Piripi Walker (right) and Tama Te Huki in the studio of Te Upoko o Te Ika on its first day of broadcast in May 1987. Piripi was founder and inaugural manager of the radio station. He was also secretary of Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau i te Reo, which took the Māori language claim to the Waitangi Tribunal in 1984.

For decades, Māori have seen allocation of the radio spectrum as acts of confiscation. They’ve argued for the Crown to allocate management rights in ways consistent with Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

A historic agreement signed in Parliament early this month will now allow Māori to gain considerable control of the spectrum and to get involved in the telecommunications industry. (See Andrew Robb’s piece, “What is the spectrum, and why should Māori care?”, for an explainer on the spectrum.)

The agreement breaks a 30-year standoff — as broadcaster and veteran reo Māori campaigner Piripi Walker, chair of the Interim Māori Spectrum Commission, explains in this piece.


The agreement is a source of great joy because our Treaty claim has essentially been respected.

Although the Crown still can’t accept that the spectrum is a taonga, through this deal it’s putting into place most of the recommendations of the Waitangi Tribunal. 

And while the Treaty partners still disagree on the basis of the Māori claims, we’ve been able to reach agreement on a pathway towards shared goals. 

That means Māori having a place at the table, as partners in directing the future development of telecommunications in Aotearoa, and sharing in the benefits as owners of spectrum, rather than begging for a share of the crumbs. 

It’s hard for the younger generation now to even know what it was like, 40 years ago, when we first prepared these claims on spectrum. 

The idea that we should have a national Māori television channel was just laughed at. The Crown said that we could have one very tiny channel reaching a very small audience. That went to the courts and to the Privy Council, with Māori again dragging the Crown every step of the way through the Treaty mechanism and through the legal mechanisms.

Or the Māori position that the education system should be completely reframed so that Māori children could grow up bilingual and bicultural. That was regarded as an absolute nonsense throughout the entire 20th century. 

Or the idea that New Zealand should have two national languages, both alive and operating. Yet te reo Māori was cheered to extinction until very late in the 20th century when Māori took that to the courts. 

The dream and challenge for Māori has always been to have our institutions be culturally authentic. Having Māori as a significant player able to influence the shape of the institution is going to create all kinds of opportunity, for the language and for the culture, and for New Zealand as a whole. 

What the spectrum agreement recognises is that Māori have so much to offer the framing of the digital world, so it can operate for the benefit of everyone.  

The internet and the digital universe have gone in directions that aren’t always consistent with Māori thinking. Essentially this huge, powerful animal has been put to the service of profit. 

And we’ve allowed that stranger into our kāinga. The old people didn’t do that. They were very careful about who they let into the house. Now we’re left grappling with things like screen time for our children and grandchildren.

Then, in the case of spectrum, in our modern nation, we had scarcity pushing up value and the Crown came in to auction and sell this valuable property to huge multinational corporations with vast pockets — and all of that was done without Māori. 

It’s been a 30-year journey to get to this point, and the knowledge that has driven us is the knowledge that the spectrum is a taonga.

During the negotiations in 1988 to 1990, we did a lot of research with kaumātua and elders, and their views went back deeply into the roots of the past, and the notions of the kāinga and the country belonging to Māori.

As Huirangi Waikerepuru put it, all the wellbeing of the nation has come up out of the earth, and from the sky and the air which we breathe. He was talking about the source of economic wealth of the country and commenting on confiscation and marginalisation. 

And Hirini Moko Mead described the Māori view of the intensely tapu nature of the space that we breathe and the space above the human being, above our heads, which is the abode of the gods and where all knowledge, good and bad, comes from.

People like Koro Dewes were unequivocal that the spectrum, in the Māori view, was part of the estate belonging to rangatira and to the iwi.

So there were arguments related to rangatiratanga, and also to Māori regulation of those spaces, and they were the old Māori views from before the arrival of new systems from the west, and from before the loss of the Māori estate.

Other arguments that were put to the Waitangi Tribunal were that the spectrum was needed for Māori to function in the modern world, that the electronic media were becoming a major teacher and means of communication. Māori life would not flourish without access to radio and television and the spectrum. 

So the spectrum is a taonga. There’s just no doubt about it. 

The other underlying principle is what Whatarangi Winiata, who has been so pivotal in this process, calls “the 5th of February” principle. 

It refers to when Māori as a sovereign nation had all of the rights of enjoyment to all of their properties. Then the British Crown arrived and guaranteed those things. There was no transfer effected by the signing of the Treaty on the 6th of February. 

Because that’s what the Treaty is, isn’t it? It’s an unequivocal guarantee of undisturbed possession. It’s explicit. All of those assets that were there on the 5th of February remained there on the 6th of February. 

And the Waitangi Tribunal, when it came to the spectrum, agreed that was covered by Article Two.

