Right thought, wrong question. That was my initial response when invited to make a contribution to the question “Who speaks for Maori?”

Why is it that the question is posed in the first place? Why is it that there is a common complaint among many organisations and groups when dealing with Maori issues … with the inevitably response — “We did not know who to speak to” — particularly when they find that consultation has not occurred, poor cultural decisions have been made, or something backfires and people run for cover.

The question implies a leadership issue. Speaking for any group implies that that person or group has some authority to do so. So are we really asking: “Who leads Maori?” Is that the real question being asked in this disguised way?

Regardless, the question obviously arises from the common and wrong perception that Maori are difficult to engage with, they are disorganised, lack direction and any form of cohesive leadership.  

The reality is that Maori are diverse, organised and capable with leadership occurring on many levels. Trying to answer or understand the natural structure of Maori is a long and time consuming pursuit, but extremely rewarding for those that spend the time looking. The simple reason is that Maori offer a different perspective to the way the world is viewed.

Maori view the world through the lens of whakapapa and mokopuna. Their view is not issue-driven; it is value-driven and based on the welfare of the future unborn generations. The common response to any decision is: “Is what I am doing in the best interests of our mokopuna?”

A similar question might well be: “Who speaks for Pakeha or any other group?” I believe that in these cases, the answers are issue dependant. If the issue is health, then the voice you hear may be the DHB. If the issue is water, you might well hear the voice of the HBRC. If the issue is land usage, you will hear the voice of the HDC.

Put these same issues to Maori, you will hear the same voice. If the issue is health you will hear the Marae or Hapu. If the issue is water, you will hear the Marae or Hapu, if the issue is land use you will again hear the voice of Marae or Hapu.

Moving from the inherent driver of who speaks for Maori to the practical everyday involvement of Maori in their dual role as Maori and citizen, the question brings to life a whole new set of parameters, which are often the result of Crown and colonised interference.
The repealed Runanga Act directed the formation of the Iwi bodies, commonly called Runanga. From this spawned a plethora of allied organisations all to meet the requirements of Crown and funding. This also gave rise to confusion over “Who speaks for Maori?” The Crown constructs became the voice of Maori. They operated away from their Marae and Hapu base. They sought a mandate from their people and caused people to identify with a Marae, hapu or iwi on the basis of a demand to show a mandate and a population base, which gave a reassurance to the Crown that they can now deliver the assets from fish or treaty settlements to Maori.

Who speaks for Maori must remain within the sanctuary of the Marae and Hapu. The leadership at this level is determined by the most common denominator of all communities, the whanau. Whanau weigh the eternal interests of the mokopuna and the welfare of whanau when determining who speaks for them. Over this construct whanau have total input.
Any construct that removes whanau away from immediate contact or response is not in the best interests of Maori, and therefore any such body or organisation will struggle to be a credible voice for Maori. Inevitably at some stage the body must meet with the whanau, marae and/or hapu. That is when the real speaking starts. 

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