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Maori divided over free trade deal

The Press, Christchurch

Maori divided over free trade deal

5 April 2008

Ngai Tahu Seafood, the lucrative fisheries arm of one of the largest Maori tribes, says the Government’s controversial free-trade pact with China is a good deal and will earn the iwi millions of dollars.

The comments came as sharp divisions emerged between Maori business interests and politicians over the New Zealand-China free-trade agreement (FTA), to be signed in Beijing on Monday.

Ngai Tahu Seafood chief executive Geoff Hipkins brushed off concerns the pact threatened the country’s economic sovereignty and the status of the Treaty of Waitangi.

The Maori Party is urging the Government to scrap the deal, saying China’s brutal repression of dissent in Tibet also showed a lack of regard for human rights and the rights of indigenous people.

Hipkins, who has been briefed on confidential details of the trade deal by diplomats, said most Maori business executives saw things differently.

"It is an excellent deal. We are very, very pleased and excited with the outcome," he said.

"I’m sure the majority of iwi with a strong commercial background would be very positive on it."

Hipkins flies to Beijing this weekend as part of a Christchurch civic and business delegation led by Mayor Bob Parker.

Ngai Tahu Holdings chairman Walley Stone will also fly to the Chinese capital, joining Prime Minister Helen Clark as part of a 192-strong New Zealand business group representing 115 companies.

Trade officials describe it as by far the biggest business delegation ever to leave these shores.

However, amid controversy over China’s activities in Tibet, the list of firms represented is being kept under wraps until delegates arrive in China.

Ngai Tahu Holdings has strategic investments in fishing, tourism, property and equities.

Ngai Tahu Seafood is one of the top six seafood companies in New Zealand.

The tribe, the fourth largest, has assets in excess of $500 million, grown from its 1997 treaty settlement of $170m.

"Where we see wider opportunities in China is in the area of seafood exports and tourism," Hipkins said.

Tariffs imposed by China on products such as live lobster, crayfish and paua are now at 20% to 35%.

Ngai Tahu Tourism includes Shotover Jet in Queenstown, Hukafalls Jet in Taupo, Rainbow Springs in Rotorua, Dart River Safaris in Glenorchy and a large share in Whale Watch Kaikoura.

"It is a significant market for us now - tens of millions of dollars - and the projections of growth are significant," Hipkins said.

He expected double-digit growth each year following the FTA.

The Maori Party caucus decided this week that its four MPs would oppose the FTA when it came before Parliament after the signing.

"Although we’re told there may be benefits for Maori, the downsides in terms of compromises to our sovereignty, threats to the status of the treaty, mean it is simply unacceptable," the party’s foreign affairs spokesman, Hone Harawira, said.

Trade Minister Phil Goff said he had been assured by the Maori Party less than a week ago of its support for the deal.

Maori he had met with were enthusiastic, he said.

"There will some interesting discussions between Maori businesses and the Maori Party, I suspect," Goff said.

Hipkins said the Maori Party was viewing the FTA in terms of "tribal issues" and the deal with China could end up being more important than the closer economic relations deal with Australia.