Developing Indigenous business linkages: a deadly encounter

By Alison Duncan

Shortly after my arrival at the Australian High Commission in Wellington in January 2015, my colleague Nick Williams infected me with his enthusiasm for New Zealand’s Māori economy.  Nick, a young Aboriginal man from Queensland, had been following the growth and success of Māori business and was interested in the opportunity for Australian Indigenous businesses to learn from their Māori counterparts.

With Nick finishing his posting and heading back to Canberra not long afterwards, it fell to me to follow this up.  Last week, Nick’s vision finally became reality, with a delegation of 13 Australian Indigenous business leaders visiting New Zealand.  The first visit of its kind.

And what an incredible week it was.

It began with a wonderful pōwhiri at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Wellington.


Briefings from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Te Puni Kōkiri, NZ Māori Tourism, the Māori Land Court and Waitangi Tribunal helped set the scene for our delegates to understand the basis of Māori economic development.

The delegates were blown away by the fact that Māori hold 29 of New Zealand’s 120 seats in Parliament.  We had a long discussion with the Minister for Māori Development, the Hon Nanaia Mahuta, and lunch at Bellamy’s with some of the Māori MPs hosted by the Minister for Whānau Ora, the Hon Peeni Henare.

We heard from the Federation of Māori Authorities about how they work with elected leaders and government agencies to achieve outcomes for Māori business.  Chairwoman Traci Houpapa shared her belief that “what’s good for Māori is good for New Zealand”.  We also had a great meeting with Wellington Māori business leaders at Te Wharewaka o Pōneke, and the women were keen to return to New Zealand in July for FOMA’s Women’s Hui.

Our last stop in Wellington was Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand’s national museum.  We were expecting a tour of some of the Māori artefacts, but weren’t prepared for the incredible encounter we had at the Ko Rongowhakaata exhibition.

For those who know Te Papa, you’ll have seen the beautifully carved meeting house installed within the ‘Story of Light and Shadow’ exhibition on the fourth floor.  What you might not know is that the meeting house, known as Te Poho ō Rukupō, was taken many years ago from the Rongowhakaata people who hail from the East Cape area.  Tribal representatives are currently in Wellington negotiating its return.  The kairanga led us into Te Poho ō Rukupō where we were welcomed by those representatives who greeted us as elders: the people of te whenua Moemoea (the land of dreaming), the world’s oldest living culture.

The stories shared inside Te Poho ō Rukupō brought tears to many eyes.  One of our delegates told me she felt her ancestors present in this place of great power and sadness.  Our Rongowhakaata guide told us the meeting house would never stop crying until it was returned to its ancestral home.


The Australian Indigenous business delegation

Our next stop was Rotorua where we heard about the partnership model that had been established between the Council and the local Te Arawa people.  We saw first hand in our discussion with Mayor Steve Chadwick and Te Tatau o Te Arawa Chairman, Te Taru White, the goodwill and trust that had been built up in a relatively short period of time.  And we heard from the Council’s General Manager Māori, Gina Rangi, about some of the initiatives underway, from working together on water management to the designation of Rotorua as a bilingual city.

And what visit to Rotorua is complete without enjoying the famous hospitality and entertainment of the Te Arawa people?  NZ Māori Tourism generously met the costs of our visit to Mitai Māori Village for their evening show.  We loved the way traditional culture was displayed in an authentic and respectful but accessible way.  One of our delegates, Kenny Bedford from Erub Island in the Torres Strait, was chosen to be the Chief on behalf of the 200+ visitors.  It was an honour that Kenny took seriously and his heartfelt and moving response to the welcome set the stage for a wonderful evening.


Chief Kenny unveiling the hāngi with great flourish!

In Taupo, we called in on Tuaropaki – an enormously successful and innovative Māori business that operates from its base in Mokai.  Chairman Tumanako Wereta told us the story of how the family had scoured the world for financing for their geothermal power station and built up a diversified and sustainable business model on the back of the power plant.

It was then on to Hamilton, where our arrival was pre-empted by Minister Mahuta who had been in touch with her Tainui family with a request for tuna (eel) for one of our delegation members, Mandy Muir from Kakadu, who was hoping to try the local delicacy.  And so it was that before we began our discussions with Waikato-Tainui and their commercial arm, Tainui Group Holdings, there was tuna to be eaten!  Mandy loved it, saying it tasted just like snake cooked on the fire.


Mandy enjoying some smoked eel with Waikato-Tainui

It was fascinating to hear about the Tainui story and the success they were achieving on both a social and commercial level.  We visited the site of Tainui Group Holding’s massive Ruakura inland port project which is partnering with Australian firm LINX Cargo Care to build New Zealand’s largest logistics hub and bring 6,000 to 12,000 new jobs to the area.


Inspecting Tainui Group Holdings’ Ruakura inland port site

The final stop on our itinerary was Auckland, where we were welcomed to the Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei marae at the historic Takaparawhau (Bastion Point).  The group was once again moved by the warmth of their welcome and fascinated to hear the story of how Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei had moved from landlessness and grievance to commercial success.  Sitting over kai with Aunty Tina, she told me about her own childhood in Ōrākei where she had been punished for speaking Te Reo Māori (the only language she knew) at school, and then growing up to teach Te Reo at that very same school.


