COMMENT:

The Prime Minister is doling out a great deal of money on her extended visit to Northland for Waitangi Day. At a Kaipara marae on Sunday she announced $100 million of the Government's $1 billion provincial growth fund will be set aside as capital for Māori developments.

Yesterday at Mangatoa Station near Kaikohe she announced $82m from the fund will be used to set up regional training and employment "hubs", and a further $20m from the fund will go to establishing regional digital "hubs" to help small towns and marae get internet connections.

In two days, with Regional Development Minister Shane Jones at her elbow, they have committed about a fifth of the original fund which is already depleted by some grants of dubious value he made last year. The $160,000 worth of pine seedlings that had to be mulched because the land had not been prepared was part of a $32m deal with Northland's Ngati Hine Forestry Trust.

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While the projects announced at the weekend will be spread around a number of regions Northland is one of the most needy, which is why successive governments have been working so hard to try to help Ngapuhi get organised for a Treaty settlement.

After a year of trying, Justice Minister Andrew Little seems to be no closer than previous ministers came to finding a bargaining partner all Ngapuhi hapu will accept.

Now the Government seems to be giving handouts instead. A $100m fund for economic developments is a substantial sum. It is intended to provide access to capital Māori landowners cannot get from banks because it is in collective ownership.

That problem seems to have receded since Treaty settlements set up Māori incorporations that could borrow against tribal assets but 80 per cent of Māori freehold land is still underused or unproductive.

However, it takes more than money to make worthwhile economic investments. The body doing the investing needs to be accountable to those who will lose money if the investments are not profitable. Would that forestry debacle last year have occurred if those doing the land development stood to lose in some way?

Treaty settlements set up bodies with more direct accountability for their decisions than politicians making grants of public money. But how likely is that Ngapuhi hapu will resolve their differences and come together for a settlement when the Government gives them the impression a great deal of development finance is coming their way regardless?

Northland ought to be thriving. It has a climate and coastline most other regions envy. Its natural attractions are a few hours from Auckland and access by road is not too difficult most of the time. It has been the subject of many economic development plans over the years and parts of the region are prospering. Other parts sorely need more industry and jobs.

The Government may be right that Māori land is the underdeveloped asset that can provide those parts with more wealth. But providing seed capital is the easy part. It has to do much more to ensure the seedlings are not mulched.