The four issues that'll shape the (Māori) election

Over the next month I’ll publish a series examining the issues this election might turn on in the Māori electorates. Today, the issue under the microscope is Whānau Ora.

The trouble with Whānau Ora is it seems to means different things to different people.

In the programme’s early years opinion writers would ridicule it as too broad and impossible to define, a pretty concept without a policy function. One blogger wrote the programme was a “scam”, and in a memorable exchange at Parliament former Families Commissioner Jan Pryor said she couldn’t, as a “middle-class white woman”, possibly define a programme with a Māori name. Really? I suspect Pryor’s talking point was a cover simply for not knowing - an indictment in itself - but ten years later are meanings and definitions any clearer?    

The thing making Whānau Ora apparently complex is it exists in three different forms: as a procurement policy where the government contracts external “commissioning agencies” to secure certain outcomes in their communities; as a social service approach than overturns the old focus on individual need for a focus on whānau need; and as, to borrow the government’s language, a wellbeing value. This is why politicians, bureaucrats, opinion writers, and others struggle to define or discuss Whānau Ora – they’re usually talking at cross purposes, using different definitions to push their agenda.

This is why the issue is pitch-perfect for, say, John Tamihere if he gives Tāmaki Makaurau a crack. As the Waipereira Trust chief he can talk “underfunding”, criticising the government for holding funding flat for the commissioning agencies responsible for securing wellbeing outcomes in their communities. Yet the incumbent, Labour’s Peeni Henare, can counter that his government is providing record funding for Whānau Ora pointing to the millions spent in the last budget on extending the “Whānau Ora Approach” to the Corrections Department. In this argument, who’s right? Well, on their different definitions they both are, and who “wins” depends on who can angle their argument best.      

To better understand what’s going on here it’s worth considering the 1940s. Under Mickey Savage and Peter Fraser’s social citizenship system the government, using the welfare state, took to work transforming the government’s main business from vindicating procedural rights in a political citizenship system to securing social rights for the working and middle class. That transformation was meant for Māori too, who had their existing benefits equalised or extended. But the central political problem remained: the government didn’t recognise its obligations through a constitutional lens – that is, the Treaty - or a historical lens – colonialism – but solely through a civil rights lens: the relationship was transactional and individual, between state and citizen.

Professor Mason Durie calls this the ideology of the welfare state.

In one sense, this is the welfare state’s great strength – it operates on universal principles. But in another sense that universalism can sometimes work to exclude Māori and subsume difference.  Take the Unsupported Child’s Benefit as an example: under section 29 of the Social Security Act 1964 - the empowering act for the welfare state - whāngai situations where a Māori parent or parents adopt a child under tikanga won’t meet the eligibility criteria. To claim support the whānau must prove a ‘family breakdown.’

In this case the Act is making an assumption about how families operate – an assumption that doesn’t necessarily reflect Māori realities. Whāngai situations don’t always involve a family breakdown. Instead it might be as simple as a grandparent raising his or her first mokopuna in an effort to pass on knowledge and expertise in, say, the whānau whakapapa. In this case the mechanism for securing social rights – the welfare state – ends up excluding Māori in whāngai situations from their full rights under a social citizenship system.

In other words, even though the social citizenship system and the welfare state are not explicitly discriminatory, their universal principles make assumptions that can operate to exclude certain forms of Māori social organisation. This dynamic can also operate in reverse: Claudia Orange explains during the Second World War Māori were paid less under the wartime benefits scheme on the assumption that they could simply go home to the pā and resume a form of subsistence living. In this case, Māori social organisation wasn’t excluded but used as an explicit excuse to reduce entitlements.

This is the problem - the universalist pursuit of social rights sometimes excluding Māori realities – that Whānau Ora is meant to address (or perhaps ameliorate is the better word). The programme meets Māori as they are. In a whānau; in a community. The now defunct “Whanau Ora navigators” were the best example of what this means, taking a “client” and guiding them through government processes, working with their whānau to identify how the client and their whānau came to be where they were, and actioning a “whānau plan” to take them where they really want to be. The navigator was there to help close the gap between what the state promises – universal support – and what it performs – usually an hoc system where support hangs on individual need.

Turia probably put it best writing “our relationships encourage interdependence; we know that our strength comes through all of us taking up our roles and responsibilities to one another. In essence, that is all Whānau Ora is, and ever has been”. This is wonderfully simple, and a statement almost every politician could agree with. The problem, at least politically, is restoring that “interdependence” between people, their whānau, and their communities means resourcing them to do so. This is where Whānau Ora becomes explicitly partisan (the whole thing is political, of course) because allocating resources is always an exercise in subjective judgements and competing priorities.

Hence the recent and very public argument between Te Pou Matakana, the North Island commissioning agency, Turia and others, and the Minister in Henare over where the government should direct its resources. Henare is directing resources to other departments when the commissioning agencies would prefer it for themselves. I lean both ways – I think resourcing the Whānau Ora Approach in certain prisons is very good thing, but I also think an equal or greater amount should go to commissioning agencies too. That particular argument, if Tamihere eventually stands, could shape the outcome in Tāmaki Makaurau on September 19. Get your definitions ready.

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