Bitter South Island iwi spat revealed

8:27 am on 4 May 2016

A leading Ngāi Tahu figure, Sir Tipene O'Regan, has waded into a row between tribal leader Sir Mark Solomon and the iwi's chief executive Arihia Bennett.

The leaked documents allege nepotism and corruption are creeping into the way the iwi conducted itself.

Photo: RNZ / Mihingarangi Forbes

For many years the South Island's powerful Ngāi Tahu iwi, which has assets reportedly totalling $1.34 billion, has gone about its business managing its many successful ventures without fanfare.

A confidential memorandum has been leaked containing a raft of allegations by chairman Sir Mark Solomon that the perception of nepotism and corruption were creeping into the way the iwi conducted itself.

The leaked documents - which have been obtained by RNZ News - spell out a sharp response from the woman at the helm of Ngāi Tahu's business, chief executive Arihia Bennett.

Sir Tipene O'Regan

Sir Tipene O'Regan Photo: Supplied

In her response she fired back at the chairman of 19 years, asking him to show restraint in his statements, or have the integrity to state them openly and with supporting evidence.

The man who passed the mantle to Sir Mark, Sir Tipene O'Regan, would not comment on the allegations, but has called for calm.

"Ngāi Tahu has got some challenges in the process of transition. The changes that are underway now will perhaps not be as tidy as we like but they won't crucify us. I think its very important that Sir Mark is able to maintain his dignity and that the tribe maintains its dignity."

Sir Tipene led Ngāi Tahu through the pre-settlement phase, successfully negotiating the fisheries deal on behalf of Ngāi Tahu and later negotiated the iwi's 1998 Treaty settlement.

Te Runanga o Ngāi Tahu CEO Arihia Bennett

Te Runanga o Ngāi Tahu CEO Arihia Bennett Photo: Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu

Sir Tipene said Ngāi Tahu had had only a few leaders in its time.

"Three since 1953 you'd have to say reflects stability. All political models have some tensions within them, but on the whole the Māori world is politically stable even though it is generally held up and referred to as complex Māori politics.

"Well they're no more complex that that of the Rugby Union or the Motor Vehicle Association or indeed public politics - perhaps composed differently, but they're no more complex."

Ngāi Tahu former chief executive Tahu Potiki would not be drawn on the current spat but had some sympathy for the current leadership of his tribe.

He said no other role compared to that of an iwi leader.

"People believe they've got another right to modify your behaviour or to tell you what to do ... if you were just an employee of a normal organisation shareholders would vent at the annual meeting and that would be that.

"But when you're part of the family, that's leading the family, then they treat you like family, and all the ups and downs of that. It's just the reality."

Ngai Tahu head Sir Mark Solomon

Ngai Tahu head Sir Mark Solomon Photo: Otakou Marae

Sir Mark Solomon announced last week he would not be seeking re-election for the position of Kaikoura rūnanga representative, meaning he would no longer be eligible for the iwi chairmanship.

Individuals within the iwi corporation spoken to by RNZ said while Sir Mark had served the iwi well, they were excited by the imminent leadership change.

Arihia Bennett is one of just a handful of women running iwi corporations. Several employees said she was a good, strong leader with a focus on the next generation.

Neither Sir Mark nor Ms Bennett would comment to RNZ News.