Opinion: Shane Jones: Labour's $1b Budget play for Māori no guarantee of electoral success

The Labour Party has a substantial Maori caucus. It comprises 14 members. A significant number of them are cabinet ministers.

While their leader, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, has been drumming up tourism in the US, they have been travelling around the regions, trying to accentuate the Budget positives for Māoridom. Puff talk or genuine wellbeing?

The Māori Party has dismissed the Budget as a vanilla cake with chocolate sprinkles. ACT seems to agree with that analysis in that it likes vanilla.

So what targeted value did the Budget deliver towards addressing Māori development challenges? According to the Māori caucus, the quantum is in excess of $1 billion. Ideally the focus should have been sharply on employment, skills and economic security. However, the chips don't necessarily fall that way.

In keeping with the health focus, $580 million will be invested in various Māori health initiatives. A separate Maori health authority with iwi partnership boards is being funded.

This is of dubious value – likely to be a short-term phenomenon, given it will not survive post the 2023 election if there is a change of government.

The health system is already complicated and abstruse. The notion that multiple iwi partnership boards spread across the four winds will improve the health profile of Rangi and the average whānau is risible.

Not unlike the Three Waters fiasco, the separate Māori health body is not well understood.

There is no definitive account as to how it will create value in a centralised model. Labour’s other mega-merger, of the country’s polytechnics, shows how easy it is for consultants to capture the process. Throwing money at this new amorphous body will not shrink the Māori waistline.

Mātauranga Māori, is a term which features regularly in the wellbeing Budget. It means traditional Māori knowledge. The base term, mātau, has multiple meanings, including comprehend, fishhook, the right side, or exclusively us.

For political purposes it is a placeholder, giving time for Labour ministers to hustle for the Māori vote while consultants grub away to give it meaning.

The Ministry for the Environment is receiving $30m for its Māori science plan. What exactly does this mean? Hopefully we are not funding more divisiveness between scientists and cultural practitioners.

This government department needs to treat science as a building block to grow the economic prospects of Māori, not building barriers.

Mātauranga Māori programmes are a key part of the agricultural emissions reduction strategy. Really? Is there a difference of emissions profile from Māori-owned farms to the rest of the Federated Farmers? Methane is not an ethnic emission.

Surely the emphasis should be on the practical steps which will improve our entire agricultural sector. If, for example, the solution for gaseous bovines is seaweed, something which both Japanese and Māori like eating, we don't need mātauranga Māori to tell us that.

It is this type of airiness that generates cynicism at a time of cost of living pressures.

Perhaps the crowning folly of this mātauranga approach is to be found in the $31m project known as Māori climate action. Apparently the public is purchasing a platform that supports a holistic approach to climate change with an equitable transition for Māori through ensuring diverse Māori participation in climate action. Cultural laughing gas.

Māoridom and climate-change policy is a mare’s nest. One week, Māori landowners are warned by Climate Change Minister James Shaw that he has declared war against exotic trees. They can no longer be planted on iwi land for permanent carbon sequestration.

However, the next week he spruiks his climate budget for Māori, and I quote, “activate kaupapa, tangata Māori solutions for the climate emergency”.

Why pay for this if Māori can do it themselves with no cost to the taxpayer? Flakey, it would be comical if it wasn't taxpayers’ dough at stake here.

However, all is not lost. Māori Development Minister Willy Jackson, who is apparently not a useless Māori, has found $10m to ensure whānau landowners are able to undertake economic projects. This will assist them to manage the impacts of climate change. However he definitely needs to talk with his climate change minister, who is pedalling in the opposite direction on Māori land.

Moving on from Māori climate airiness to electromagnetic waves, the Budget has provided $57m for a programme to boost Māori participation in spectrum-related industries and the digital economy.

This is related to the Māori allocation of 20% of spectrum for 5G cellular services. A new Māori spectrum entity is to be established. This entity will require specialist knowledge and will need to cover the broad curve of Māoridom.

It must guard against rivalries between iwi. A repeat of the 1990s Sealord fisheries conflict will undermine public goodwill.

A sum of $37m has been set aside for petroleum and mineral permitting, including iwi engagement. The extractive sector is very important and has sadly lagged. Given the large amount of Indonesian coal we are importing to keep the lights on, it is important that iwi engagement does not become iwi veto for this domestic industry.

Forestry initiatives have received a handsome down payment from the climate emergency response fund. Native forest establishment for carbon sinks and partnerships with iwi is on the cards.

The latter is unlikely if litigation blows up between iwi and the climate change minister over the future of the emissions trading scheme and permanent pine forests on Māori land.

It is extremely difficult to see how any future native forests can ever be harvested given the iconic status such trees will have. Many more millions will be needed if ministers want to recreate vast native forests for inclusion in the ETS, whether on Māori land or not.

In the short term, exotic trees offer Māori the most effective sequestration option for climate change purposes.

However, this aggravates Federated Farmers, which seems to have more influence in the Labour Party than its own Māori caucus on the question of Māori carbon forestry. And that is a miscalculation that has the capacity to shrink the current size of the Māori caucus, irrespective of the number of budgetary chocolate sprinkles.