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Sunday 9 December 2018

Ngāti Awa, let's recap

This Saturday is the Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Awa’s annual general meeting and so I thought I would write a recap for this blog post.

Reading back through the earlier posts on Tū Mai Te Toki, I am reminded of the reasons behind starting this blog, which was to gain a better understanding and facilitate greater transparency.

So let’s turn our minds back to a meeting of the rūnanga that was held on June 27, 2014. I remember being at that meeting and the tension that crackled in the room.

The removal of Graham Pryor from the tribe’s financial arm, Ngāti Awa Group Holdings, was back on the table after the board had failed to follow the correct process at a previous meeting.

Mr Pryor’s presence on the board was in question because of his role as chairman of Ngāti Rangitihi was considered to be in direct conflict with his position on the rūnanga. His whanaunga from Nga
Maihi were at the meeting to challenge the decision.

They did not believe his removal was right because it was centered on the fact that Mr Pryor had whakapapa to a group whose tribal rohe and interests overlapped Ngāti Awa’s.

Despite their passionate protests, Mr Pryor was removed from the NAGHL board and replaced by rūnanga member Paul Quinn.

At the time, Mr Quinn was also the chief executive of Tuwharetoa ki Kawerau but assured his fellow rūnanga members that he understood there would be times when he would have to declare a conflict of interest and step out of the conversation. Mr Quinn is no longer the chief executive of Tuwharetoa ki Kawerau but has since become the chairman of NAGHL after the previous one, Sir Wira Gardiner, stood down.

But, this brings me to the point of this blog. I want to recap and talk about a matter that for now seemed to go unmentioned.

Who remembers Birnie Capital and the plan to build a luxury golf course up north?

If you don’t then you may want to read the luxury golf courses, housing developments and four letter words post.

But to summarise, Ngāti Awa invested $3.3 million in the company owned by Bill Birnie. The company was described in the National Business Review as “an investment vehicle for several large-scale property developments in Northland”.

More specifically, it was a company set up to build a large-scale golf course. Ngāti Awa was joined in the investment by other interests including Auckland businessman Allen Peters for a total of $17.25m while Mr Birnie borrowed a further $6.5m from BNZ. The plan was to buy land on Kawau Island – in the Hauraki Gulf in Auckland - to develop the luxury golf course and a housing development.

Obviously, it did not eventuate and in 2010 Ngāti Awa with Mr Peters went before the High Court seeking to invoke the right to “put back” the assets purchased by subsidiaries of Birnie Capital.

The two parties claimed Mr Birnie and his associate Stephen Norrie breached fiduciary duty by voting against the exercise of a put option that would force the return of $19m.

However before the hearing was heard in the High Court an offer of settlement was made by Mr Birnie to pay NAGHL and Mr Peters $3.55m in three instalments over four years.

Ngāti Awa accepted the deal but in 2013 the then-rūnanga accountant Murray Haines admitted that no money had been received from Mr Birnie. Today, Ngāti Awa’s $3.3m remains a failed investment and no money was received from Mr Birnie or any of the associated parties.

Now, you might be wondering what this has to do with the present day.

Surely, Ngāti Awa have a new rūnanga chief executive as well as a new head for the NAGHL company. There are several new faces on the NAGHL board and perhaps it is time to draw a line under the investment and move on?

I don’t disagree, I have learned to become a pragmatist.  But here is the thing, Mr Quinn – the man who was voted on to NAGHL by the rūnanga board and has since becomes its chairman – was the man who introduced Mr Birnie to Ngāti Awa and got the investment proposal on the table in the first place.

He is now leading NAGHL, which has in recent times purchased White Island Tours, shares in a kiwifruit orchard in Te Puke and is looking to develop the old army site.

As already said, Saturday is the tribe’s annual meeting and I encourage you to attend, if for nothing else but to hear how NAGHL’s investments are tracking because surely we owe it to our next generations to keep a better eye on things that we have done it the past?

And, I can tell you that NAGHL purchased White Island Tours, Whakatāne’s premier tourism product, without a plan or a strategy. So much so that when the purchase was made, NAGHL required its former owners – Peter and Jenny Tait – to stay on for a bit. They also kept hold of key staff to ensure consistency in business.

But go down a grab some breakfast or a cup of coffee and tell me how many brown faces you see behind the counters, boats and products.

The annual meeting will be held at Te Hokowhitu-a-Tū Marae in Whakatāne, formalities kick off at 9am. See you there.

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