How New Zealand’s Recent State Agency Restructuring and Legislative Changes are Empowering Māori
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How New Zealand’s Recent State Agency Restructuring and Legislative Changes are Empowering Māori

New Zealand governments have long been subject to criticism for vesting decision-making power over Māori in Pākehā-driven state agencies. Structural issues dating back to the differences between the English and Māori texts of the 1840 Te Tiriti o Waitangi (the Treaty of Waitangi) are one means of explaining the paradigm. While change has been long-demanded, the solution to bringing about such change has largely evaded New Zealand governments.

Recently, inroads into achieving an Aotearoa New Zealand which honors and upholds the partnership born out of Te Tiriti have come about through the restructuring of state agencies and improvement of related legislation to vest power in Māori for Māori. These changes have largely been led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s government, which has New Zealand’s most diverse Cabinet to date. Although realizing such a version of Aotearoa New Zealand is an ongoing process, these steps illustrate progress towards much necessary change to empower Māori as Te Tiriti intended.

Background of Te Tiriti

In 1840, representatives of the British Crown and Māori rangatira (leaders/chiefs) signed Te Tiriti which is regarded as the founding document of modern Aotearoa New Zealand.

Te Tiriti encompassed two documents; one English text and one Māori text. The texts differed in meaning. Perhaps the most challenging of these differences is that in article one of the English text, the Crown gained sovereignty over the country; in the Māori text, the Crown only gained governance rights over British settlers.

Both texts provided for the formation of a partnership between the Crown and Māori. Commentators have argued that the approach to partnership between the Crown and Māori was envisaged to manifest into a system where decision-making for Māori would be led by Māori–a “by Māori, for Māori” approach. This is because article two of the Māori text protected Māori authority over Māori affairs.

It has been recognized that particularly in the 1800s and early 1900s, partnership was not honored as Te Tiriti intended. The Crown engaged in land confiscations and nationwide colonization, contrary to the protections for Māori set out in Te Tiriti, especially in article two.

Te Tiriti’s legal force has been subject to debate. It has never been incorporated as a whole into legislation, limiting its enforceability to social and political measures. However, reference has been made to the “principles” of Te Tiriti in important legislation including section 9 of the State-Owned Enterprises Act 1986 and the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975 wherein the principles are referenced throughout. These principles, which are enforceable, are partnership, active protection and the right to redress, according to courts and the Waitangi Tribunal.

The current and recent New Zealand governments are cognizant of the historical injustices perpetuated by the Crown against Māori. The Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975 established the Waitangi Tribunal to recognize historical injustices, provide redress and make recommendations to the government. The Waitangi Tribunal has a specialized jurisdiction as a standing Commission of Inquiry.

The establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal was just the beginning of the power balance-shifting changes initiated by various New Zealand governments over the course of recent years.

Beleaguered Oranga Tamariki in the spotlight

While state agencies have been subject to some criticism over their poor cultural competency for Māori affairs when led by Pākehā as well as their failure to give Māori autonomy, evidence about the beleaguered Oranga Tamariki’s (the Ministry for Children) practices and governance thrust wider systematic issues into the spotlight in May of 2019. Particularly worrisome was the revelation that Māori tamariki were five times more likely to be removed from their homes and their whānau by Oranga Tamariki than Pākehā tamariki.

The revelations sparked several inquiries including a Māori Inquiry into Oranga Tamariki concerning its “un-ethical, forced removal of babies and children from their whānau.” The results of the inquiry were published in a 95-page report in February 2020 entitled Ko Te Wā Whakawhiti: It’s Time for Change. The report included three actions points; supporting whānau, undertaking “a structural analysis and review of Oranga Tamariki systems, policies, processes and practices” and building upon “the call from whānau for ‘By Māori – For Māori, with Māori’ solutions for long-term sustainability.”

In November of 2020, the country’s Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft published a 124-page report on his review of Oranga Tamariki which recommended a “total transformation of the statutory care and protection system … nothing short of a ‘by Māori, for Māori’ approach and a transfer of responsibility, resources and power from the state to appropriate Māori entities, as determined by Māori.”

In addition, Oranga Tamariki has been subject to an official inquiry led by the Waitangi Tribunal for its “systematic removal” of tamariki (young) Māori and pēpi (infant) Māori from their homes which lasted from October of 2019 to April of 2021. Oranga Tamariki made significant concessions as part of the inquiry. These included an acknowledgment of “the presence and impacts of structural racism within the care and protection system” and historical ignorance of “Māori perspectives and solutions in the care and protection system”.

Whilst Oranga Tamariki’s Chief Executive Officer Grainne Moss resigned from her post amidst the Waitangi Tribunal inquiry, heeding the citizenry’s calls for Moss to take accountability, the change in the agency’s figurehead was met with calls for an even bigger change. One such call was made by the National Urban Māori Authority‘s Chair, Tureiti Moxon, who said “I hope this is a signal from the Crown that this is the start of devolution of tamariki Māori from Oranga Tamariki to Māori. Rangatiratanga and mana motuhake can only be [realized] if this happens so we can look after ourselves in our own way.”

The Waitangi Tribunal’s 286-page report on its inquiry into Oranga Tamariki published in late April echoes the calls for fundamental and systematic change. It found that the Crown’s actions had resulted in a range of breaches of the principles of Te Tiriti, with “perhaps the most fundamental and pervasive” breach being that “Crown policy has been dominated by efforts to assimilate Māori to the Pākehā way” since the 1850s.