Acting Deputy High Commissioner Alison Duncan with Aunty Tina

KPMG organised a fantastic morning for us of networking with business leaders and hearing from Air New Zealand and Westpac about how they incorporate Māori identity into their business practices and their social procurement strategies.  We went on to a roundtable with Auckland Tourism Events and Economic Development, New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, the Southern Initiative and Callaghan Innovation, to hear about their various roles in Māori economic and social development and support for Māori business and tourism.

Having been planning this visit for some time, I’d taken every opportunity to discuss it with anyone who was interested.  A key partner from the outset was the Australian New Zealand Leadership Forum.  ANZLF is a business-led forum that meets every 12-18 months, bringing together business leaders from both sides of the Tasman to discuss opportunities for better collaboration and trade between our two countries and into third markets.  At its last meeting in October 2016, the ANZLF included an Indigenous panel and they were keen to take this further by establishing an Indigenous business working group.  The group would complement the ANZLF’s five other sector working groups which bring together smaller groups of 10-20 business leaders to take forward initiatives within their sector.  It was our shared goal that the delegation’s visit could kick off that process and provide a basis for ongoing collaboration.

Such was the interest in taking this forward that around 40 people squeezed into MFAT’s Auckland boardroom on 2 February for the ANZLF’s inaugural Indigenous Business Working Group meeting.  Traci Houpapa and Warren Mundine were named as co-chairs and the participants, representing a broad range of New Zealand and Australian Indigenous business, committed to taking forward an agenda to grow prosperity and collaboration for Indigenous business in the two countries.


ANZLF co-chair, Adrian Littlewood, with Indigenous Business Working Group co-chairs, Traci Houpapa MNZM and Warren Mundine AO

Talking to the Australian delegates at the end of their trip, there were several things that stood out for them during the visit.

The first was the importance of culture.  Building wealth and prosperity was important for the advancement of the Māori people, but it wasn’t pursued at any cost.  Successful Māori enterprises had used culture as a business driver and their reputation for integrity, sustainability and community values had given them a commercial edge in their target markets.

The second was the role that transformational leadership had played in helping communities to move on from grievance and litigation to political and commercial success.  We heard countless stories of leaders past and present who had convinced their people, sometimes in the face of significant opposition and cynicism, to move on.  These stories were particularly valuable to our delegates, who face similar challenges in their own communities.

Another was the role played by women in the Māori development story.  This was inspirational to the female members of our delegation who spoke of Australian Aboriginal women often being marginalised when it came to decision-making and business.

Our delegation gained new insights into the power of partnerships, whether they be in local government, tourism, governance, investment or simply unlocking silos to allow Indigenous groups to work together more effectively.  They were impressed with the cash-flow financing models pioneered in New Zealand to allow for large-scale development without the need to use land as security.  They were keen to follow up on opportunities for direct investment across the Tasman, establishing Indigenous tourism routes across the two countries, further sharing of knowledge and case studies, and working together to support Indigenous women in business.

But perhaps one of the greatest take-outs for our group was the display of Indigenous pride they witnessed during their week in New Zealand.  Māori people leading with their culture, their language and an innate sense of who they were and where they came from.  But we also heard that it hadn’t always been that way.  Some had – at certain points in their lives – rejected their culture because of the stigma and baggage that came with it.

When one of our delegates told me he felt ashamed to greet his hosts in his Aboriginal tongue because he didn’t speak it fluently and it felt somehow fraudulent, I reminded him of those stories of stigma and baggage.  These people understood and empathised with his struggle.  They’d been through it as well.

Indeed, a striking feature of our discussions was the long-termism of many of our interlocutors.  There was an understanding and acknowledgement that many of the older generation might never get to enjoy the full fruits of commercial success, but they were comfortable knowing it would benefit future generations.  As MFAT’s Martin Wikaira eloquently put it, “We understand the pathway to the mountain and we know the steps we have to take to get there.  The most important thing is what’s on the other side of the mountain.”

Having talked about a potential visit with anyone who would listen over the past two years, I knew there was a willingness from Māori to engage.  But nothing could have prepared me for the incredible warmth of the welcome our delegates received and the respect accorded to them by their Māori hosts.  Our people from te whenua Moemoea or, my personal favourite, te Papaka o Maui (the crab of Maui), were honoured guests everywhere we went.

From a personal perspective, it was an incredible experience for me as well.  I’ve taken a strong interest in Māori culture and language throughout my time here, but I learnt more in this one jam-packed week than I have over the past three years.  I feel incredibly honoured and humbled to have been able to participate in this visit.

Indigenous Australia has approximately 300 languages, which means there aren’t any waiata we can sing or korero that unifies us all.  But there are a few words that have been appropriated from various languages that are universally understood by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people.  One of them is deadly – which means awesome.

And the general consensus from our mob was that their visit was a truly deadly encounter.


Alison Duncan is Acting Deputy Australian High Commissioner.

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