Māori need control of the resources required to exercise their rangatiratanga, says Matthew Scobie. (Photo: RNZ)

The new government is promising to decentralise many social services, saying it will hand control to community, iwi and Maōri organisations to respond to issues like youth offending and health inequities.

But there’s a stark contradiction between the increasing calls for Māori people, practices and perspectives to save New Zealand from the impacts of a system they neither consented to, nor particularly benefited from, and the limited, government-controlled resourcing provided to do that, writes Matthew Scobie.


In communities around Aotearoa, whānau, hapū and iwi leadership are being pulled in all sorts of directions to help care for people and planet.

One example is the growing demand for, and by, Māori to participate in biodiversity protection. These demands are associated with kaitiakitanga, which creates rights and responsibilities for Māori to protect human and non-human relations across generations.

More recently, we’ve also seen the National-led government call for a greater devolution of the response to social issues, such as youth offending, to community groups and services, many of which are likely to be Māori providers. In health too, the new government is proposing iwi Māori partnership boards as regional operating entities.

But in all areas, Māori don’t have control over how the resources required for their participation in these responses are allocated. This challenges the rangatiratanga that’s required to properly exercise our rights and responsibilities, and our kaitiakitanga, that was reaffirmed in Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

To understand why resourcing rangatiratanga properly is important, it’s useful to look back at how the Crown resourced and cemented its own authority in the first place, by dispossessing Māori.

In the very early days of the colony, the government funded itself by buying Māori land at low prices, often paying just a few pence per acre, and immediately selling it on to settlers for far higher amounts. This has been described as a capital gains tax paid exclusively by Māori, in substance if not form, as the government retained the total amount of the capital gain from purchases it had exclusive control over. Many of these transactions have been investigated and described as “unconscionable” by the Waitangi Tribunal.

As demographics shifted toward a Pākehā majority, the government brought in new forms of taxation that also solely targeted Māori. One of these was the “Dog Tax”, a tax of five shillings annually per dog levied throughout New Zealand in 1880. At that time, Māori were much more likely to have dogs than non-Māori.

In a recent book, The financial colonisation of Aotearoa, Catherine Comyn writes that many Māori resisted the tax, including in “the dog tax rebellion” and with explicit arguments that the tax was a breach of Te Tiriti. This, and other examples of early taxation, weren’t just about funding the government, but asserting sovereignty, diminishing rangatiratanga, and breaching Te Tiriti.

Historian Te Maire Tau has drawn attention to a series of laws that worked in combination to both continue to fund the government and acquire Māori land. The combination of the Town and Country Planning Act 1953 and the Māori Affairs Amendment Act 1967 reduced the use and exchange value of Māori land by restricting how it could be used. Land was left unsuitable for either commercial or residential uses. This often meant that Māori owners were unable to pay the council rates associated with the land, even as councils generally provided them with insufficient services. Māori land was then brought under the Ratings Act 1967, which meant that councils could go ahead and sell land where rates were unpaid.

These Acts worked together to dispossess Māori under the assumption of Crown sovereignty, in breach of Te Tiriti and other contractual obligations.

All these forms of taxation have funded the government at the expense of Māori retaining assets and resources, and reinforced the Crown’s authority over all things.

These days, some resources are returned to Māori in lump sums through Treaty settlements, and through government actions such as the issuing of grants, or provision of funds for projects that align with the government’s own goals. But they amount to a tiny percentage of the sums that actual compensation would amount to.

Treaty settlements aimed to provide an economic base of sorts but are always a fraction of the losses that were experienced by Māori, are politically charged, and can create tensions within and between Māori communities. Nonetheless, lots of good has been done across the country with the use of Treaty settlements, including social spending, reconstructing identity, and protecting and advancing rights. Some of this spending plugs the gaps left by Crown failures.

Besides settlements, government grants may be issued, usually for projects that align with the government’s own goals and outlined in their yearly budgets. During the sixth Labour government, the largest allocation occurred through the Wellbeing Budget 2022: A Secure Future which granted Māori $1.256 billion over four years. That may sound like a lot but it was a fraction of overall spending. And there’s a lot to do.

Both settlements and grants are rooted in the government’s assumption of singular sovereignty — that, at the end of the day, they are the Tiriti partner with the ability to decide who gets resources, for what, and how much.

While such a power imbalance has been vigorously challenged by Maōri and the Waitangi Tribunal, the assumption of singular sovereignty continues to see the government hold the exclusive right to raise taxes, levies and rates. Māori aren’t permitted to engage in these same activities, radically limiting their possibilities for resourcing rangatiratanga and thus entrenching the fundamental imbalance between Treaty partners.

That reduces Māori to relying on the benevolence of the government to fund the projects that suit them, and it subjects Māori to the volatile political whims of three-year electoral cycles. This imbalance plays out when we see Māori spend more time and resources defending our rights, and trying to hold the government accountable, rather than exercising our rights and upholding our own commitments.

It’s for this reason that we need to explore alternative possibilities for resourcing rangatiratanga. Market and debt mechanisms are often presented as possibilities. Markets, such as the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), aim to improve environmental outcomes through financial incentives. Including wetlands in the ETS may give Māori more opportunities to resource rangatiratanga, for example.

National debt could be used to invest in Māori-led biodiversity protection, for instance, the Sovereign Green bonds that aim to improve environmental outcomes.

Market and debt are common and expanding, but potential disadvantages include increasing exposure to risk, further dispossession if over-exposed, amplifying inequity, and incorporating financial logics to social and environmental issues.

Then there are the possibilities to resource rangatiratanga through more progressive opportunities. This could be in the form of formalised revenue sharing from existing or new forms of taxation, levies and rates. This could occur at central or local government level, or at the level of specific projects.

For example, the tourism levy paid by international visitors can be easily associated with biodiversity protection. Even more progressive opportunities would be Māori directly raising revenue through taxation, levies and rates. While this may seem radical to some, there are examples of this in both our history, with Māori hapū gathering levies on access to resources throughout the 19th century, and internationally. Another option is targeted relief from particular forms of government revenue raising that recognise historical injustice as present inequity.

Finally, Māori already engage in tax-like practices for revenue raising, and regularly manage collectively owned assets. Individuals contributing to a collective good, such as fundraising for Treaty settlement negotiations, and koha to support marae maintenance and development, are obvious examples.

If there’s the political trust to devolve responsibilities for solutions to hapū and iwi, then there must be political trust that Māori can raise, control and allocate the resources required to properly exercise their rangatiratanga.


Matthew Scobie (Ngāi Tahu, Tauiwi) is a teacher and researcher based in the UC Business School at the University of Canterbury. His interests are Indigenous development and self-determination, drawing from theories of political economy and critical accounting.

An extended version of the article is available to read here in Kōtuitui: New Zealand Journal of Social Sciences, the result of research supported by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment under New Zealand’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge.

© E-Tangata, 2024

Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.

If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.