The Waitangi Tribunal concluded that Oranga Tamariki should undergo sweeping changes supported by, but not led by, the Crown, rather than be abolished. It endorsed Becroft’s recommendation and supports “calls for transformation towards a ‘by Māori for Māori with Māori’ approach” to Oranga Tamariki governance and operations going forward. Such calls included one from It’s Time for Change which proposed “long-term systemic change based on Māori decision-making, through the establishment of a ‘by Māori, for Māori, with Māori’ funding authority, with multi-dimensional deliverables that would address social and cultural determinacy of health and well-being for whānau Māori, including care and protection.”

The report suggested such change occur through the establishment of a Māori Transition Authority “with a clear mandate to design and reform the care and protection system for tamariki Māori, coupled with authority to work in genuine partnership with the Crown to ensure a modified system is properly implemented.”

The government listened to the calls and is making changes, although it is yet to announce whether it will implement the Waitangi Tribunal’s recommendations. An overhaul of the agency is underway. The country’s Minister for Children, Kelvin Davis, announced earlier this year that the Oranga Tamariki Ministerial Advisory Board had formed. The Board is comprised of four experts who provide independent advice on “three key areas of Oranga Tamariki: relationships with families, whānau, and Māori; professional social work practices; and [organizational] culture.” It began work in February.

“The Government is committed to fixing the child care and protection system and ensuring that Oranga Tamariki becomes an enabler; the [organization] that people trust and go to for help,” Davis commented. “This group will help us achieve that.”

In response to the Waitangi Tribunal’s report specifically, Oranga Tamariki’s Chief Executive, Sir Wira Gardiner, said “[w]e acknowledged early on in the inquiry that disparities for Māori exist. Work to address these disparities within Oranga Tamariki is already well underway.”

Furthermore, the government committed to repealing “subsequent children provisions” in the Oranga Tamariki Act 1989. The provisions require Oranga Tamariki to apply to the Family Court for an order to remove a child from their family or confirm the child is safe with their family when that family has had a child previously removed from their permanent care or has been convicted for the death of a child in their care. Time has shown that the “law doesn’t work as intended.”

Health sector reforms

Announcing health sector reform followed the announcement of the overhaul of Oranga Tamariki. In April of this year, Ministers Andrew Little, Peeni Henare and Dr Ayesha Verrall announced a total restructure of the nation’s healthcare system. Alongside changing the 20 existing District Health Boards into one centralized entity, a new Māori Health Authority will be established to “monitor the state of Māori health and have the ability to commission services directly.”

The changes are positive given the current New Zealand health system has “significant issues delivering for Māori who continue to lag behind in key health status indicators.”

Henare commented:

Māori health has suffered under the current system for too long. We will legislate for a new independent voice – the Māori Health Authority – to drive hauora Māori and lead the system to make real change. It will have joint decision-making rights to agree national strategies, policies and plans that affect Māori at all levels of the system and it will work in partnership with Health New Zealand to ensure that service plans and the commissioning of health services drives improvement.

The reforms are to be carried out over the next three years. They are a contemporaneously symbolic and tangible step towards the state vesting power in Māori for a “by Māori, for Māori” approach to state agency governance.

Introduction of whānau-centered initiatives

Two days after the healthcare system overhaul was announced, Ministers Kelvin Davis, Carmel Sepuloni and Henare shared the introduction of the new whānau-centered Māori Pathways initiative. The initiative empowers Ngāti Kahungunu, an iwi based in the Hawke’s Bay, to “lead and coordinate the delivery of several new services” in the Hawke’s Bay Regional Prison for men.

The new services as part of the Māori Pathways initiative include first, a kaiarataki navigator workforce based on a whānau ora model which will work with the men and their whānau to “to support everyone to live healthy, productive and positive lives.” Secondly, Tēnei Au, a kaupapa Māori approach to healing trauma which will “help connect men to their whānau and local iwi.” Thirdly, the introduction of roles for probation officers employing a kaupapa Māori lens. Fourthly, the creation of new roles at the Ministry of Social Development for specialized case managers in the region to support the men and their whānau to “access social support and employment services.”

In addition, “39 new actions and initiatives will be [trialed], tested and evaluated this year with more planned for next year” and existing rehabilitation programs based on kaupapa Māori and tikanga Māori will be strengthened and expanded.

The Māori Pathways initiative is unique, but not alone in its championing of mātauranga Māori. Henare said it is “part of extending the Whānau Ora approach into other agencies and working alongside the individual and their whānau to improve outcomes for Māori.” The initiative will be used for informing similar developments across the country.

Similarly, earlier in April of this year, Davis announced a unique new youth justice residence. In a strong illustration of Te Tiriti’s principle of partnership, the residence was designed by the government and the iwi Waikato-Tainui. The aim is that by providing “prevention, healing, and rehabilitation services for both young people and their whānau,” youth recidivism rates will reduce.

The residence stands out from the country’s four other existing youth justice residences because it incorporates kaupapa Māori to a strong extent. Like the Māori Pathways initiative, it provides for specialist roles, engages whānau as well as the persons in the residence and vests significant decision-making power in Māori.

Te Tiriti going forward

Creating an Aotearoa New Zealand that honors and upholds Te Tiriti is a future hoped for by the citizenry of New Zealand. Given the significant volumes of historical injustices perpetrated against Māori by the Crown since Britain colonized the country in 1840, and the existence of ongoing systematic issues, a societal balance embodying Te Tiriti is a long way off. However, the will to achieve such a future is evident in the actions taken by recent New Zealand governments to vest power in Māori and proliferate “by Māori, for Māori” approaches facilitated by legislative changes and state agency restructuring.