Life-long work for Maori to ‘stand on their own feet’
Orchardist writer Denise Landow interviewed Jim Gray shortly before he passed away in late August. Jim was an active and vocal member of the NZ Kiwifruit Growers forum and continually took up the banner to improve grower returns. At the time of his death
Sitting down with Wahiao Jim Gray was highly entertaining, deeply interesting and 100% challenging. He encouraged anyone who cared to be open-minded, with a pointer into the future where boundless opportunities lay ahead for those who have the guts to go for it.
This straight-shooting, experienced and self-taught stalwart of the Maori trusteeship world was honoured with a New Zealand Order of Merit for services to Maori and governance in this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours announced in July.
In mid-August he and close family travelled to Auckland’s Government House to have the prestigious medal officially bestowed, and share the important day with other recipients and VIPs.
It was a long, hard road, and at 84 years, you’d think that this former farm boy from the Eastern Bay of Plenty would be taking it easy. Not Jim - his mind was as mercurial as ever. Even in late August, he planned a training day for emerging trustees to teach about ethics, the fundamentals of good governance, strategic thinking and being able to monitor one’s progress amongst others. He knew that even past his lifetime, there would still be much to be done. His mission was always to prove that Maori could do it on their own – that they could
stand on their own feet.
ORDER FROM CHAOS
Jim put it bluntly, “if they can’t, they will always be seen as second-rate
His tribal affiliations were Tainui,
Mataatua, and Te Arawa.
“I’m living in the Te Arawa district (Rotorua) so much of my relationship is with Te Arawa at this stage.”
Jim was only one of two Maori boys that achieved school certificate at Whakatane High School in 1949. He later served 26 years as aircrew in the Royal New Zealand Air Force – seeing active service in Vietnam and the Malayan Emergency.
He crewed the last Sunderland aircraft in Fiji that patrolled the Pacific while awaiting the arrival of the replacement aircraft, the P3 Orion.
“We were searching for Russian submarines and shadowing their presence in the Pacific at the time,” he remembered.
Armed Forces life provided a rollicking good time, but Jim said he should have trained to be a lawyer because his mind was naturally wired for the detail, wit and strategy of the legal sphere.
His forthright and future-focused views about Maori-owned land, and how his fellow Maori perceived the land as resource or treasure, had not won him many friends around the country over the years.
But his real talent was going into trustee organisations teetering on the verge of chaos and bringing order to the
individuals, and the fragmented interests together, in order to progress forward and achieve lasting results.
“As a former respected Maori Land Court judge once said, I put them on the straight and narrow,” he laughed.
“It’s so easy for everybody to have their own opinion. People start quarrelling and debating the issues, and that’s where the arguments and disputes start. Questions such as where did the money go? Why did the money go?
“The main effort for me is getting them all singing from the same song sheet. I get them thinking of things such as ethics. This is a major one because some think it’s smart to be a Maori and to try and beat the system, but they don’t realise the downstream effects. Ethics is all about mana, integrity and leadership.
“Too many Maori today try to lead from the rear, as against traditionally, leading from the front.”
REFUSAL TO SELL
His interest in sorting out trusts started about 1976.
That was the year that he was notified by the Maori Affairs Department that a block of land was coming back to the owners due to expiration of a lease. The land is on the corner of SH2 and Wilsons Road North, near Maketu, in the Bay of Plenty. It is the Paengaora North B8 and B9 Aggregated Blocks, trading as Ahu Moana Developments. The operation comprises 18.3 canopy hectares of kiwifruit and is freehold.
Back then, Jim said a meeting was called in the Maori Land Court, and the Maori Affairs Advisor stood up and told the gathering that the land was virtually useless and the best thing to do was to sell it.
About the same time, Jim’s cousin, Evan Gray, had recently been flying, doing agricultural work in the United States. He had just returned to New Zealand with the idea of growing blueberries, which he’d seen over there.
Jim, Evan Gray, and Jim’s brother, Peter, conducted preliminary investigations. They stood up in the meeting and said that they weren’t prepared to sell because many indications were that the land was eminently suited to blueberries.
“At that stage, the advisor wrapped up his documents, walked out and we never saw him again,” Jim said, breaking into hearty laughter at the memory.
The two main driving forces behind the orchard were Jim and his brother Peter, who had been heavily involved in kiwifruit. Peter did the orchard development and Jim was responsible for the administration, compliance, financials, health and safety, and so on. Peter at the time owned the largest auto electrical business in the Waikato and Bay of Plenty. The two brothers worked as a team with the other four or five trustees.
“We appointed trustees to do something with the land, and the analysis was that kiwifruit was a growth industry at that stage so we started developing the land as a kiwifruit orchard.
