Bad blood

Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu (Tront) has long been regarded as a model post-settlement success story.

It negotiated firmly early on in the settlement process, achieved in 1998 a Deed of Settlement that included a cash sum of $170 million, established a tight and efficient business organisation, and set about investing and growing its assets.

By last year, Ngai Tahu had accumulated a portfolio to the value of just over $600 million, through shrewd investments particularly in property, tourism, seafood and equities, and through careful stewardship by Ngai Tahu Holdings Corporation.

For some time now, however, it has been apparent that all is not well within the tribe.

The latest symptom was the abrupt sacking of corporation chairman Wally Stone.

The move met with widespread surprise and concern, and this was followed by further revelations of bad blood last week.

As a result, long-time Ngai Tahu kaiwhakahaere (chairman) Mark Solomon appears to be increasingly isolated.

Nothwithstanding the apparently labyrinthine internal politics of the iwi and the inclination of its leaders, especially Mr Solomon, to shield tribal machinations from public scrutiny, the divisions in the organisation need to be urgently addressed lest the good work of the last 10 years be undone.

It appears there is - and has been for a some time now - a power struggle between Tront and its business arm.

Ngai Tahu Holdings Corporation is the investment company of the iwi and trades under the name of Ngai Tahu Holdings Group.

The role of the company is "to use, on behalf of the Ngai Tahu Charitable Trust, the assets of the trust allocated to it and prudently to administer them and its liabilities by operating as a profitable and efficient business".

Its assets and investments are spread across four subsidiary companies, Ngai Tahu Capital, Ngai Tahu Property, Ngai Tahu Seafood and Ngai Tahu Tourism.

Its record, particularly under Wally Stone's chairmanship, has been impressive.

Mr Stone, the protege of respected Kaikoura elder Bill Solomon who established the famous Whale Watch company, is himself a highly successful business leader.

He is credited with turning the fledgling Whale Watch venture into an international eco-tourism success story.

Given his business savvy, his departure can only be a severe loss to the iwi.

The holding group's annual report shows a strong performance under his leadership and there are few apparent reasons to suggest his dismissal was performance-related - in the traditional sense.

However he is known to have irked some Tront members with his criticism of the proposed new $52 million cultural centre and tribal headquarters in Christchurch.

But reading between the tribal fault-lines, it is perhaps more likely that his leaving removes a forceful obstacle to soon-to-be tabled plans for organisational restructuring - an initiative thought to be designed to bring the holding company more closely into the orbit and decision-making of Mr Solomon and Tront.

The publication of a vitriolic email from Mr Solomon to his cousin and Kaikoura runanga chairman Thomas Kahu over the latter's public reflection on the sacking of Mr Stone shows that Mr Solomon personally holds Mr Stone in low regard.

There are suggestions his dislike or, as some insiders have suggested, resentment, is historical.

As Mr Solomon himself has said: "Ngai Tahu will always have tribal politics, simply by virtue of being a tribe."

But in making the politics personal, he has invited the wrath of many, including elders in his own runanga, which is preparing to move against him.

It hasn't helped that there has been criticism of a significant apparent payrise thought to lift Mr Solomon's salary package from around $155,000 plus a company car to about $200,000 - a figure disputed by Mr Solomon.

In hard times, and against a background of constant requests for more benefits for the rank and file members of the iwi, this has not gone down well.

Mr Solomon has been at the head of Tront for more than 10 years now.

For much of that time he has fought his battles below the radar and appeared statesmanlike in public.

His emergence into the media spotlight as abrasive and hectoring perhaps indicates his command of iwi loyalties is beginning to crumble.

There are those - including leading members of his own runanga - who are now saying it is time to step down, before any more blood is spilled.


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