21 Jan 2020

Peeni Henare, Merepeka Raukawa-Tait debate Whānau Ora

From Checkpoint, 5:10 pm on 21 January 2020

The head of Whānau Ora is warning the agency's Minister Peeni Henare that if he continues to allow government agencies to using its funding, Whānau Ora faces destruction by stealth.

Whānau Ora's North Island Commissioning Chair Merepeka Raukawa-Tait and several distinguished Māori leaders are seeking an urgent Waitangi Tribunal hearing over the government's handling of Whānau Ora funding.

But Mr Henare denies any of the Whānau Ora funding is going to other government agencies, and says the move is politically-motivated.

Whānau Ora was set up a decade ago as a culturally-based, family-centred approach to delivering health and social services, with Māori controlling the funding and delivery of services through three Māori-led commissioning agencies.

A major funding increase for the programme was announced in the government's 2019 Budget, but a group of five Māori kuia say much of the money is being diverted to bureaucrats and "state-driven mechanisms" rather than on programmes devised and delivered by Māori.

"From what we have seen, particularly in the last 12 months, we believe that the government is starting to undermine Whānau Ora," Ms Raukawa-Tait told Checkpoint.

The programme has been highly successful, but now Ms Raukawa-Tait says she is seeing funding being withdrawn and seeing government agencies adopting the 'Whānau Ora' brand.

But Mr Henare says there are "more opportunities to be had" for Whānau Ora.

Of the budgeted $80 million over four years for Whānau Ora, Mr Henare told Checkpoint just over $40 million is currently going to the programme.

"We've held on to some of the money… to allow us to explore how we might be able to support Whānau Ora."

Ms Raukawa-Tait says Whānau Ora can do more at the community level, but that is not possible without more funding.

"We really understand our communities… Don't tell me any government department or agency is going to be able to deliver better than the providers we've got now," she said.

"Ask any government agency to collaborate with each other… Most of them can't stand each other, they don't talk to each other, they won't share information."

Dame Naida Glavish, Dame Tariana Turia, Merepeka Raukawa-Tait, Lady Tureiti Moxon and Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi wrote to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in November 2019, expressing their concerns, but they say they have had no response.

Mr Henare said the letter was passed on to his office. "It did require us to do a lot of work, and my office continues to work on that.

"In the meantime, I have also been more than happy to meet with [the claimants]."

But Ms Raukawa-Tait told Checkpoint the letter was expressing that the group of Māori leaders were not happy with Mr Henare as Whānau Ora Minister.

"We've had no acknowledgement."

The kuia are now seeking an urgent Waitangi Tribunal hearing, claiming the government has breached the Treaty of Waitangi by refusing to adequately and transparently fund Whānau Ora.

Multiple reviews into Whānau Ora, including an independent review in 2018, found the policy not only works - but current funding and resourcing cannot meet the demand in some areas.

But Mr Henare says it doesn't matter where the support is coming from - as long as whānau are getting the help they need.

He told Checkpoint he has spoken to families who utilise Whānau Ora support. He says they want more accountability, more transparency, and the opportunity for them to determine what the programme might look like.

The claimants want the Waitangi Tribunal to recommend urgent systemic changes to the way Whānau Ora funding decisions are made in order to avoid further prejudice to Māori.

But Mr Henare says the move by the group, which includes former Māori Party leader Dame Tariana Turia, is political.

"Obviously it's an election year, every issue is important to our people in an election year. I question the motivations, most definitely.

"I suggest that there might be a hint of political motivation."

Ms Raukawa-Tait said it is not playing politics.

"I believe the Minister is being short-sighted… These women, these Māori leaders, they know this area of work. They've been in this space for such a long time, so they know that they're hauling Whānau Ora back into government agencies will have no long-term benefit for Māori.

"I think if anyone's being political, it's actually the Minister."