“It wasn’t an easy block to develop. In draining some the land, we found small car-sized tree stumps. There were incorrect boundaries and people who believed that they had a better right than the trustees for the usage thereof in growing other ‘questionable’ crops.”
SMOKO TABLE DEAL
“One trustee, Buff Williams, operated a digger business so he had the job of digging out the stumps and logs and stacking them. We had to burn them, but money was short.
“Other Maoris who were also developing kiwifruit orchards at the time were cutting tea-tree and sticking it in the ground to act as an initial wind break. I drove from Auckland every weekend, picking up my son in Hamilton; we would spend the weekend working there, with the children planting the shelter belts.
“We finally got enough money to put down a concrete floor for an implement shed. That day was quite showery and our hands were bleeding because of the sand we used with the cement, so literally our blood is in that block.”
Another Maori block next door also was keen to get into kiwifruit, but by that time loan monies were becoming more difficult to get, Jim remembered.
“So we sat down around the smoko room table with that block’s trustees and drew up our own joint venture agreement - no lawyers or anyone else. Such were the other trustees that in reality the paper was superfluous – our bond was in the handshake.
“They got the money and it was the last Maori Affairs loan made. It helped because we knew the chairman, Stan Keepa, who had confidence in what we were doing. The other trust paid us to do the contouring and development work and we provided the capital equipment, the management and
“Boundless opportunities lay ahead for those who have the guts to go for it.”
development expertise. Then eventually, we aggregated the two blocks so that they became one and we worked together.
“We managed to progress through despite the scarcity of funding until the orchard became one of the better producing orchards in that area, which it remains to this day.”
“That same trust is still managing the business but unfortunately Peter has withdrawn to due health issues, so I’m still holding the mana of the block while we’re bringing on new young trustees, but I’m still holding the mana at this stage,” he said respectfully.
Jim believed it was time for Maori commercial interests to leave the trust structure behind as a historical has-been, and to fully embrace the company structure as a daily operational framework.
“We are far better off forming companies with proper shareholdings. We can exchange consolidated shares which is what you normally do in a company situation. The reason I say that is we are getting too many situations where land fragmentation is taking place.”
Maori land is in one hell of a mess today because of fragmentation and whanau trusts don’t really resolve the problems, he said bluntly.
Land was sometimes divided into uneconomic lot sizes and the idea was that people got a share of the total land interests but the rest of it is not being used – it just sits there, he said.
“I really wonder when we are going to move on. In other words, bring some semblance of direction about it. Maori often cite the reason not to change is ‘to protect our taonga’ – I say, what does that mean?” Unashamedly, Jim’s efforts had not resulted in the sea-change he’d hoped for.
“That’s where I’ve failed to make the grade in many cases, because I’ve always believed that Maori needed to stand on their own feet, to make their own decisions, and that they could do better than non-Maori.”
He cited an example that happened to his wife, Kathleen. One of her direct ancestors had more than 120 land interests. When Jim did the succession research and brought it down five generations, her share wasn’t worth worrying about.
“It was so small and insignificant - I tossed it all in the rubbish basket and said, ‘forget it’.”
“This has happened with another one that we’ve struck. In fact we’ve just pulled out of it because it’s not worth the trouble, the arguments, the time, to try to justify a development plan - it’s simply not worth the effort because there is no return or incentive to the individual.”
One can only imagine just how often such scenarios are currently replicated throughout the country, not to mention in former decades.
Jim said Maori should be able to consolidate their shares, one way or another, so that they’ve got enough land to build a house on, but it was not happening.
And there was also the matter of the tax concessions that were put in place because of the trickle-down effect to beneficiaries – in effect, the benefits have never been realised, and this needs to be addressed, he explained.
“With the way Maori land is legally handled now, it just sits there ad infinitum and gives more grist to the many who believe that Maoris don’t get off their backsides to do anything with their land.”
So what’s wrong with a trust in this day and age?
“A trust is probably built on historical foundations. You’re entrusting your land to a person to do something with it. The only people that are making money out of these things are people like myself, consultants and accountants.
“The owners are lucky if they get a kaumatua grant - they’ll never get dividends. If they’re lucky and on the inner circle they may get an education grant, but they’ve got to be on the inner circle in many cases. So there’s all that to contend with, and this is not really helping.”
He felt that trusts in many situations today had become an extension of the Ministry of Social Development.
LAND IS NOT THE ANSWER
Jim also felt strongly that it was time to get real, do some fact-finding and shine a clear light on the whole question of Maori land usage and potential in New Zealand.
“There’s been much cry about undeveloped Maori land. That’s an interesting subject because fundamentally no one knows how much of that land is mountain tops, ravines, streams, lake beds and other land that you can’t use.
“How much out of that total is potentially productive? Nobody knows or is prepared to make a commitment about. And I think one of the things Maori have to accept is the fact that land is not the answer to all of our problems.”
