Key Points:

Before flying to Wellington for yesterday's Maori Economic Summit, Pita Sharples told his wife that as a relatively new minister running the show, he was somewhat scared.

The Maori Affairs minister was scared he might have offended someone by inadvertently leaving them off the invitation list, such was the short notice in organising the hui. He was scared the summit would be a one-day wonder.

On neither count did Sharples need to worry. Quite a few participants who thought the occasion demanded their presence simply gatecrashed the conference.

As for success or failure, the gathering failed to come up with any earth-shattering recommendations that will exempt Maori from a severe drenching once the gathering storm clouds of recession break.

Given less than two hours was set aside for brainstorming ideas, however, that was hardly surprising. If there is a simple solution to the international credit crisis, then it would have been found before yesterday's hui.

But given Maori will be hardest hit by the deepening downturn, the important thing is that the hui happened at all. Sharples might like showing off as the ministerial novice, but he is an old hand when it comes to displaying the kind of leadership necessary for such a summit to get off the ground.

Having got Maoridom to focus collectively on the challenges ahead, Sharples' task is to ensure that focus continues. To that end, he is establishing a Maori Affairs ministerial economic task force which will be run out of his office and which he will chair.

The hands-on approach is understandable given the potential harm that recession might do to the standing of the Maori Party.

For the economic prognosis for Maori is grim. Professor Ngata Love, who chaired the summit, had already warned delegates who did get an invitation letter that the international nature of the crisis suggested the consequences would be even more severe than those felt by Maori following the restructuring of the New Zealand economy in the 1980s.

Maori were then heavily represented in low and unskilled jobs. Between 1986 and 1991, the unemployment rate for Maori rose from 15 per cent to more than 24 per cent, while the rate for non-Maori increased from 5.8 per cent to 9 per cent.

The rate for Maori is currently just under 8 per cent. While a relatively high number remain employed in lower-skilled, lesser-paid occupations, Maori are now over-represented in the struggling construction sector as well as export-focused industries and tourism which are bound to suffer considerably from the international slowdown.

Amidst the gloom, there are patches of light, however. The size of the Maori commercial asset base has expanded considerably since the 1980s, thanks to Treaty settlements, and diversified into a spread of different assets. The success of Maori entrepreneurs has prompted talk of the "Maori edge" in terms of competitive advantage.

According to a background paper prepared for the conference, these factors place Maori in a strong position to make a significant investment in job-retaining and job-creating activities such as house construction.

The summit did not really get into detail of how that might be done. However, the broad talk of co-operation, "collaboration" and consensus within Maoridom to make things happen would have been music to Sharples' ears. Nothing might have emerged from the hui in concrete terms. But Sharples can now claim a mandate for bold initiatives he says will be needed if Maori are to get through the coming months relatively unscathed compared with past recessions.