Learnings from the Māori economy and benefits for Australia and New Zealand

Nick Williams, Former Second Secretary at the Australian High Commission in New Zealand

Learning about the growth of the Māori economy was a fascinating experience during my posting to New Zealand over the past three years. As an Australian of both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent, I thoroughly enjoyed engaging with Māori to gain a deeper understanding of culture and to explore the drivers of Māori economic development.


When I first arrived in New Zealand, I was aware that Māori and Australia’s indigenous cultures shared similar traits: a rich history of story-telling, spirituality, language and traditions; common values of family, community, and the importance of land and caring for country; and a passion for improving the livelihoods of our peoples. But the similarities were also evident in the levels of disadvantage as measured by social and economic indicators such as high rates of incarceration, shorter life expectancy, and poor health and education outcomes.

But there was a clear difference which captivated my thinking – Māori’s economic position was far more advanced than indigenous Australians’. This included a Māori asset base and economy estimated to be valued in excess of NZ$40 billion and commercial ventures which were major stakeholders across New Zealand’s economic landscape, including in the primary sector and tourism. Māori businesses had diversified into other areas of the economy such as property and infrastructure investment as well as business and financial services. Māori had also developed close relationships and growing export portfolios with key trading partners, such as China, and were engaged in global supply and value chains.

The ability of Māori to grow economic and commercial wealth has contributed to an increase in self-determination for Māori communities. There are multiple  examples where Māori economic generation was having the effect of flowing back into communities for the betterment and advancement of Māori people and culture through programs that supported positive health, education, employment and social outcomes.

I should note that there are some limitations to the Trans-Tasman comparison on this issue, Māori and indigenous Australians have contrasting social, political and economic histories. Further, challenges related to governance and other issues remain for the Māori, and not all commercial undertakings have been successful. However, the overall story is one from which lessons can be learnt.

The idea of indigenous economic wealth which contributes to self-determining and self-sustaining social and economic outcomes is arguably a concept that is still developing in Australia. There are some indigenous communities, organisations and individuals that have been successful in commercial endeavours and have been able to channel economic wealth into community development activities and programs. In my view, however, most public and private efforts to support the development of indigenous Australians has largely been designed and delivered under a framework of economic and social welfare dependence.

So what can Australia learn from Māori’s economic experience? How can we increase trans-Tasman engagement for the benefit of both Māori and indigenous Australians, and our nations more broadly?

For Australia, understanding the structure and development of the Māori economy, including the success and challenges associated with the development of Māori land and the establishment of trusts and corporations, could help shape public and private efforts to increase economic development of indigenous Australians to build effective community governance and commercial structures. Looking further into the Treaty of Waitangi and the settlements process could provide valuable insights into a process that acknowledges past injustices and provides a platform to negotiate financial, commercial and cultural redress.

For New Zealand, the Australian market is an important source and destination of investment and trade. It also serves as a market for many New Zealand businesses seeking to build scale and increase global connectivity. Exploring opportunities for Māori and indigenous partnerships and commercial ventures could help build the capacity and scale of businesses operating in sectors such as mining and natural resource development; primary industries; infrastructure development; and tourism. In addition, growing closer cultural connections could facilitate greater sharing of ancient practices related to traditional governance and lore; land and sea management; and domestic and international trading.

There could also be regional benefits of increasing Māori and indigenous economic engagement. Australia and New Zealand play a major role in the prosperity and stability of the Pacific region. Increasing the capability of Māori and indigenous businesses to create closer partnerships with Pacific countries could have both tangible and intangible cultural and commercial benefits for our region.

In an increasingly interconnected and open global economy, commercial differentiation and building comparative advantage are major objectives for many nations. Growing the competitiveness of Māori and indigenous businesses could provide a unique point of difference for New Zealand and Australian exports and investments. Moreover, a stronger global presence of Māori and indigenous businesses could foster greater cultural and commercial links with large indigenous organisations throughout the Americas region and across the world more broadly.

Could New Zealand and Australia be recognised as world leaders in Māori and indigenous economic development? Could we be recognised as a region of Māori and indigenous commercial best practice and excellence? More importantly, is there an opportunity to help Māori and indigenous Australians achieve a state of self-determination, and social and economic equality?

We are the closest of nations, forged in the ANZAC spirit and bonded by a sense of family. When we work together, we are stronger. Working together to ensure the success of our greatest assets – Māori and indigenous cultures – could grow the prosperity of our people, our nations and our region.

Nick Williams was Second Secretary at the Australian High Commission in Wellington between 2013 and 2016.


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