Jim was adamant that land was only a stepping stone to the future.
He said generally regarding land, Maori were still living with out-dated sentiments.
“It’s interesting because we are still relying on that whole land issue as being the answer to all of our problems. The issue needs to be re-thought if it’s going to give answers, but you can’t rely on the fact that land has the answers – the answers have to be found.”
“But look at what happens, as soon as you throw the word ‘land – our sacred toanga’, everybody backs off – instead of pursuing it and, saying, please explain – what do you really mean by that?”
“Maori have to consider moving on, because that’s a phase that Western society went through as well. The world has been through the agricultural age, and the industrial age. We’re currently in the technological age but swiftly moving into the space age. That’s where we are, we (global humanity) has moved on. “Sure, land serves a purpose just like everything else. Sure it provides kai, sure it provides history, but it’s not the answer to all of our problems.”
Ahu Moana Developments is looking for further investments, but whether or not those speculations will be more kiwifruit is questionable, Jim admitted.
“And the reason I say that is because amongst all this effort about kiwifruit, you hear very little discussion in regards to climate change. In the year 2050 it is estimated that the Rangitaiki Plains will be under water.
“So do we sell and shift to higher ground now or do we leave the problem for the next lot of trustees?”
A big concern for Jim was the fact that kiwifruit roots go down roughly 10m. His research showed that if the world temperature rises 1.5 degrees, then much low-lying land would be under water. The question he felt needed to be asked was: how are we going to ensure new orchards are not going to be caught out in two decades’ time?
“In one of our blocks at Paengaroa, we’ve dug a post-hole, and you can actually see the water level rise and fall with the tide – and we’re about 1.5km off the coast.
“It’s amazing the fact that nobody is raising this issue - so that it can be planned as to whether you should shift back or do something else. Or are you going to blindly plant many hectares of kiwifruit and wonder why they’re dying because of root rot?”
MAORI FORUM CAUTION
Jim had concerns about the Maori Kiwifruit Growers Forum.
“You have to wish them the best of luck in terms of their progress, but one of the things they need to be wary about is the determination of their Rangatiratanga and their rights, that they don’t get involved in exporting parallel to Zespri.
“Because the members are expressing a strong desire to improve and run on their own. That’s fine in theory but there has to be some degree of caution because if this were to happen it could possibly be looked upon as a breach of the single desk, where you have two efforts operating and selling of their own accord. This would also provide grist for the World Trade Organisation.”
BEATING THE DRUM
Old thought habits die hard within cultures.
“It suits many, even in this day and age, to beat the drum of the old view that Maori are not doing anything with their land, and it’s all their fault,” declared Jim.
“But nobody has gone to that degree of carrying out an analysis to see what land is usable and what isn’t because it suits people in the political arena to be able to say ‘Maori are not doing anything’.”
The new Whenua funding model for Maori was also “quite interesting”, he said.
He saw a lack of practical people in influential positions, those who haven’t had a lifetime of getting their gumboots dirty. They were short of a real understanding of the practical needs of horticultural and other land development.
“The old Maori Advisory Board was excellent because it consisted of people who had walked the talk, and proven what they had to do. Today we have a whole lot of academics who want to take off, and tell you how to do it, but have never walked the talk – never got their gumboots dirty – and if they have, it’s been in a very limited fashion.
“I guess that’s evolution and natural progression, but it does make it difficult. But once again, I think before we get taken to task about not using this so-called undeveloped land, we need to determine what is actually being talked about, and identify what land can be used versus what can’t. But nobody wants to hear that argument at the moment.”
FOREVER THE FUTURIST
Jim described himself as a futurist.
“I’ve always been like that, and a veracious reader – you have to because otherwise how do you keep up?”
He and wife, Kathleen, were bringing up their nine-yearold great grandson. Jim could clearly see the youngster’s perception of the world. You’d think he’d come out with something like, ‘it was so much better in my younger days’.
Not so, but he did observe that this pre-teen was navigating current time and space in an environment completely different from Jim’s childhood. The octogenarian observed clearly that this child’s real worlds, and online worlds, were constantly merging into a mixed reality.
COMFORT ZONE NZ
“I watch our nine-year-old on the computer – he’s not too sure what
world he’s in.”
Jim was a believer in keeping pace with the times. His futuristic view was that the people pulling the political strings of the human race had a definite plan underway.
“If you care to watch TV – there’s no question in my mind that we are being groomed for space exploration.”
He cited recent experiments where scientists have started to define vegetables that would grow in spaceships.
“It becomes obvious that either there’s a recognition that climate change is eventually going to defeat this planet, or take it over, so if I had any spare money I would be spreading my risk and looking very much toward futuristic developments – even exploring investments involved in the space age.”
