‘When I got the call to go home, well that’s me’: Identity, Entrepreneurship and Māori Sovereignty

‘When I got the call to go home, well that’s me’: Identity, Entrepreneurship and Māori Sovereignty

Thomas O’Brien

The rights of the Māori community in Aotearoa New Zealand have long been an area of contention and political dispute. The desire of the state to maintain control in the interests of the Pākehā majority have led to actions to extinguish claims of Māori sovereignty, recently rejected by the Waitangi Tribunal. In response, Māori have actively pressed claims in favour of tino rangatiratanga (sovereignty or self-determination) on a large-scale, since the 1970s. Key events included the iconic ‘Māori Land March’, which travelled the length of the North Island to Parliament. In 1977, a group called the Ōrākei Māori Action Committee occupied Ngati Whatua land at Bastion Point in Auckland for 506 days, over claims it had been ‘unjustly alienated’. Other actors sought to press claims by entering the political sphere, most recently in the form of the Māori Party. Considering such events, I have examined the role of individuals who acted as ‘political entrepreneurs’ in mobilising their claims.

The field of Māori sovereignty provides a valuable space in which to consider forms of political entrepreneurship. As a minority community, Māori have struggled against the resistance of the Pākehā majority, embodied in a speech by Don Brash as leader of the opposition in 2004 when he talked of ‘the dangerous drift towards racial separation’. Addressing the claim of Māori sovereignty in this context, Hill argues that it ‘has remained that of Crown [state] respect for… the aspirations of tribes, subtribes or other groupings to forge their own collective destinies’. These claims are difficult for the state to bear, as they potentially threaten its idealised unity, as presented by Brash. Tension has resulted in repeated waves of activism and limited reforms by the state, some of which Poata-Smith (2013) argues have embodied an attempt to re-tribalise the community, by reifying institutions that are socially outdated.

Political entrepreneurship builds on concepts of entrepreneurship in business, to identify an individual who pursues a goal on behalf of a defined collective. As with other forms of entrepreneurship, such actors operate in an environment of uncertainty and risk of failure. Their success will be influenced by the broader context, but particular importance is placed on their ability to recognise and capitalise on opportunities for gain in their environment. As the goal of the political entrepreneur is to provide for the interests of the community, they must be able to generate internal support for the actions taken. In addition to financial resources, the political entrepreneur draws on social, cultural and political resources to support the claims being presented, implying a return to supporters, as failure may lead to harm for the community. These factors identify the political entrepreneur as an adaptable and resourceful individual, embedded in the community they represent.

One of the key decisions facing the political entrepreneur is where best to generate and deploy their capital (see Ireland and Webb, 2007). Drawing on Hutter’s (2014) work, protest and electoral arenas can be distinguished each with its own distinct strengths and weaknesses. The institutional support and linkage of the electoral arena contrast with the freer, more ad-hoc character of the protest arena, where resources are limited. While the arenas are not mutually exclusive, moving from one to the other involves risk and imposes costs. Staging a large or confrontational protest event can generate attention, but if this is not recognised as legitimate the cause may be harmed or even lost. Similarly, the resources required to operate in the electoral arena may be prohibitive and in cases of failure may jeopordise the cause. These threats are amplified where a minority community is concerned, as the majority seeks to maintain control.

Examining the actions of Tariana Turia and Tame Iti in the electoral and protest arenas respectively, it is possible to identify ways political entrepreneurs mobilise capital in support of claims. Both have been active in pushing for Māori rights for a number of years and established national profiles. However, they remain rooted in the needs and interests of their community. The strength of these ties is captured by Tariana Turia (in Leahy, 2015: 356) when she reflected on the formation of the Māori Party in 2004, arguing:

After the hikoi [march] I went home and talked to my family and asked them what they thought about forming a party… My family didn’t want me to stand as an independent because they felt that would be like focusing on me rather than focusing on our people.

Tame Iti similarly reflected on the strength of community connections and his own tie to the Tūhoe people, noting ‘When I got the call to go home, well that’s me’. These ties are important in ensuring the entrepreneur represents the interests of the community, necessary to generate capital and advance claims.

