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Rodney Hide

Tribalism sets honey trap for welfare

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Successive governments have pinned their hopes for Maori economic and political development on tribalism. It’s a surprising decision because tribal structure is contrary to everything we know about successful governance.

Tribal structure lacks democratic transparency and accountability. It also lacks the incentive and opportunity of a firm in the market for capital and customers.

Quite how we slipped into such an arrangement is a mystery, especially because tribal bonds and structures were in disrepair and ineffectual until the government decided to recreate and fatten them with tribal settlements.

The settlements could have been, for example, delivered to individual tribal members in cash and kind and shares and bonds.  Proper governance and empowerment could easily have been provided.

But no, the decision has always been to make settlements tribal, which has meant the government deciding what’s a tribe what’s not and mandating leaders to represent the tribe. The structures are now a collectivist nightmare with the government in cahoots with non-accountable tribal leaders.

The response to the failure is always the same: more tribalism. The tribal leadership is propped up by settlements and, more importantly, effective veto powers on major resource consents and now increasingly unelected seats at the table in a dizzying array of co-governance arrangements.

The wonderful thing about government is just when you think it can’t get sillier it does: moves are now afoot to devolve welfare to tribes.

At first blush it sounds good: the former minister of Maori affairs, Sir Pita Sharples, told Parliament the Tuhoe settlement establishes the principle “that Tuhoe has a democratic right to self-government.”

Of course. There should be nothing stopping any group freely organising themselves but that’s not what’s meant or wanted for Tuhoe.  What’s wanted is the rest of the country to fund Tuhoe’s “self” government.

And so last year the Ministry of Social Development contracted Sapere Research Group to consider options for decentralising welfare to Tuhoe.

The report quotes Tuhoe leader Tamati Kruger saying, “We want to work with the Ministry of Social Development in utilising the $9 million of benefits, to use some of that for job creation, and also changing a mindset in Tuhoe around being beneficiaries of the state.”

So Tuhoe leaders want the money now paid to beneficiaries to be paid to them.  And with that they can fund business and change the people’s mindset.

Tuhoe have great plans and with their settlement considerable potential. They are thinking pharmaceuticals, science and research, eco-tourism, food and technology, horticulture, agriculture, etc.

Again, it sounds good: a one-off lump-sum payment and government (and taxpayers) shifts the liability of future welfare payments to Tuhoe leadership.  And it’s quite a liability: in 2013, 29% of Tuhoe people took a benefit. That’s a lot. It’s not Mr Kruger’s $9 million a year but more like $200 million a year. And growing fast.

It would be far better to be using that money in farming, science and eco-tourism employing people to work rather than having them rot on a benefit.

But what happens if the business enterprises falter? What happens if the money generated doesn’t prove enough? What happens to those who the Tuhoe leadership consider too lazy to be deserving of a Tuhoe payout?

I fear the residual risk would always fall back on the taxpayer. The government could end up paying the welfare bill for Tuhoe several times over.

There’s a deeper concern. It’s not at all empowering to be dependent on the state for your income but far worse would be dependency on a tribal leadership lacking democratic check and clear rules. The mana motuhake is for tribal leaders, not members.

This article was first published in the National Business Review