Date posted: 08/12/2017 7 min read

The journey of Māori accountants

Attending this year’s Indigenous Accountants Conference in Vancouver has given New Zealand BDO Māori partner Kylee Potae great hope for the future.

In Brief

  • Māori remain hugely under-represented in the accounting profession and many students don’t complete their degrees.
  • Delivering growth and prosperity is the challenge for the current Māori generation.
  • In Indigenous communities, accountants can promote financial literacy and economic development.

He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata (What is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people)

Indigenous ideology is set around long-term strategic thinking and planning. To be enduring, it not only has to be sustainable and relevant for today, but flexible to adapt to the future, while taking into account environment and technological advancements. This is no easy task and one that many organisations have failed to achieve. Yet for Indigenous peoples there is no compromise, as this way of being is paramount and must be the pathway forward.

(Pictured: Kylee Potae)

NZ Māori are on the cusp of the post-treaty settlement phase. It is a phase of reconciliation, not only in dollar terms but in a fully healing and holistic way. Our tīpuna (elders) who fought for the redress and settlement have done the next generation and the next seven generations proud. The post-settlement phase for Māori poses the current generation a new challenge – and that is to form the balance sheet and bring growth and prosperity for the Iwi (tribe) from the compensation for colonial wrongdoing.

Growing returns, developing people

It is said that the “Māori economy” is worth some NZ$40-50 billion a year. This shows the impact of financial redress, and also the hard grind of those who have settled for some time and have grown their balance sheets sustainably. Economic development extends beyond cash returns; it includes people development through education and employment. New Zealand iwi have to employ a balanced focus to ensure that profit and balance sheets grow at a steady pace alongside our people.

Within the conference, I found it interesting to see common threads from proud histories, through the darkness of colonisation, and into the dawning of reconciliation, through to prosperity. Many were at different stages of that evolution. In sharing their stories, I got a good sense where my Iwi was placed – and that is that we are nearing the end of the reconciliation journey and planning on building prosperity.

Some groups talked of financial prosperity with amounts I could not fathom. Others had to focus on a level of day-to-day survival.

Related: Indigenous accountants forge a proud history

Indigenous accountants may be rare, but they are passionate about what they do and can strongly empower their people, according to Indigenous Corporations official Christian Lugnan, who attended this year’s Indigenous Accountants Conference in Vancouver.

One presentation that resonated with me was the story of the issues faced by Australian Indigenous consumers confronting unscrupulous businesses practices within Australia’s financial service sector.

The presentation from representatives of the Australian conference contingent really opened my eyes to the vulnerability of the Aboriginal communities. There is an agency in place to protect those that are taken advantage of, and the intentions behind it are good. However, the agency can be quick to provide solutions based on colonial law, forgetting that the community has its own lore that needs to be followed first.

The presenter spoke of how you balance the Lore and Law to come out with a win-win solution where the victims are given a fair go, while being able to participate in the process so their traditions and values are validated and used to guide the process. The perpetrator is reminded that their behaviour won’t be tolerated, with hefty fines applied and restrictions imposed if the offender is prosecuted.

While I could be quick to think this doesn’t happen in New Zealand, I reminded myself of the loan sharks who target vulnerable communities and people in NZ, many of whom are Māori and from the Pacific Islands. I have the privilege of having an Aunty who works in South Auckland (Vaiola PI Budgeting Service Trust). She has dedicated her life to holding the hands of her people to walk them out of financial ruin, and to hold to account those who impose unconscionable contracts on her clients. While I suspect our environment is not as stark as that of our Australian neighbours, we still need to be mindful, keep an open eye out, and be brave enough to report any bad behaviour we come across.

Cause for hope

The conversations held through presentations and networking gave me great hope. Everyone had long-term sustainable economic development at the fore of their thinking. There was a strong focus on people, from youth development to whanau (family) prosperity and tribal sovereignty. The benefits Indigenous ideology will add to the global community will be second to none. It will bring balance and spiritually ... physically, financially, and economically. 

During the conference, I was reminded that in NZ and Australia, Indigenous people are still hugely under-represented in the accounting profession. Our challenge is to identify blockages to Indigenous students embarking on the journey to become an accountant.

The conference highlighted that many students don’t complete their degree: some 47% of Aboriginal students exit the learning environment before graduating. This problem has many sources, but high up the list are financial, family and cultural commitments.

Related: The new face of accounting

The path to prosperity is not always easy, but Māori accounting scholarship winner Yonder Munday says education is breaking down barriers for her.

I discussed with one of my NZ colleagues at the conference the possibility of including Indigenous papers in the learning journey to become a Chartered Accountant. This could sustain students’ cultural hunger, while also preparing them to work in the Indigenous sector. The right starting point in New Zealand would be consultation with Ngā Kaitatau Māori O Aotearoa, the Māori Accountants Network. 

Keep a watch on this space. It is exciting and it is truly sustainable economic development at its best. Those Indigenous students who are coming through are confident. They have their language and they know their culture and histories as they pick up on the strong threads handed to them from their tīpuna. They have the courage and tenacity to take the Māori economy and grow it to levels we can only dream about.

About the author

Kylee Potae is a partner with BDO Gisborne and is the head of BDO’s Māori Business Sector. She also consults to Māori Incorporations, Ahuwhenua Trusts and iwi organisations, and facilitates governance workshops. She is of Te Whānau-a-Ruataupare and Ngati Oneone descent under the umbrella of Te Runanganui O Ngāti Porou. Co-authored by Carolyn Boyd, a freelance editor, writer and journalist

About the conference

The 2017 International Indigenous Accountants Conference was attended by some 1500 indigenous people, including many First Nations peoples across South America, USA, Canada, Australia and NZ. Spread over four days in Vancouver, the conference focused on building sustainable communities. To find out more about the conference click here and watch the video below: