in being able to mix their social, cultural and commercial objectives.

In legal terms Te Kauhanganui is not really a parliament but a large incorporated society with a constitution and rules. Most members can jump up and quote them but some of the rules are vague and seem to cause immense confusion.

Unlike other tribes, Tainui's structure is further complicated by the role of the Kingitanga - the rules state the mana of the Kingitanga must be upheld - but it is not defined whether the ruler has any actual power.

The current King, Tuheitia, doesn't have power in a legal sense, which he found out when he sacked Tania Martin as chair of Te Kauhanganui last year.

In fact, King Tuheitia, who succeeded his widely respected mother Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu in 2006, is considered by many to have erred in getting involved in this dispute.

The King stepped in after Martin had tabled a report at a meeting of the parliament, detailing her allegations about Te Arataura's spending and calling for a financial review.

Morgan was enraged and strongly disputed her figures and the King sacked her for bringing the tribe into disrepute.

Martin, meanwhile, headed to court to challenge her sacking and won, but another member of Te Kauhanganui says Te Arataura still forced the parliament to vote for her again - and again she won easily.

This member says Te Arataura had been acting arrogantly for some time and the parliament was sick of it.

The board - really just a committee - had made amendments to the rules without asking the house, including one basically giving themselves a veto power. "The tail is wagging the dog," the member said.

"Tuku has told us time and time again that we don't have the power, that Te Arataura has the power."

In the latest twist, Martin called for a vote of no confidence in Morgan and thinking she had won (30 in favour, 27 against, six invalid) went ahead and declared him disqualified. But Morgan challenged the way the voting rules were interpreted, headed straight to court, where this time he won, and is now hanging on.

Some people we spoke to say they admire Martin for taking on Morgan and the executive, saying that in Tainui, where women are supposed to know their place, this is gutsy.

Others say Morgan can be arrogant and a bully and has had some harebrained schemes, such as wanting to buy the King of Tonga's house as a royal residence for the Maori King.

But others also say Morgan has been a great negotiator for the tribe and with his co-negotiator, the late Lady Raiha Mahuta (widow of the late Sir Robert), attained the recent ground-breaking Waikato River settlement with the Crown which gives Tainui co-governance of their beloved waterway.

Both have the love of the tribe at heart, we were told, but the rules governing the tribal parliament are messy.

One such rule is that no one can bring the tribe into disrepute and this seems to be a handy go-to clause to get rid of opponents.

Martin stresses the whole situation is not and has never been about Tania and Tuku, but is about finding a way through an impasse between Te Kauhanganui and the executive - and about spending.

She arrives for our interview at the Ibis Tainui in Hamilton alone and is at times emotional. This battle is taking its toll on the 49-year-old mother of four.

She says she has been receiving threats and has called in the police. The people are angry, she says, and confidence in Te Arataura has declined dramatically.

A climate of "fear, intimidation and bullying" exists, she says, and she thinks in her case this is enhanced because she is a woman.

She loves her tribe and works hard for them and was raised to love and respect the Kingitanga which incorporates ideals such as solidarity and unity for all Maori.

But the King's role is supposed to be apolitical and she says he should not come and interfere in the business of the house.

When the King sacked her, for disrupting the tribe, she was humiliated and has found this hard to bear.

She thinks the structure of the tribe, as an incorporated society, is fine but believes the rules which govern the parliament are confusing and outdated - and skewed in favour of Te Arataura.

She insists again that this is not personal and that she once got on fine with Morgan but says that relationship began to sour when she began asking questions about spending.

Martin was a member of Te Arataura herself, from 2006 to 2009, and says she saw then that there was a need for more information to come back to the parliament.

This issue is about a lack of transparency and accountability, she says.

In 2009, she says, Te Arataura had substantial cash reserves and she questions where that has gone.

She says in 2010 the executive spent more than $1.7 million on themselves; "we're talking about 11 people", that $313,000 was on travel and $467,000 on legal and consultancy fees.

Distribution for 68 marae, however, was reduced to $750,000 and education grants of usually $1 million were down to $550,000.

She also says the board increased their own fees without asking the house and she questions why some earn $100,000 a year (saying Morgan earns $75,000 in his role as chair of Te Arataura and another $45,000 as tribal negotiator).

"I think that's what I'm getting blamed for, the fact that I asked these questions ... and the contention, dissension, the hate, all starts from there."

Another issue is her own legal fees. Another member said Te Kauhanganui had resolved "overwhelmingly" to pay Martin's legal costs from the court case after the King had sacked her, but that Te Arataura refused to pay and forced her back to court.

Martin acknowledges there has been much use of the High Court by various parties, when matters should have been sorted out internally.

