Those gaps – again

In 1999, the Labour Party threw into its election campaign mix the policy objective of diminishing the widening gulf between Pakeha New Zealanders and those of Maori or Pacific Island ethnicity - as evidenced in a variety of well-publicised statistics.

These included prison populations, employment figures, health outcomes, income levels, educational achievement, and intergenerational benefit dependency in all of which areas Maori and Pasifika peoples were shown to fare poorly compared to the rest of the population. It labelled the policy it would devise to address such disadvantage "Closing the Gaps".

Briefly, when Labour formed its first coalition government following the election that year, it did become policy, but in the ensuing period of office following widespread criticism from opposition politicians that it amounted to a form of "social apartheid", it was allowed to disappear quietly from view.

At least the terminology was dropped and the overt ethnic thrust expunged from the literature, but beneath the public parapet the work appeared to continue.

When the Labour administration left office in 2008, it was spending about $110 million a year on a range of initiatives designed to strengthen families and provide intensive and co-ordinated support for at-risk or "vulnerable" families.

Some of this effort resided in "community link" centres which, where apt, applied a Maori approach. And because a high proportion of such families were from Maori communities, naturally they were frequently the beneficiaries of such programmes.

De facto, "closing the gaps" continued, although there is little evidence to demonstrate the success or otherwise of the initiatives. If they were not as successful as they might have been, Tariana Turia, Dr Pita Sharples and the Maori Party believe they know why.

And they have persuaded - or perhaps, more appositely, extracted from - the National Party, as part of their mana-enhancing confidence and supply agreement, support for a co-ordinated social benefits delivery programme that is explicitly ethnocentric.

This is the Whanau Ora policy, launched last week with the release of the Whanau Ora Taskforce Report amid a deluge of careful publicity emphasising it is for all New Zealanders. The extent of the political store set by it is the appointment of Mrs Turia as Whanau Ora Minister.

Specifics on the policy initiatives are woefully short. The taskforce report referred to its key "operation element" as "methodologies shaped by the values, protocols, and knowledge contained within te ao Maori - (the Maori world view)".

In practice, it seems funds which would otherwise be distributed through a range of social services will be channelled through centralised Whanau Ora providers in an holistic approach to troubled and vulnerable families' needs - bulk funding for social betterment.

This may erase some duplication of administration costs, but is equally likely to prove problematic in monitoring and measuring effectiveness. It is also unclear at this point just what the policy will cost.

The Government has promised to outline this in the May Budget. To date, it has said only that it will be financially neutral with funds derived by "reprioritising existing funding in votes Health, Social Development and Maori Affairs".

Presumably, this will mean the redirection of funds from similar, smaller initiatives, and given the sum of $1 billion has been bandied about, there may be much gnashing of teeth and protestation once the extent and exact nature of the "reprioritising" is revealed.

Nor is it clear how such a specifically Maori-conceived and designed initiative can be said to be for all New Zealanders.

There is no doubt that Maori form a high proportion of the poor, the unhealthy, the ill-educated and the needy in this country; and that measures aimed at addressing this problem have been slow to adopt effective and culturally sympathetic methods. Additional tailored programmes are to be welcomed.

But Maori do not have a monopoly on poverty and its social consequences. There is a risk that Whanau Ora could be perceived as "special treatment" or come to be seen as a pragmatic gambit on the part of the National Party to cement its alliance with the Maori Party - and thus its prospects for future terms of government.

While it has the political capital it can afford to take that gamble, but it should not be surprised if, in the long term, the policy backfires. At the very least, it will need to monitor processes scrupulously and measure results with rigour.


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