Wakatu Incorporation is a shining example of corporate Maori acumen. When formed following an inquiry in 1977, it had 1350 hectares of land valued at $11 million. Last year, its gross assets were assessed at more than $250m.
Land and property assets make up 70 per cent of Wakatu's business, with urban commercial properties in Nelson – including buildings leased to Harvey Norman and Progressive Enterprises – and four subdivisions with more than 200 titles in the Nelson and Motueka areas. Its food and beverage business makes up the remaining 30 per cent of its assets.
Under the new Kono branding, Wakatu's seafood business alone employs more than 200 staff, generating annual sales of more than $35m, and it now produces about $15m of wine a year. By any measure, it is a significant and successful player in the regional economy.
It serves the interests of more than 3000 shareholders, descendants of the Maori land owners of the Nelson, Tasman, Golden Bay region at the time that European development started. It offers strong leadership, a clear vision and real political clout.
Its professional corporate structure, strong growth record and high profile leave Wakatu well placed to give a credible voice to those in the region who identify strongly as Maori, regardless of which iwi is their whakapapa. However, in the interests of the various iwi based in Te Tau Ihu, surely it is time for Wakatu to drop its legal efforts to secure the right to lodge land claims with the Waitangi Tribunal on behalf of the original land owners it represents.
The High Court ruling that Wakatu has no such standing as it is a statutory incorporation rather than a customary, collective group – such as an iwi or hapu – appears solid and comprehensive. Had it won the right to present such a claim, it would traverse similar ground to that already travelled by the local iwi which have won agreement on a $300m settlement with the Crown.
Incorporation chairman Paul Morgan says legal options are being assessed, including whether or not to appeal. Such a prospect might be tantalising to lawyers, but surely the interests of most of the people involved – the members of the various iwi – are best served by Wakatu backing down so that the stalled settlement process can resume.
As the Treaty of Waitangi claim proceedings showed, there were serious miscarriages of justice carried out during and after the early settlement process in this region, and the Crown is now acting in the nation's interests in attempting to put things right. However appropriate Wakatu might see its actions as being, the perception is that it is trying to muscle in on the territory of the customary iwi groups most involved in the settlement process.
Wakatu has been a strong role model for Maori aspiration. Rightly or wrongly, some will see it now as instigating bloody-minded squabbling with groups that it ought to be on the most solid terms with.
The Crown, rightly, has declared it will not pay twice for the same historical claims, through the Treaty process and again through the courts. Wakatu must consider very carefully what it is trying to achieve.
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