Bryce Edwards: Labour’s changing approach to Maori inequality 

Bryce Edwards: Labour’s changing approach to Maori inequality 

That Maori face severe disadvantage in New Zealand is a given. The debate really lies in how to deal with this inequality and deprivation. Right now, a significant political shift seems to be occurring, in which the once-dominant ideas of targeted programmes and separate Maori political vehicles are being replaced by a more universal approach.

The latest sign came in last week’s Government Budget, which was conspicuously lacking in funding for “Maori development”. According to John Tamihere, writing in the Herald yesterday, the Whanau Ora programme “received zero funding in Budget 2018” and “for the first time in decades, Budget 2018 actually took money away from Māori. Te Puni Kokiri loses $3 million of baseline funding over the next four years” – see: Where’s the money for Māori, Jacinda?

Tamihere looks at targeted vs universal funding and concludes that, while both approaches “have merit”, there is a need to “actually target Māori problems, with Māori solutions”. In fact, he makes the case that mainstream funding ends up being race-based: “This targeted racist-style of funding has to stop. It’s called mainstream or white stream funding because more funding is thrown at the Māori problem by non-Māori to fix Māori.”

Tamihere highlights two very different models for dealing with Maori deprivation and disadvantage. These are important public policy concepts which have informed how New Zealand government and politics have operated in recent decades.

The universal approach is based on political strategies in which Maori are largely treated the same as other ethnicities, and problems are dealt with on the basis of need, in the first instance, rather than culture, race, etc. In this broad strategy, social services and targeted programmes are directed to those in poverty or with particular illnesses, housing needs, or whatever.

The theory is that, by virtue of addressing those most in need, this will also benefit Maori because Maori are disproportionately represented amongst New Zealand’s most disadvantaged populations. In an electoral sense, under this more “mainstream” approach, Maori vote for or join political parties on the basis of policy, rather than on the basis of ethnicity, and perhaps even go on the general roll.

The Maori-specific approach is based on political strategies which accept Maori issues require a unique answer due to the complex and distinct situation of Maori. This approach also places a greater emphasis on cultural practices and sovereignty issues. This means that the provision of public services should be tailored for Maori, and ideally designed and delivered by Maori. A major driver of this approach lies in the failure of mainstream solutions to alleviate Maori inequality. Under this Maori-specific approach, Maori vote for and join parties that are explicitly set up for Maori interests and aspirations.

Of course, the reality is much more complex than this simple dichotomy, and combinations of both approaches are used by governments. Nonetheless, the “universal vs Maori-specific” dualism does give a sense of some of the complexities of Maori and ethnic politics in New Zealand over recent decades.

Very broadly, New Zealand government and politics has traditionally employed a more universal approach. But this began to change quite significantly in the 1980s, when frustration grew with the plight of Maori and demands for new strategies grew. Universalism became discredited for some, and governments and others moved more towards Maori-specific public policy. I examine this shift in a column this week on the Newsroom website – see: Labour’s move away from Maori-specific policies.

Labour’s shift away from “race-based” politics

In an earlier Political Roundup in February, I covered the Labour Party’s signalled shift away from “culturalist” or “race-based” politics in dealing with Maori inequality – see: The real political controversy of Waitangi 2018. This looked at Jacinda Ardern’s declaration at Waitangi that the new government would take a universalistic approach: “We are specifically targeting things like poverty. An actual by-product of that is it will positively impact Maori.”

At the centre of much of the change in Maori politics is new Labour MP and Minister, Willie Jackson, who is playing a key role in changing Labour’s approach. He’s written a very informative post at the Daily Blog, in which he defends the Budget, and explains the changes going on – see: The Budget and Māori.

Jackson starts off explaining that Labour believes in both universalism and a Maori-specific approach: “people must be clear that Governments run dual strategies for Māori. The first one is a universal strategy and the second one is a targeted strategy. Anybody who thinks that a Government should just have a targeted strategy funding Māori programmes and kaupapa only, is deluded, and more than likely a member of the Māori Party!”

He then explains that Maori-specific public policy approaches tend to be based around a traditional and cultural world in which most Maori don’t actually live: “Although some of us practice things Māori every day and our whole world is about te ao Māori, we are sadly in the minority. Most Māori kids don’t speak Māori, don’t go to Māori schools, most Māori families don’t engage with the marae and most of our people are not on the Māori roll. That’s the reality, and that’s what we have to deal with in politics. So with that being the case we have to have policies that deal with that reality”.

Jackson also argues that Labour won all seven Maori seats on the basis of appeals to universalism and traditional economic or class-based politics, and saw it as a priority to deal with ameliorating material poverty and deprivation before focusing on cultural or sovereignty issues. This is in line with comments Jackson made following last year’s election: “This waffle about foreshore and seabed is exactly that. I think most of our people don’t care – that’s why they voted against the Maori Party. They care about housing, health and education” – see John-Michael Swannix’s Most Māori don’t care about foreshore and seabed – Jackson.

For an in-depth examination of how Willie Jackson, along with Shane Jones and Nanaia Mahuta are changing iwi-government relations, see Graham Cameron’s excellent article from March, Labour to Iwi Chairs Forum: ‘Iwi leaders need to catch up with the new world’. He argues that the traditional iwi leaders are out of favour in the new Maori political landscape, and future influential Maori leaders will be those who can show that they can help transform the lives of the poor.

Not everyone agrees with this new approach, of course. The Maori Party have provided the best challenges to it. Marama Fox questions whether the new approach is appropriate, saying “Universality does not work, has not worked. It will have some benefits, but it would be greatly increased if it was targeted in the right direction” – see Jenna Lynch’s Labour could face backlash from Māori voters.

Likewise, Maori Party president Che Wilson says “Mainstreaming Maori issues has shown over the decades it doesn’t work” – see 1News’ ‘It’s extremely disappointing, you know?’ – Labour MPs under fire over lack of targeted spending for Maori.

This news report suggests that other Maori-specific funding is also vulnerable: “Targeted Maori spending for things like broadcasting, community and economic development are also under scrutiny”.

Finally, for another account that is challenging for the new government and its more universal approach, see Joshua Hitchcock’s Why Māori need an apology from the new Labour government.