Social Issues

Forced Māori representation not the answer

Morgan Godfery’s new book Māui Street wraps together some of his best writing. Speaking to Newsroom on the back of its release, Godfery delves into why forced diversity at board and executive levels will not solve poor Māori representation ‘at the table’.

Somewhere along the eastern edge of the Bay of Plenty, Morgan Godfery hikes up a hill to find suitable cellphone reception for a conversation about his new book.

The collection of essays, which takes the same name as his Te Ao Māori politics and current affairs analysis site Māui Street, provides interesting insight into how a “nerdy” Polynesian kid from Kawerau developed into one of the most relevant voices on social and political affairs in New Zealand.

On the day we talked, another news story on New Zealand's perennial problem with the lack of Māori at top levels in large organisations and corporations had cropped up on RNZ.

This time, figures obtained by the NZ Māori Council focused on representation at the board level of  state-owned enterprises. Official information requested by the council revealed of the 77 directors on SOE governing boards, only six were Māori.

Speaking to RNZ, council executive member Matt Tukaki commented: “It really reinforces the theory that we’ve had that, as much as we’re trying to push ourselves forward both socially and economically, it appears that we’re not even at the table when it comes to wholesale decision making processes and strategic directions with a lot of these organisations.”

Godfery, from his remote perch near Te Kaha, offered his take on the figures.

“I often think the idea of more Māori on boards or more Māori CEOs is kind of a false lead,” he said.

“Instead of focusing on top down changes - that is saying that if we get more Māori on boards, which translates to more Māori executives and more Māori workers - we should be starting at the other end.

Ever the trade unionist, Godfery connected how improving conditions for all Māori workers, and other groups of workers who don't tend to feature at the top tier of companies, is the best way to achieve fairer and more accurate representation at decision-making levels in large organisations like SOEs.

After chuckling about the scarcity of organisations actually using this approach, he offers the practical example of a few “small iwi owned farms” in the Bay of Plenty to show it can actually be done.

“At every point - from the milk suppliers, the farm hands, the factory workers - it’s all iwi owned and they’re all Māori.

“What had happened was the iwi had come together and had made that conscious decision on the business side of things...to ask what people wanted done. The people said ‘we want Māori involvement at every point in this business - from supply to processing to exports'. So that’s what they went about doing and they actually engaged their own people in the decision making," he said. 

“I think that’s a really good start...and where the change really begins because then you will see more Māori executives, more Māori board members and more Māori at different levels rather than just starting at the top.”

Godfery, who earned his law degree from the University of Victoria and has worked for First Union for the past three years, touches on the complexities of moving between the trade union movement and advocating for a better deal for Māori workers.

His approach is somewhat multi-pronged, navigating what employers and organisations and workers want respectively, and looking at how Māori are impacted by that.

“For a union, the goal isn’t necessarily more Maori or more 'whoever' it is on the board. The end goal is really that these workers just live happy, secure and fulfilled lives. It doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be a chief executive - they could be in the same job their entire life...as long as they are happy and fulfilled and that they earn enough to be secure and to live on.

“But, if I was to come at it from a Maōri perspective, then it would change slightly again," he says. 

“I would say that, yes, the union perspective is good and right and proper, but doesn’t go the full way because you want your business to actually reflect society as it is.

“Although it is nice for a Māori person to be secure and happy and fulfilled on the shop floor, you also want Māori people to be happy and secure and fulfilled at the executive level, and the board level and at the political level as well.”

For Godfery, reconciling the two perspectives is like moving between two jobs with interconnected goals. As he sees it, working within the trade union movement is a spring board for improving conditions like wages and job security for Māori workers.

Eventually, improvement in that area should drive a reversal in statistics highlighting the lack of Māori at decision-making levels like those released by the Māori Council on SOEs, he says. 

“Good on the Māori Council - it’s an issue they’ve identified and good on them for pushing it, but I think they’re approaching it from the wrong end,” he says.

“I think: 'Okay, I’ll do the trade union work because it makes it easier then to do the work focused on Māori representation'.

“If you have Māori people who are secure in their work, then they have the opportunity to do things different and to go to different places.

"That’s how I reconcile the two - it starts with the trade union work of being secure and then things flow from there."

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