Te Atiawa invests in the future

Taranaki's grievance scarred Te Atiawa iwi will soon know if it has traded its tormented past for a brighter future.

After more than a century of fighting and fruitless attempts at justice, the North Taranaki iwi have negotiated an $87 million Treaty of Waitangi settlement with the Crown.

It's a pittance relative to the land and opportunity taken from them during and after the Taranaki Wars, but it is the largest settlement in the province to date and the country's fifth biggest so far. It's expected to be known if the deal gets the green light on July 22 along with South Taranaki's Ngaruahine iwi voting to accept their own $67.5m treaty package.

Combined with the millions in local settlements already signed, Taranaki Maori are increasingly in a position to resume a social, cultural and economic leadership role in the land they called their own for hundreds of years.

If accepted the cheque for Te Atiawa's settlement will take some time to work through the many layers of government bureaucracy but there is already little doubt, in time, the iwi will become both one of the largest property owners and most socially important entities in Taranaki.

"Let me put it this way. In 20 years (Waikato iwi) Tainui went from $170m to $1 billion," says Te Atiawa Iwi Authority negotiator Peter Moeahu.

"There is no reason why in 25 years Te Atiawa cannot do the same and in doing that also service the cultural, spiritual and social needs of its people.

"There will be opportunities once Te Atiawa grows that go throughout the wider community because Te Atiawa will need plumbers, carpenters, lawyers, accountants, you name it, we will need it. That is how the wider community will be part of the settlement."

Sparkly eyed and wily with a cynical appreciation of the role charm plays in successful bargaining, it is Moeahu and fellow negotiator Wikitoria Keenan who have been most involved in getting Te Atiawa a settlement to sign. They've maintained their cool while playing hard ball with the Crown and appear satisfied they have done their job well, even if not all members of their iwi will agree.

Luckily accepting the agreement did not require the iwi's unanimous consent. Because, though Moeahu and Keenan were confident 80 per cent of the votes received would be to take the settlement, they also acknowledged they expected just 30 per cent of the 5500 of those eligible to vote would do so.

That should still be enough for the Government to make the settlement law and in doing so give the iwi the opportunity to buy or acquire the prime Barrett St Hospital site, the New Plymouth Police Station and Court House, the Nga Motu islands, Education House, the New Plymouth Prison and more than 100 other commercial, residential and industrial properties in north Taranaki.

The iwi will also be in a position to own half of the New Plymouth airport and buy the controversial Waitara leasehold properties, which include parts of the Peka Peka block, the stolen land at the heart of their of social, cultural and economic stagnation.

Importantly, they are voting for more than money. They are also accepting an official apology which frees them of the fetters of blame for all that has happened from 1840 until now; the Taranaki Wars, land confiscations, dodgy land sales, the Parihaka invasion.

They are voting to have the Crown acknowledge its own actions are why so many Te Atiawa people experience poor health, low levels of education and high unemployment. In exchange for this Te Atiawa relinquishes its right to make historical claims for Crown breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi. This settlement is final. It clears the slate, at least until the Treaty is breached again.

"I think the Crown apologising is very important because our people have been held up to ridicule and infamy, unjustly I might add," says Moeahu.

"The apology is the beginning to the healing for the past 172 years. The treaty relationship going forward is what will continue with the healing and the relationship with the Crown and the local authorities will maintain that healing."

The 172 years is significant. It is the period of time between the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 and 2012 when Te Atiawa began negotiating a deed of settlement. In recognition of this period Te Atiawa, along with Taranaki iwi and Ngaruahine, will have first right of refusal to buy any Crown land that comes up for sale within their boundaries for the next 172 years until 2186.

It is a very real economic advantage but quite what Te Atiawa will buy with their settlement cheque and the wealth it grows from it can only be guessed at, says Keenan.

"All the options are there because we haven't committed to anything yet," she says.

But it is likely they will snaffle the Barrett St Hospital site, once and if it is cleared of the asbestos ridden buildings. They know there is lucrative commercial potential in the Education House site, the buy and leaseback options of the police station and court houses could very well be money for jam.

But those decisions won't be made overnight and when they are they'll be done by committee through the post settlement governance entity, the PSGE.

The trustees of this are Te Atiawa with local and national standing. They include chairwoman Liana Poutu, deputy chairman Wharehoka Wano, Kura Denness and Keith Holswich. A more capable group would be hard to find and, under their stewardship, there should be confidence that Te Atiawa can do what Tainui and South Island iwi Ngai Tahu have done and turn their settlement into a billion-dollar base.

There will almost certainly be mistakes, investments gone sour, infighting, public scrutiny and potentially public scorn. On its way to a billion in assets Tainui lost millions in embarrassingly inept investments. Taranaki iwi Ngati Tama lost the vast majority of their $14.5m Treaty settlement in risky investments.

There are successes too. South Taranaki's Ngati Ruanui received a $41m settlement package in 2003. They have used that to invest in fisheries, land and such iconic real estate as the Stratford Mountain House as well as taking an increasingly active role in the governance of their area.

It's a start, says iwi kaiarataki Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, but iwi have been without their natural economic base for a decades. It's going to take time to rebuild and it's never easy. "Every iwi settlement we have seen there is disgruntlement, there is upset. We are never going to please 100 per cent of the people."

But she sees iwi organisations as uniquely adaptable and capable of managing their settlements and their community's future. Some of the scepticism against them is partly from the difficulty people have in deciding what an iwi organisation is, she says. They have commercial, social and cultural interests. They are a business and yet not a business, just as likely to play the stock market as they are to show up at parent teacher interviews.

"I think what stuns me is the ignorance some people have of how versatile and how easily iwi organisations can adapt to meet future opportunities," she says.

"The reason we have such success and continue to grow our capacity is, in the end, we are a family run business. We are always investing in our people."

Taranaki Daily News