Ngai Tahu plays the long game

Edward Ellison.
Edward Ellison.
Edward Ellison, of Ngai Tahu, looks at the importance of relation-ships and economic growth.

Uncle Rani was renowned for brainwaves. On one such occasion, as he watched fishing boats plying the Otago Harbour to land their daily catch at Port Chalmers, he contemplated ''what if'' the fish were landed at Otakou?

The fish would still get to market.

He recognised that many of the local Maori men, some of whom had recently returned from World War 2, were involved in fishing.

By encouraging the boats to land their fish at Otakou it would create jobs for our village and stem the urban drift. The community would benefit from the economic base.

Otakou Fisheries did not have the advantages of a Ngai Tahu economic engine, yet it became our economic anchor.

Its success was built on the hard work of many families (Maori and non-Maori), and it ensured Otakou continued to play a prominent role in economic development for Dunedin and the wider Otago region.

This was an opportunity to build lasting relationships and deliver broad outcomes.

Relationships are critical for any fledging enterprise.

The harbour board lent Uncle Rani a punt and drove piles for the wharf beside a new fish factory at Otakou.

Family and friends lent money to the business and in return they received shares.

Families who did not have access to capital could work in the business and their labour generated ownership.

The primary objective was employment.

The outcome was skin in the game, which was particularly valuable when Otakou Fisheries was sold more than 50 years later.

This is a small story in a much bigger story for Dunedin.

Our city is blessed with a dramatic coastline, educational excellence, and a Southern resilience that typically underplays itself.

We need to celebrate ourselves, and our diversity, but remain firm in building for our future.

But Dunedin faces challenges, and the flight of capital is well documented.

In recent years, employment and GDP growth for Dunedin has generally remained below the national average.

Income levels are also lower on average, although this is exacerbated somewhat by a large student population (which is a core component to our strategic advantages).

The Dunedin City Council, to its credit, has invested significant time and resource in working with key stakeholders in setting in place an economic development direction for the city.

It is positive in its intent to increase growth across the city in terms of population and labour utilisation, and a lift in productivity.

It is also a clear illustration of partnership, and Ngai Tahu have welcomed the opportunity to support the process.

We strongly identify with the efforts of Mayor Cull and other civic leaders who have sought to retain the Invermay Research Centre at full capacity. The spectre of its demise and loss of jobs runs contrary to our aspirations.

Of equal concern is the lost opportunity that downsizing would represent to our primary sector, where innovation and sound research are critical, particularly if the meat industry is to regain traction.

For Ngai Tahu, we are growing a tribal economy that views opportunities in the regions in much the same way Uncle Rani did.

We are intergenerational investors, and our actions align to our tribal whakatauki - mo tatou a mo, ka uri a muri ake nei, for us, and our children after us.

In order to breathe life into our values, we look to partner with the communities in which we operate.

The asset base for our corporate body, Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu, has increased by close to 300% since settlement, with assets under management at a book value of approximately $1 billion.

If this trajectory is maintained 15 years, the tribe's assets could be worth $4 billion by 2030.

Nothing is guaranteed, but the returns from these assets present opportunities for significant investment into community infrastructure.

This is of critical importance to us at Otakou.

How will the rising tide of economic wealth and accumulation of skills be reflected across our regions and honour the aspirations of the generations who carried the burden of the Ngai Tahu Claim?

How are our people at the flax roots and the local economy integrated into that growth, so that the moemoea (aspirations) for our mokopuna (children and grandchildren) are realised and tino rangatiratanga on our own terms is exercised?

We are seeing some benefits.

We recently developed a whare kai (kitchen) and dining room at our marae at Otakou.

The scale is impressive, and the cost was daunting.

But it was largely funded via Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu, who are showing greater leadership in directing investment to our regions.

Our property company (Ngai Tahu Property) is developing student accommodation for Otago Polytechnic, and is the landlord for the Dunedin Central Police Station.

Our investment focus is naturally aligned to the Crown and local authorities as we are intergenerational in our thinking, our future in this place is as long as our past and more, a continuum.

And we will continue to explore opportunities to unlock investment into Dunedin, and the wider region.

Inasmuch as Otakou Fisheries became an economic anchor for our village, the Ngai Tahu tribal economy can serve to unlock greater economic growth for Dunedin and attract talented people who will choose to live in our city and raise healthy and culturally strong families.

• Edward Ellison is an elder at the Otakou marae.

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