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Our thoughts are with our members and their organisations impacted by Cyclone Gabrielle. Boards have a key role to play in the wake of any crisis. See guidance for chairs and directors

As good as his word

As a battle plays out over the word mānuka, Victor Goldsmith is determined to put protections in place for taonga.

By Noel Prentice, Editor
20 Dec 2022
read time
4 min to read
Victor Goldsmith

Victor Goldsmith MInstD is in a fight to protect taonga – and a battle over mānuka honey naming rights is one he says Aotearoa New Zealand must win. Goldsmith has for years been at the forefront of a fight to prove mānuka is a Māori word and has great spiritual and cultural significance.

It’s been an exhausting fight against countries wanting a taste of the honey pot – and Australia in particular, which is also laying claim to mānuka as their own (but without the macron).

A recent court decision allowed Australian honey producers to import their “so-called” mānuka honey into the UK, with Goldsmith admitting the Mānuka Charitable Trust had “lost that battle but they haven’t lost the war”. Australia claims rights to mānuka through a similar tea tree.

Goldsmith is undeterred, saying they will continue the fight because “it’s a battle we have to win”.

He was one of the initial leaders of the Mānuka Honey Appellation Society and is adamant mānuka is a Māori word. His challenge has been to prove it, describing what it means from a cultural perspective. “I have the institutional knowledge. I understand the chemistry of mānuka honey, I understand the tree itself, I understand from a te ao Māori perspective the significance of our whakapapa to our taonga mānuka through Tane Mahuta (the god of the forest),” says Goldsmith, who has spent 30 years working in the primary sector and 20 years on boards and trusts.

But the dispute has even greater significance because it could be considered a test case for taonga. “It is the first of our taonga to go global so we need to know what protections to put in place if any of our other taonga goes global in the future,” he says. “It could be tāwari, it could be māhoe.”

Goldsmith says geographical indications (GIs) and certification trademarks are not necessarily the tools they could use to protect taonga, adding that domestic laws are somewhat weak. Trying to protect indigenous rights through the United Nations is a long process, but building protection into free trade agreements has had some success.

Goldsmith says it is important to protect the IP that sits behind the word mānuka and the understanding of Western science from te ao Māori.

Working closely with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Mānuka Charitable Trust is representative of iwi-Māori from across the country to try to develop a platform to protect taonga species.

In the beginning, Goldsmith says, it was a lonely battle being the only Māori voice, but there are now some influential people involved on the trust. That has allowed him to take a step back – and to focus on his wellbeing, having recently stepped down as CEO of Te Kaahui o Rauru, one of the iwi in South Taranaki.

“It is a rewarding job, but all-consuming managing the tribal, social, environmental and economic aspirations of the iwi. It’s like a ministry of everything and you don’t have the capacity and capability in the organisation to respond to the needs of the iwi.”

Goldsmith says “you need to focus on more important things in life and that of whanau, and getting better”.

He has spent the past 20 years sitting on the board of Ngati Porou Forests Ltd, the only Māori forestry management company in New Zealand. It is a joint venture between Korea-based Hansol HomeDeco and Ngati Porou landowners. The joint venture, started in 1996, comprises 10,000 hectares of Māori Land on the East Coast. It also manages the Crown forest estate of 25,000 hectares.

Goldsmith’s first governance experience was becoming chairman of a whanau land trust over 22 years ago. He is still the chairman. “It’s been challenging but rewarding providing leadership and direction to ensure our land is in a better state for the next generation. We are farming sheep and beef and have leased the adjoining property as a finishing block. We have limitations due to our isolation on the East Cape and being so far from market but you ride the dips and troughs of the market.”

“It is the first of our taonga to go global so we need to know what protections to put in place if any of our other taonga goes global in the future. It could be tāwari, it could be māhoe.”

But he says he is still learning and credits the IoD’s Advanced Directors’ Course (ADC) for empowering him to empower others, something he immediately put in practice by supporting a young female Māori chair and “helping make her the best she can be”.

It is all about “showing more compassion and humility as a board and working together with a common goal”, he adds.

“One of the things I learned was the purpose of the board meeting is to empower your chief executive, and the collegiality between the CEO, the chair and the board. They are all connected. I haven’t seen that on some boards.

“The ADC also helps you stay relevant,” says Goldsmith, who is looking at more board opportunities. “Everyone wants to be an effective director and boards needs to start focusing now on what that may look like in the future. Everything has been disrupted.”

Goldsmith lives and breathes te ao Māori and Te Tiriti and understands there is a thirst for both, but directors need to understand the Māori governance perspective is slightly different to corporate governance. “With Māori governors we are generally connected by whakapapa, governing legacy assets which we can’t sell – for example, land. You simply can’t ask a Māori governor to resign due to poor performance, or not acting in accordance with the Companies Act. The issues are complex and have long-term consequences.”

For iwi Māori boards, in particular, he says the pool of skill to draw from is “not that great – and I mean that with all respect”, citing Post-Settlement Governance Entities where the representation models are maraeor hapū-based. “I’m not saying this is wrong but purely from a governance perspective it makes it difficult when you have 10 or 20 governors on the board. The model is a Crown construct which is over 30 years old and needs to adapt to the world we live in and the increasing expectations of our people.”