• What Do Maori Know That We Don’t?

    So, now we know. When the Prime Minister said last year, in respect of the proposed sale of the Crafar farms to the Chinese, that New Zealanders would not want to be “tenants in their own land”, it was a statement “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

    The Prime Minister tells us now that it would be – and in that case presumably always has been – illegal to stop the sale; he thereby reinforces a pattern that has become all too familiar – a pattern of broad assurances designed to allay public concerns on various issues, followed by periods of obfuscation, and then explanations as to why the assurances could not be acted upon.

    So, for example, the government was to insist that the recovery of the bodies from the Pike River mine must be an inescapable commitment from any new owner; it now seems likely that will mean no more than that new owners must have a “plan” to be implemented (only if possible) at some indeterminate date in the future.

    And so too, expectations are now being scaled down in respect of the commitment – so often trumpeted as confirmation of the government’s financial rectitude – to return government finances to surplus by 2014. That, we are now told, is in doubt because the global economy has – in a way that had somehow escaped the attention of the forecasters – proved to be in a parlous state.

    And what of the assurances repeatedly given by the Prime Minister that the public assets his government now proposes to sell will somehow remain in New Zealand hands? Is it now not clear that we will in due course be told – when the assets have passed into foreign hands – that it would have been “illegal” to discriminate against foreign bidders?

    There are of course many points that can be made in respect of those asset sales. Who can doubt, for example, that – just like an individual – a government that sells off an income-producing asset in order to spend the proceeds should be regarded as behaving somewhat imprudently. How, in other words, does the government propose to make good the hole in their finances when they no longer receive the income from the assets they have sold?

    And the more we are assured – for the purpose of raising their market value – that the assets offer an investment that is secure, long-term, virtually inflation-proofed, and guaranteeing a good return, the more the question is begged – wouldn’t that investment be equally valuable and attractive in the hands of those who currently own them?

    It is of course true that the New Zealand capital market would be enlarged, at least in the short term, if a major new range of investments became available. But we should surely pause to wonder why our capital market is so small and weak. The answer is that most of what were once New Zealand assets of comparable size and stability have long ago passed (via privatisation) into foreign ownership; and the further sale of what remains in public ownership seems certain to add to that longstanding trend.

    We can, of course, expect a familiar response from the Prime Minister to the latest difficulty to arise in respect of asset sales – the belief that new private owners will not accept obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi in their management of what were public assets. John Key will assure Maori that they will lose nothing from removing those statutory obligations – and by the time they discover otherwise, it will be too late.

    But the Maori stance on asset sales is instructive for another reason as well. Iwi have declared their intention of investing in the assets. They are clear that they will invest for the long term. They will hold their shares in trust for future generations. They will take seats on the boards of the enterprises so as to make the most of the influence their shareholding will give them.

    Most people, I guess, would nod in approval of all of these propositions – but they constitute, of course, the clearest possible statement of the argument for not selling the assets in the first place.

    The advantages sought by Maori are precisely the advantages currently enjoyed by all of us but which the asset sales would deny us. So, why is something that is clearly so valuable to Maori apparently of no consequence or value to the rest of us? The Prime Minister might be asked for an answer.

    Why are Maori able to look to a leadership that takes the long view and has a proper sense of its obligations to the common interest and future generations? Why do the rest of us have to make do with a leadership that looks at worst to an ideological prejudice against public ownership and at best to a short-term boost to the balance sheet that will quickly be outweighed by the all-too-familiar burden of paying the profits across the foreign exchanges to overseas owners?

    Bryan Gould

    1 February 2012

1 Comment

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