Political Roundup: The real political controversy of Waitangi 2018

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Labour appears to be downgrading its relationship with iwi elites with Jacinda Ardern spending time visiting small marae and meeting ordinary people. Photo / Peter de Graaf

Labour appears to be downgrading its relationship with iwi elites with Jacinda Ardern spending time visiting small marae and meeting ordinary people. Photo / Peter de Graaf

Lost amongst the focus on BBQs, relentless positivity, and eloquent speeches at Waitangi, a fascinating and important shift in Government-Maori relations appeared to be underway. Labour and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern have been signalling that this Government is departing from the traditional culturalist and “race-based” approach to dealing with Maori deprivation and economic inequality. Instead, a more universal, economic-focused method will be used. The conventional approach of advancing Maori aspirations was epitomised by the Maori Party’s focus on culture, race, and sovereignty issues, and it appears to be on the way out.

The Government’s shift away from a race and cultural approach

Heralding what may be a highly controversial approach to “closing the gaps” in terms of Maori inequality, Jacinda Ardern made her most important speech at Waitangi by stating that the new Government would take a universalistic approach to inequality – by targeting everyone at the bottom, rather than specifically targeting Maori. Jacinda Ardern strongly emphasised the need to deal with the long list of social ills that have a disproportionate impact on Maori, but signalled that race-based methods were not the best way of moving forward.

This is covered in Anna Bracewell-Worrall’s Govt promises to close the gaps – but not by targeting Maori. The article reports “that the Government won’t attempt to close those gaps by taking affirmative action for Maori.” And the prime minister is quoted explaining that “We are specifically targeting things like poverty. An actual by-product of that is it will positively impact Maori.”

See also Bracewell-Worrall’s report on Ardern’s main speech in which she focused on the economic and social disparities she pledged to help fix – see: PM’s historic speech: The distance between our houses, Maori and Pakeha.

Since then, the Finance Minister has confirmed this shift in approach to dealing with inequality. In an interview with Morning Report’s Guyon Espiner on Wednesday, Grant Robertson responded to questions about whether the Government would specifically target Maori in its programmes, saying: “Our focus is on reducing inequality overall” – you can listen to the six-minute interview here: Global market dive: Grant Robertson optimistic.

Espiner sought clarification: “So there won’t be a specific Closing the Gaps type programme that we saw under Helen Clark? We’re not looking at heading off down that path?” Robertson replied: “That’s not the approach that we are taking. But we believe that we will be able to lift a significant number of Maori out of poverty, and increase employment outcomes, because of the approach we are taking.”

Robertson went on to explain that the Government would keep some targeted funding for Maori, but stressed that a more universal approach would dominate: “Maori will benefit disproportionally from the families package – from those payments, because at the moment, unfortunately, Maori appear in those negative statistics. We’ve got a range of programmes coming down the line that will support Maori and the wider population as well. Where it’s appropriate, where there are programmes – particularly in an area like Corrections – where we know that we can have a real impact on that Maori prison population, then we’ll have a look at them. Similarly, with employment programmes. But in the end, Guyon, this is about reducing inequality overall. It’s about providing opportunities for all young people – and we know that Maori will benefit more from that, because unfortunately they are in those negative statistics.”

Reactions to the shift away from a race-based approach

Essentially, this new approach means directing resources and solutions to poor Maori “because they are poor” rather than “because they are Maori”. On Twitter, there’s been a surprisingly muted reaction to this apparent shift. Political commentator Morgan Godfery (@MorganGodfery) stated “I see some angst over this, but surely grant is right: the point is lifting everyone out of poverty, and universal works best”. Responding to this, Sam Gribben (@AotearoaSam) agreed: “Poverty is not just a Maori problem, the way to bring Maori up is to bring up all of the poor and the dispossessed. The best way to help any disadvantaged people is to… help disadvantaged people!”

In RNZ interviews following on from Robertson’s, both Willie Jackson and John Tamihere reacted negatively against the notion that the Government was shifting in this direction – you can listen to the interviews with Jackson and Tamihere. Both have both been actively involved in recent years in contracting welfare and education function for the state, especially in terms of Whanau Ora and charter schools.

Today’s Dominion Post editorial looks at this debate, saying “Robertson seems to have ruled out policies that specifically target Maori disadvantage or disparity. Instead, he believes that policies such as the families package, which are universal, will have a disproportionate benefit for Maori because of their economic disadvantage” – see: Government sends mixed messages to Maori.

The editorial highlight’s that Tamihere “struggled with the possibility that Labour was in ‘retreat’ from promises made to Maori on the campaign trail”, and says “Tamihere disputed RNZ’s interpretations of Robertson’s comments and assured listeners that there will indeed be specific, targeted funding for Maori and the continuation of earlier policies like Whanau Ora.”

Labour's new focus on immediate economic inequality and disadvantage is unlikely to be well received by some Maori leaders. Photo / Dean Purcell
Labour’s new focus on immediate economic inequality and disadvantage is unlikely to be well received by some Maori leaders. Photo / Dean Purcell

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