The arena of operation defined the actors, shaping their decisions and the actions they took. In the case of Tame Iti, the protest arena provided space to adopt a firm stance in presenting claims. Reflecting on his experience, he argued for the need to:

Draw attention to the issue that makes them uncomfortable. Make them face you and make your voice be heard… We had to continually keep reminding the Crown that we are here and not going away.

Such a stance at times resulted in controversial actions and arrest. However, Tame Iti also emphasised a broader, diverse conception of community, as ‘History has woven us together, we are the basket, the kete, that holds the future’. This illustrates the complicated position the political entrepreneur in the protest arena must occupy, maintaining claims, while not alienating those outside the targeted community.

Challenges in the electoral arena take on a different form, as institutional support can enable visibility. Tariana Turia achieved influence as part of the Labour government (1999-2008), becoming Minister of Māori Affairs. However, she courted controversy in a speech in 2000, referring to European settlement as a form of holocaust for the Māori population (a claim also contained in a Waitangi Tribunal report). Revisiting this episode, she argued ‘I honestly believe that we should never be afraid to talk about anything we know to be true’ (Leahy, 2015: 231). Faced with the strictures of these same institutions, Tariana Turia was able to enter the protest arena in 2004 following the introduction of controversial foreshore and seabed legislation (see Bargh, 2006) to generate capital amongst the community, before re-entering the electoral arena as co-leader of the newly formed Māori Party. This move was risky but also demonstrated the importance to the political entrepreneur of maintaining close ties to the community being served.

Examining the actions of Tariana Turia and Tame Iti through the lens of political entrepreneurship is a valuable means of assessing and understanding their strategies. In turn, their experiences as representatives of a minority community expand the concept of political entrepreneurship, broadening the concept to encompass non-conventional forms of capital and claim-making activities. Broadening the concept of capital, and considering individual actors’ actions across arenas, enables us to bridge the macro effects of the external environment and the micro aspects of ‘entrepreneurial alertness’ (Shockley et al, 2006: 206). Central to both actors was the tie to the community they represented, with a desire to remain true to collective needs animating their claim-making, in the face of resistance. Ultimately, their success generating and deploying capital to support claims rested on their ability to operate in a manner that was seen as authentic. Tame Iti echoed this point when he argued ‘The birds are an example to us…. They do not change their call. They maintain that with honour and integrity. Therefore, men should follow their example’.

Bargh, M. (2006) ‘Changing the Game Plan: The Foreshore and Seabed Act and Constitutional Change’, Kōtuitui: New Zealand Journal of Social Sciences Online, 1(1): 13-24.
Hutter, S. 2014 Protesting Culture and Economics in Western Europe: New Cleavages in Left and Right Politics, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Ireland, R. and Webb, J. (2007) ‘A Cross-Disciplinary Exploration of Entrepreneurship Research’, Journal of Management, 33(6): 891-927.
Leahy, H. 2015 Crossing the Floor: The Story of Tariana Turia, Wellington: Huia Press.
Poata-Smith, E. 2013 ‘Emerging Identities: The Changing Contours of Indigenous Indentities in Aotearoa/New Zealand’, in M. Nataka, M. Harris and B. Carlsson (ed.) The Politics of Identity: Emerging Indigeneity, Sydney: University of Technology Sydney E-Press.
Shockley, G., Stough, R., Haynes, K. and Frank, P. (2006) ‘Towards a Theory of Public Entrepreneurship’, International Journal of Entrepreneurship and Innovation Management, 6(3): 205-23.


Thomas O’Brien is a lecturer in political sociology in the Department of Sociology at the University of York. @TomOB_NZ. This article is based on a recently published paper: O’Brien, T. (2018). Political Entrepreneurship in the Field of Māori Sovereignty in Aotearoa New Zealand, British Journal of Sociology, ifirst. DOI: 10.1111/BJOS.12611

Image Credit: Prosperosity via Wikimedia