Haere ra Te Aka Whai Ora

On Wednesday morning a great healthcare experiment was ended with no-one any the wiser whether it had worked, or if it could have worked in the future.

One thing all political parties agree on is that Maori health statistics are, generally, appalling, and need to be improved.

How to tackle issues such as disease prevalence and mortality rates, however, has been hotly contested.

The previous government’s answer, informed by its overarching review of the entire health system, was to create a dedicated, focused organisation to address the problems.

Te Aka Whai Ora — the Maori Health Authority — was established in mid-2022 with the best of intentions.

It employed some of New Zealand’s best health minds in a bid to turn around those negative Maori health statistics.

Would it have worked? Who knows — the authority’s work was barely started before the new government scrapped it this week as part of its 100-day plan.

Health Minister Shane Reti, who as a Northland GP knows first hand how illness afflicts Maori, argued on the campaign trail and again in the House this week that while the authority was staffed with good people working for a greater good, its structure was an unnecessary replication of a bureaucracy which already existed in Health New Zealand and the Ministry of Health.

Dr Shane Reti. Photo: RNZ
Dr Shane Reti. Photo: RNZ
Dr Reti may well be correct, but Act New Zealand’s Southland list MP Todd Stephenson’s first reading speech bluntly set out the ideological reasons for the law change: "Dividing New Zealanders into two ethnic groups to receive public services does not help us deliver better public services, and, actually, it’s a poor analysis of the causes of poor health outcomes. It creates division, and, really, isn’t the way we want to go forward."

Labour, the Greens and Te Pati Maori, naturally, vehemently disagreed, claiming that folding Te Aka Whai Ora was an unacceptable derogation of the government’s duty to do something about the fact that on average Maori live seven years fewer than other New Zealanders and are more likely to contract chronic disease during their lifetime.

"It is shameful, and, Dr Reti, my view is that your conduct in this is cowardly," Otago-trained doctor and Labour health spokeswoman Ayesha Verrall said.

The ire of many opposition MPs centred on the fact that the government passing its Bill would halt in its tracks a planned Waitangi Tribunal hearing on an urgent application on the proposal to scrap the authority.

While it is easy to see why the government would not want further delay to a course of action it was already committed to, a pause to consider the evidence placed before the tribunal and its findings may have been no bad thing.

Although the outcome of the hearing may have been predictable, the process may have helped inform the government as it adapts the health system to a post Te Aka Whai Ora world. It may well still prove to be a useful exercise should the hearing proceed.

In Parliament, Dr Reti pledged that the Hauora Māori advisory committee would be retained and supported to do even more, including further monitoring Māori health outcomes, and that iwi-Māori partnership boards would remain in place to work with communities, hapū and iwi, to identify their health needs.

"Even though this particular version of the dream with the Māori Health Authority is coming to an end, I want to paint a new one, one that is outcomes-focused, driven by need, and with decisions made closer to the home and hapū," he said.

He called the reformed system a new waka and called to everyone to join in paddling it in a new direction.

Which would sound entirely reasonable if everyone was convinced that the new waka was an improvement on the old vessel.

But whatever the canoe, everyone can agree that it should be paddling in the direction of better health outcomes for Maori.

It will take some years before statistics suggest whether disestablishing Te Aka Whai Ora will have that desired effect.

But it will be a desperate shame if yet more tinkering with the health system once more fails to improve the lot of the taxpayers who are funding it.