The votes are in, negotiations are underway, and while we enjoy the peaceful interregnum between the election and the formation of a new government, the election results have sent shockwaves through te ao Māori. After 13 years the Māori Party has been voted out of parliament. Their initial mission – the repeal of the Foreshore and Seabed Act and the restoration of access to justice for claims of customary title to the foreshore and seabed – has been achieved. Their lack of achievement for lower-income Māori has been punished.
The prospects of an incoming government including New Zealand First places the Māori economy at a crossroads. Shorn of an independent Māori voice, initiatives such as a more rigorous support service for land development and the recognition of Māori rights and interests in natural resources are all in danger of being cast aside. It is a precarious moment. Will the Māori economy continue to receive specific and targeted support, or will it be swept aside by the changing priorities, and philosophies, of the incoming government? The two areas most at risk: Whānau Ora and the Māori land law reforms.
The Māori economy, now worth approximately $50 billion, has benefited from the strong economic conditions of the past nine years and the efforts of the Māori Party to secure funding for kaupapa Māori initiatives. Settlements between the Crown and iwi have progressed at an unprecedented pace; programmes and reforms have been initiated to develop the land-based assets of Māori collectives, and the post-GFC economic recovery has provided strong returns to the balance sheets of iwi organisations with large shareholdings in New Zealand and foreign equities.
But it is a two-speed economy. Iwi, land collectives and middle-income Māori have prospered. Lower-income Māori have not. Māori continue to record the highest unemployment rates, worst health status and lowest household incomes in New Zealand. Whānau Ora, for all its success, remains severely underfunded and achievements in improving Māori health and education have been few and far between. These simple truths swept the Māori Party out of Parliament.
While Whānau Ora has been subject to sustained criticism over the years – for lack of accountability, lack of a clear policy approach, and lack of measurable outputs – it has also delivered significant results for whānau, with an estimated 10,500 Māori whānau receiving support through the programme each year. What is unique about the programme is that it is about delivering Māori solutions to Māori problems, by Māori providers. It perfectly encapsulates how Articles 1 and Articles 2 of Te Tiriti o Waitangi should interact with each other.
The government remains responsible for providing social support services and setting the framework under which they are provided, but Māori exercise their rights to deliver the services in the most appropriate manner. Very few people would argue that we do not have significant social infrastructure problems in New Zealand, and that these problems disproportionately affect Māori. Thirty years of orthodox economic policy has not solved these problems, and neither will the $75 million annual budget currently provided to the three Whānau Ora commissioning agencies. A fully-funded Whānau Ora programme is critical to closing the gap between Māori and non-Māori. The tragedy is that it could be dismantled over the next three years.
Also at risk are the efforts to support the economic development activities of iwi and Māori land organisations, including the overdue reforms of Te Ture Whenua Māori. The current reform process has done substantial work to provide a more flexible and workable system for Māori land owners. It is not perfect, and there are large gaps in the proposals – not least the workings of the Māori Land Service and the still untouched paternalistic power of the Māori Trustee. But this does not mean that the whole reform programme should be scrapped. There is a real need for reform.
Six percent of New Zealand is classified as Māori land, a large percentage of which is not being effectively utilised by its owners. The problems of fragmentation and absentee owners are getting worse with each passing generation. When done right, such as the groundbreaking Miraka milk processing operation, the economic development of our whenua can have a massive impact. Developments as diverse as papakāinga developments, geothermal plants, forestry plantations, agricultural and horticultural operations and tourism activities have the potential to transform the economic return of Māori land. What we need is the right legal framework and the pūtea to make it happen, not more half-baked policy proposals or promises to scrap the reforms with no thought for a better approach.
In voting the Māori Party out, and returning all seven Māori electorates to the Labour Party, Māori have sent a clear message to the incoming government that our whānau deserve better. Regardless of whether it is a National-led or a Labour-led government, it is time to deliver.