She quotes the second Maori King, Tawhiao: "Maku ano e hanga, i toku nei whare - I shall fashion my own house" - but says kaumatua sometimes comment that "no, we're actually going to someone else's house and getting the Pakeha judge to sort out our own house".

"But I guess that's us learning the law. I thinking we're learning to adapt to the law from the lore..."

Morgan says Martin's claims are "absolute nonsense". Te Arataura has handed over the financial paperwork to KPMG for the financial review, he says.

Te Arataura listened to the parliament but the rules were clear about the job of the chairperson of Te Kauhanganui - which was only to facilitate meetings.

"That's the job, in the rules that's the precise role and function and there is all this interpretation and that role is undeniable. Tania Martin is trying to grow a job for herself.

"Tania Martin also has resolution after resolution to minimise Te Arataura so that the decision making can be captured by herself and those who line up with her."

He says the day-to-day activities sit with the executive, as per the rules and the constitution: "You can't have 204 people (the parliament) running our business, that's an impossibility."

But he acknowledges parts of the structure are unworkable and says he and Te Arataura are pushing for a much wider review of the structure, rules and constitution.

"Because we have to get on. We're a huge multimillion-dollar corporation. We have to find ways, you know, creative ways to keep going and these issues with Tania Martin are actually insignificant in my view, because there is a greater purpose and there are major issues to be achieved, including our claim over Auckland and also the West Coast harbours.

"Those are unresolved issues that are very important to the tribe and at the vanguard of that work is myself and a team of people who are trying to resolve those outstanding issues in the same way that we've resolved the river claim."

When asked if he is a bully, Morgan says he is not. "Oh, I provide strong leadership. I'm not a bully, I don't describe myself as a bully ..."

His record speaks for itself, he says; the river settlement was a superb arrangement:

"I'm not in the job to be popular, I'm in the job to get things done."

As far as the governance problems go, it is part of the growing pains of a tribal powerhouse. "When the demands of post-settlement are thrust upon us there are no footprints to follow in the sand."

Tainui academic and lawyer Dr Robert Joseph says unless the issues are sorted out, this power struggle won't be the last.

Litigation has been happening since Te Kauhanganui was set up, but Joseph points out the legal entity options available are not necessarily the best way to deal with the corporate, cultural and social objectives which are often opposing and contradictory.

An incorporated society is the best option there is, but raises questions about what is the place of tikanga (custom) and the law, the place of Kingitanga and the law. Throw in another huge element he calls the "human challenge" and the issues complicate.

"When you're making a lot of money and the stakes are high, you're going to get all of a sudden people wanting to have a say on maintaining the power, how it's going to be used."

In Tainui there is a lot of poverty among the people, but Joseph says as an incorporated society Te Kauhanganui is legally constrained - as a charitable trust money can't just be given away to individuals but has to be used for the society and its purposes, given as grants.

A few years ago, Joseph was involved in a Law Commission project which was about trying to improve legal structures for Maori who have or will have similar challenges after settlement.

A big report was written, recommending a new entity for Maori communities which could be tailor-made for iwi with accountability, transparency, governance measures and a dispute resolution forum, but languished in Parliament.

Actually, says former Prime Minister and former head of the Law Commission, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, the report was thrown out by the National Government and quite a few Maori did not like it: "... it probably was not going to help the patriarchy if you know what I mean?"

He says it was a shame the report never made it through central Government because it was not easy melding Western European governance structures into traditional Maori: "that's a really difficult and complicated thing to do".

But no structure is foolproof, he says.

"I mean, people are prone to fight with one another, it doesn't matter if they're Maori or not."

On the streets in Ngaruawahia and nearby Huntly (where King Tuheitia lives) there were mixed opinions about it all - and often no opinion.

More than one person said words to the effect of "I'm not going near that" or "nope, not getting into that".

But some did speak willingly. One was Patara Berryman, breakfast host for Radio Tainui and a rangitahi (youth) member of Te Kauhanganui.

The major issue, the 32-year-old says, is not Tuku and Tania but that a major review of the governance needs to be be carried out.

He thinks most people respect both Martin and Morgan and says both are leaders not afraid to put themselves out there.

The tribe needs to move forward and get some employment opportunities going for the people because poverty is still a big issue, though Berryman says it will take time to fix.

He says marae have definitely benefited from grants, with many now upgraded with million-dollar kitchens to feed the people, but people have to be patient.

"This is not for our generation, this is for generations down the track ... it took us 150 years to get to this point and it's going to take another 150 to get to the next and as long as we all just realise that and get on with the job we should be fine."

68: The number of marae who elect members to Te Kauhananui, the Tainui Parliament

204: Number of members in Te Kauhanganui

11: Number of members on Te Arataura, Te Kauhanganui's executive, one of whom is appointed by the King.