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Gordon Campbell: nation gives plastic waka to Ngati Whatua

Gordon Campbell on the nation’s gift of a plastic waka to Ngati Whatua

There’s a something wrong with putting the words ‘giant plastic’ and ‘authentic Maori culture’ in the same sentence, but almost everything about the plastic waka deal signed off by government sounds bizarrely wrong. To start with the obvious – genuine indigenous culture is not plastic. In fact, the process of re-packaging culture for the benefit of tourists usually goes out of its way to avoid being seen as plastic. And if the plastic waka is mainly going to be a prop at Party Central… isn’t that the sort of thing that is usually counted as gross exploitation when beer companies do it?

On paper, the deal is exceptionally generous to Ngati Whatua o Orakei. They are being given $1.8m of taxpayers' money, and will put up only $100,000 of their own money for a $2 million object that they will own entirely, once it has been built. Reportedly, the related costs from the management, transport and storage of the waka mean that the entire enterprise is being budgeted – right from the outset – to lose money. Which raises the interesting prospect of whether the giant plastic waka has also been created from the outset as a tax write-off.

Will the projected loss qualify as a cost that can be legitimately written off against the owner’s other tax liabilities – and if so, what’s the net cost going to be to the taxpayer beyond the $1.8 million paid upfront? And how many other deliberately loss-making Rugby World Cup ‘promotions” are going to be similarly allowed to diminish the country’s tax base in the wake of the tournament – an event that is, in itself, being budgeted to lose around $40 million? (That’s not counting the benefits that will accrue to the hotel, accommodation and tourism operators from this generous (and rare) form of taxpayer subsidy.)

The whole episode with the plastic waka is not a good look for Maori entrepreneurship. Surely, someone in the Maori bureaucracy must have asked whether the most visible icon of Maori culture related to the Rugby World Cup should be a 60 metre long plastic canoe ? Even back in the 1960s film The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman’s character Benjamin Braddock was given one word of advice by the businessman Mr McGuire: "Plastics". It was a bad word back then – a synonym for phoniness and in-authenticity – and its an even worse word now, given that plastic waste is choking the very oceans over which Maori claim a guardianship role. One would have thought the Greens would have opposed the project on all the above grounds – and not complained (primarily) because this idea wasn’t put out to tender. That’s the least of the concerns.

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Pike River Puts Its Hand Out

Just as incredibly, the receivers for Pike River Coal are now– in effect – asking for legal aid to participate in the Royal Commission inquiry into the tragedy. The families of the victims receive legal aid, and that’s entirely appropriate. The contractors – some of whom were involved in training and safety procedures at the mine as well as others who were supplying essential gods and services – have been advised they will not receive legal aid. Nor, it seems, will they be exempt from subsequent legal liability for any testimony they give about procedures at the mine.

All of this threatens the breadth and integrity of the Royal Commission process. One would have thought such issues would have been sorted beforehand, rather than the contractors being told about the lack of legal aid (and lack of safeguards against self-incrimination) on Monday of this week, just as the Commission began its hearings.

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