But the Crown doesn’t accept that. So, when the government indicated they wanted to start a process to allocate 5G spectrum, we rallied once again under the banner of the Māori Spectrum Working Group — Ngā Kaiwhakapumau i te Reo, the NZ Māori Council, the claimants in previous spectrum battles, the Iwi Chairs Forum, Te Huarahi Tika Trust and people with experience in spectrum issues. And we prepared for battle. 

We felt there was a different attitude from ministers and officials this time. But we’d been there before — got close to agreement, drafted a cabinet paper as a precursor to legislation, and then had the whole deal cancelled without warning. So we were pretty guarded on the Māori side. 

We wanted significant blocks of spectrum, not so we could build a separate Māori network, which is very expensive and unnecessary. But because ownership of spectrum gives us leverage in negotiations with existing mobile network operators. 

We would give them access to use our spectrum, in return for Māori getting maybe a shareholding in the company, access to training, internships and jobs, and Māori inventors and innovators getting expert help to develop their ideas into viable business propositions. So, we’re talking about getting into commercial deals with existing companies. 

And, because our negotiations with the government were not a Treaty settlement, Māori customary and Treaty rights and claims remain protected. 

This is the MSWG at the national hui at Te Wananga o Raukawa. At the time, Mathew Tukaki was also a member; but by the time of the signing, he and Brent Reihana (3rd from left) had been replaced as NZ Maori Council reps. L to R: Antony Royal, Robyn Kamira, Brent Reihana, Daphne Luke, Andrew Robb, Haami Piripi, Piripi Walker.

The Māori Spectrum Working Group at the national hui at Te Wānanga o Raukawa. From left: Antony Royal, Robyn Kamira, Brent Reihana (NZ Māori Council rep), Daphne Luke, Andrew Robb, Haami Piripi, and Piripi Walker. (Photo supplied)

As owners and developers of spectrum, Māori will bring cultural values to decisions like broadband coverage where a purely market model leaves Māori and non-Māori in rural and remote communities underserved. 

The package we agreed on has a number of elements. 

There’s the blocks of spectrum, which will total 20 percent over time. 

There will be a new Māori Spectrum Entity (MSE) set up to hold and manage the spectrum on behalf of all Māori, perhaps a bit like Te Ohu Kaimoana does for commercial fisheries. 

The MSE will also run programmes like education, training, innovation and business incubation, to help Māori people and groups to actively engage in the telecoms industry. 

There’s a commercial investment package, a Tahua Tautoko, which will generate a revenue stream, so the MSE won’t have to rely on ongoing government funding, and can be truly independent. 

That Tahua Tautoko will also enable the MSE to access training, jobs and expertise. 

There’s a stronger voice of Māori in spectrum policy. 

And finally, the whole deal will be enshrined in legislation, so it’s more difficult for a new government to cancel the deal we’ve negotiated. 

So the spectrum agreement is a pretty major, significant and complex milestone. Our hope for the agreement is that it will stay true to Māori thinking, to what Whatarangi called aronga Māori. 

We want the kaupapa to have a distinctly Māori and compassionate view of what progress means for the human being. 

We acknowledge the constructive attitude that Crown ministers and officials brought to the three years of negotiations, and we look forward to the industry and the public working with us in the same spirit. 

Yes, it needs to operate in the modern business world, but I think it should remain true to the wishes of iwi and be framed to the wellbeing of the new generation, our tamariki and mokopuna, so that they can enter this digital world, work in it, and change it.

Māori already have a proud track record in telecommunications. Not many people are aware that Māori nurtured 2Degrees into the market and made the market more competitive. 

At that time, the Crown had rushed away from the Waitangi Tribunal findings on spectrum in 1999. It didn’t award 3G spectrum to Māori. Instead, it just gave us — Te Huarahi Tika Trust — a kind of development right to bring in a new partner, along with a very small amount of cash. 

The trust leveraged that small fund, and a 5 percent discount on a block of spectrum, into a 20 percent stake in 2Degrees. And the network, as a new competitor, led to a steep drop in cell phone charges, saving all New Zealanders many millions of dollars, and adding billions to the economy. 

Māori did that work constructively and generously, despite the terms falling short of the Treaty claim. This is a model we want to build on. 

We commend this agreement and its package to Māori people everywhere. We ask for their continued support as we work with the Crown to turn it into legislation.

It’s a reflection of the shifting nature of our country that the announcement has been quite widely applauded by the new generation of New Zealanders. The reaction of the telecommunications companies has been overwhelmingly positive. 

So, I think we can stand tall. We’ve got a great little country and we’re on the right track. 


Piripi Walker (Ngāti Raukawa ki te Tonga) is the chair of Nga Kaiwhakapūmau i Te Reo, acting convenor of the Māori Spectrum Working Group, and chair of the Interim Māori Spectrum Commission.

© E-Tangata, 2022

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