“It’s all a new world and if we don’t move with it, we’ll get left behind. The trouble is we are in a comfort zone in New Zealand. We are sufficiently remote geographically, and quite often we are remote in terms of what’s happening in the rest of the world.”
Jim said that with Maori owning rights to geothermal energy, they should be preparing now and getting into the mix of service providers with the new generation of electric vehicles, and the demise of fossil fuel, coming into our lives in the not so distant future.
Again, not wanting to knock Maori, but make a cultural observation, Jim said that Maori were not strong in their longterm vision.
“To my mind Maori have a tendency to look short-term; they operate out of what’s happening today. They don’t take the long-term very seriously and consequently they’re always chasing behind.”
Do you know what that is? I ask, riveted to hear the answer.
“Yes, because traditionally Maori had to live from year to year. Maori would have been the greatest nation in the world had they discovered minerals; iron and steel, and the like.
“They were prepared to sail, down the South Pole in open canoes, but you could imagine where they could have gone had they had nails to hold their boats together.
“And consequently they were dependent upon a day to day, year to year cycle. That’s why Matariki is so well celebrated because it’s a time of yearly cycle which indicates it’s time to put away the taiaha and to get out the hoe.”
THE CHALLENGE OF BATTLE
Jim was truly a one of a kind. Work life had been a series of long, tough, political battles. Not everybody was, even today, willing to listen.
“I haven’t helped myself I must admit,” he said squarely.
“I’ve been on big trusts where I’ve started to give them a pretty hard time, a future vision, and all I got was a very abusive four-letter word response.”
So, why did you carry the cause all your life, Jim?
“I became totally involved in this lot because of the challenge – I want to make it work for Maori,” he said quietly.
“My struggle was to make sure that Maori are capable of doing it on their own. And it’s got to the stage that I have expertise in that area which may not apply elsewhere.”
He tried to get his fellow Maori to look beyond the veil, see they are in a comfort zone but often, they don’t want to change, he said.
Jim’s reflections about the current state of affairs on trusteeship around the country were mixed.
“I think basically it comes back to leadership. And many Maori are not taking up leadership positions because it means they have to make the hard decisions.
“To my mind, it almost becomes a façade, as to who is actually leading. I find it is the accountants behind the scenes pulling the strings, who are currently providing the leadership.”
How about the young ones coming through? I asked.
“It is quite apparent that a number of our young females, to put it bluntly, have had a guts full of the procrastination of the males, and all the rest of it. They’re coming out very aggressively and either you can get into the battle or you can stand back and watch. And funnily enough, many of the males are abdicating because they don’t have the ability themselves,” he observed.
“What is quite intriguing about the aggressiveness coming out with young women is that they are educated, and go very well in that arena - but what is lacking is experience – the people with dirty gumboots who can walk the talk.”
Jim said a career highlight was writing his book on the subject An introduction of the Governance of Maori Authorities, running the training modules from Northland to Wellington, and lecturing to groups of 40-60 people every session.
He put together a $135 million geothermal power project, which after 15 years would have been a 100% Maori owned operation, confirming his original aspirations which went a long way to proving that Maori could do it.
“Unfortunately I became no longer involved and it got caught up in a major dispute. At this stage everything is on hold,” he explained.
“What’s missing today in many cases is that many people in charge of governance are not singing from the same song sheet. In many cases, facilitators are not strong or experienced enough to say, ‘this is how it should go’. How do I know?
Because I’ve walked the talk.”
“Experience in governance needs to be practical. If it’s all academic, trustees get thrown a question out of left field and they don’t know how to answer it. They answer it academically, when in reality it needs a practical solution.”
In a 1999 decision by Maori Land Court deputy chief Judge, NF Smith, the judge made special note of Jim’s contribution. He wrote:
“Mr Gray has been a stalwart. I’m waiting for the day they’re going to appoint him a judge for the rapid move he’s making in service to Maori people conducting trust meetings and hui. You have been most helpful for the Court. We have trusts throughout the country that have been put on the straight and narrow after a visit from yourself, and I must say that we in the court speak very highly of you and appreciate the work that you’re doing there.”
Jim said with a knowing smile and cheeky glint in his eye, “they never did get around to appointing me”.
But he had a prestigious honour that was celebrated by himself, his family and all of Maoridom to whom he devoted his whole life to realising their untapped potential.
“Those are just my thoughts,” he said like a truly dignified and experienced statesman, but he left the session with one final wrap up statement, in a good humoured roar he said:
“It is bloody hard work being a Maori because not only have you got your own culture to contend with, you’ve also got somebody else’s as well and quite often the two do not mix.”
Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy presented Jim Gray with a New Zealand Order of Merit for Services to Maori and Governance.
Jim Gray with great-grandson Kaeden Marshall.