Best of the Week

Labour’s move away from Māori-specific policies

For the first time in decades a Government has started moving away from the delivery of public services specifically designed for Maori. Dr Bryce Edwards of Victoria University explains what’s behind this development.

The concept of Māori development via separate public policy delivery has been one of the most significant trends in New Zealand public policy over recent decades. The origin of this approach lies in the stark inequality in New Zealand society, in which Māori have long been over-represented in the worst social statistics. As it became all too apparent that the status quo was not working for many Māori, new approaches were demanded. This coincided with what became known as the Māori cultural renaissance and growing political demands for self-determination.

Since the mid-1980s, governments have tended to increase separate delivery mechanisms for public services such as education, health, and welfare for Māori. This separate development trend peaked under the John Key National government, which was pushed by its coalition support partner, the Māori Party, to continue to devolve social services under the Whanau Ora programme, and other policies such as charter schools. If it was surprising that a National government was delivering such programmes, Tariana Turia was always quick to point to the long list of Māori initiatives National had supported in the past, while suggesting that Labour was historically less embracing of ethnicity-based programmes.

She was right, because Labour has traditionally favoured a universalist approach to inequality, in which social class and socio-economics characterised disadvantage, in the first instance, rather than ethnicity in itself. For the political left, the problems of economic inequality and social disadvantage faced by Māori (and other subjugated ethnic groups) were based on the fact that Māori were over-represented amongst the poorest parts of the working class. It therefore followed that the most effective remedy was to design policies that would deal with such disadvantage, regardless of the ethnicity of those at the bottom.

Of course, there are complicated reasons for Māori disadvantage and not all of this can be reduced to class politics. And likewise, the state cannot be blind to the cultural needs of different ethnicities. But a leftwing critique of the bicultural programme addressing Māori aspirations emphasised that it had become a dead-end for making real material progress for poor Māori.

Now in government, Labour is deliberately shifting back to this economic-based approach. This was underscored in Grant Robertson’s Budget last week, in which programmes specifically targeting Māori received a lower level of funding than under National. Last year’s Budget contained $328 million for specific “Māori development”, while this year it dropped back to $312 million.

Critics have been quick to condemn this as an indication that the new Government doesn’t care about or has overlooked the needs of Māori. But, rather than being some sort of oversight, the Budget’s lack of money for any separate Māori development is actually a deliberate shift in Government policy.

The shift away from a “race-based” approach was very clearly stated by both Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson in February – see my column from this time: The real political controversy of Waitangi 2018. At Waitangi, the Prime Minister gave a speech in which she said the new Government would take a universalistic approach to inequality – targeting everyone at the bottom, rather than specifically targeting Māori. Ardern pointed to the long list of social ills that have a disproportionate impact on Māori, and signalled her view that race-based methods were not the best way of moving forward.

Ardern said “We are specifically targeting things like poverty. An actual by-product of that is it will positively impact Māori.” Grant Robertson made similar statements that a more universal approach would dominate.

Part of this shift towards universalism can also be explained by the involvement of New Zealand First in the coalition, as that party has nearly always opposed “race-based” policies. Winston Peters, in particular, has long been a critic of the “Treaty Settlement Industry” and what he calls the “Brown Table” of corporate iwi elites. In recent years, he has been a harsh opponent of Whanau Ora, describing it as a “bro-ocracy”.

The impact of the Māori Party’s demise has also influenced Labour thinking. That party came to be epitomise the whole logic of “Māori separate development”. The party represented the idea that Māori have separate political interests to Pākehā, to the extent that an independent political vehicle was required to embody those interests. They became the main advocate for bi-cultural public policy and constitutional change.

The demise of the Māori Party in last year’s election was in many ways the death of the separate Māori political project. It showed that amongst Māori voters, there was very little interest in this type of politics. And this was made even clearer by the fact that the Labour Party undertook a very class and economic-based campaign in the Māori electorates. Labour focused strongly on more traditional leftwing issues such as housing, employment, education and healthcare. They deliberately avoided campaigning on the basis of cultural issues, sovereignty, or constitutional reform. In a very real sense, Labour took a materialist, rather than a post-materialist approach to winning Māori votes. And it produced a clean sweep of the seven electorates.

There has always been a suspicion amongst parts of the left that cultural and race-based approaches are largely ineffective, and that politicians are drawn to them because they are a relatively cheap and easy way for governments to show they are “doing something” and taking Māori disadvantage seriously.

There has also been a feeling that by empowering iwi leaders and giving weight to traditional parts of Maoridom, this just made Māori more culturally rich while keeping them materially poor (even if existing elites would be empowered and sometimes even enriched). Those at the bottom of the heap wouldn’t really see any material changes to their lives. It’s clear that the recent culturalist approaches were not delivering – Māori continue to be poor and disadvantaged despite the separate development programmes.

The new shift towards a universalist and economic-based approach is not guaranteed to make a difference – the proof will eventually be in the social statistics. But, although some commentators are warning that Labour could face a “backlash” from Māori voters, this seems unlikely at this stage. Yes, conservative Māori leaders, including those of the Māori Party and organisations who are contracting to provide services to Māori, will continue to criticise the Labour-led Government’s shift away from Māori-specific policies and programmes. After all, this shift threatens the very ideologies and material basis on which their leadership is based.

But that doesn’t mean that Māori voters in general are going to revolt against Labour. Instead, if inequality and poverty amongst Māori is alleviated by programmes such as Labour’s universalistic Families Package, then Labour is actually likely to cement its hold on the seven Māori seats.

Newsroom is powered by the generosity of readers like you, who support our mission to produce fearless, independent and provocative journalism.


Newsroom does not allow comments directly on this website. We invite all readers who wish to discuss a story or leave a comment to visit us on Twitter or Facebook. We also welcome your news tips and feedback via email: Thank you.