8 Sep 2018

John Tamihere - Leading the fight on behalf of urban Māori

From Saturday Morning, 8:15 am on 8 September 2018

Social services in New Zealand are an antiquated relic of the British Empire and have failed to serve Māori for the past 60 years, but hope can be found in community-led services, former Labour MP John Tamihere says. 

A teenage Māori boy looking unhappy

Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

A former radio host of Ngāti Porou, Whakatōhea, Tainui, Irish and Scottish descent, Mr Tamihere entered Parliament in 1999 and served as a Cabinet Minister in the Labour government from 2002 to 2004.

In 2006, he returned to his position as chief executive of the Waipareira Trust, and has commissioned a raft of research looking at the plight of urban Māori, and the ways social services help, or fail to help, them.

He tells Saturday Morning's Jim Mora that for example, Māori make up 69 percent of youth justice lockups and 65 percent of court referrals, the situation is a national catastrophe. 

However, with $2.4 billion being spent solely on Māori in criminal justice this year alone, he says, there's enough money there - it's just not being used properly. 

"I think that the road to that redemption story is under way now. I think that as more solutions are placed back into the hands of the communities you'll start to see a faster turnaround.

"The problem we have of course is that most of these solution-bringers today are third-party mercenaries from a range of government organisations who are well intended but for the last 60 years have definitely failed. Their failure has led to the continuity of failure of the Māori people. 

John Tamihere

Photo: Te Whānau O Waipareira

"If you think the present tools that are being used and the present toolbox are right - we've got something very, very wrong with the country."

There will be no quick fixes, and he estimates 25 years at least before the difficulties Māori faced can be turned around. He knows it will be difficult, but he's also optimistic.

"Certain interventions will flip individuals and families on the right track straightaway, certain families will track extraordinarily well.

"Then there'll be one incident - domestic violence, sexual abuse, the breakdown of a vehicle, the breakdown of a relationship - which will throw the whole family back to ground zero again. Then you've got those who are high complex needs who are gonna require a lot longer working with, and you've got everything in between.

"So you shouldn't doubt the gravity of the difficulty, but you shouldn't steer away from it either just because it's gonna take this amount of time."

Tamihere supports the legal definition of Māori as 'a person that is a descendant of a Māori' and says percentages of Māori blood "means diddly".

"In Māori terms, if you have an ancestor who is Māori and you're proud to assert that, that's Māori enough for anybody."

"That heritage is deeply embedded in the majesty of our mountains, rivers, oceans and lands. It gives you a spiritual connectivity that others might not have."

Te reo is integral to Māori culture, but Tamihere isn't troubled by the low fluency rates.

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John Tamihere says modern young Māori have grown comfortable with being Māori. Perhaps in some ways that's more important than broad fluency in the language. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

"The new generation of New Zealanders has a different sense of their 'Kiwitanga'. They can get up and haka and they can waiata … they're comfortable in a bicultural setting, and just as importantly now in a multicultural setting."

He sees nationhood as a journey and believes New Zealand is "in a marvellous part of that journey now".

"It took us six generations to start a national conversation about biculturalism and the place of the Treaty.

"It's gonna take another three or four generations for prudent, skilled, visionary leadership to start to work for us."

Sir Douglas Graham.

Sir Douglas Graham. Photo: TVNZ

He says part of the problems around the Treaty began when Douglas Graham - then the Minister in Charge of Treaty of Waitangi negotiations - agreed to a compensatory, rather than a restitutional Treaty settlement in the 1990s, Tamihere says.

"Compensation isn't about the people that are at home, and are left at home. So in Ngāti Porou terms, 2 percent of the people are still in the tribal homeland - if you take Kaiti in Gisborne out.

"If you look at the Ngāpuhi settlement, 55,000 Ngāpuhis are in Auckland, and nowhere near their tribal rohe."

There are effectively two classes of Māori, Tamihere says: the iwi elite and everyone else.

"Māori dont have a middle class."

"Tribal leaders, iwi leaders, have to understand they have obligations, duties and responsibilities to a significant number of Māori who will not, can not, or may not ever head back to the homeland.

"If you're not being served by your iwi leadership because they believe 'Mohamed has to go home to the mountain all the time' that's not true."

He says it's the same situation happening now in Pākehā society, but multiplied, and it's not helped by New Zealand's "antiquated" community service system which harks back to the British Empire.

"We're 18 years into this new century and still haven't woken up to the fact that the best brains aren't all in Wellington anymore - or Westminster or Washington. They're actually out in the communities.

"They're actually far more literate and numerous now, and with the digital world they're far more connected, and we don't need three layers of bureaucracy - from central government to regional government to local government. 

Maori Affairs Select Committee room at Parliament 23 Feb 2018

Policy makers need to turn to the community to find the experts in how to help the community, John Tamihere says.  Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

"By the time policy hits the street you're into another election cycle and often, Māori [politicians] get turned over every election so there's no sustainability in the policy programme.

"You've got overpaid, underperforming bureaucrats all over the shop… I don't think it's intentional but it's cultural, it's embedded and hard to measure."

Despite that he has a lot of faith in the health initiative Whānau Ora, and believes it won't fail the current Labour Party review.

"They're driving the Whānau Ora policy up and down the country out, and they're mandated by the communities, they're not a government agency, they're not a crown agency. 

"It's been off the screen because it's been very well managed ... it's been rolled out up and down the North Island in all the communities where we've chosen who our provider groups are. We have longevity, big balance sheets, clean audits.

"They've tried everything that works for a middle-class European kid, but definitely doesn't work for a working-class or beneficiary third-generation Māori family that has no resilience, it's got no skill sets, its children believe that the only time the family can get happy is on booze or drugs.

"That's their value system, you can't change it, you have to work with that lowest common denominator to work that out."

He offers an example of how Whānau Ora can work more effectively than the current system:

"Solo mother, three babies under five, in a private state-subsidised rental ... always on the cusp of being thrown out on the street.

"We [Whānau Ora] ... can intervene straight away, we can immediately pay the differential in debt owed to the landlord, we can get the mother on a budget plan straightaway and we can ensure that the three babies are secured in an early childhood centre and so on and so forth. 

"If the state had to involve itself ... she'd go into emergency housing, [Oranga Tamariki] would pick up the kids. 

Te Puea Marae closes its doors tonight after first opening them to the homeless three months ago. 31 August 2016.

The experience of losing a house can go very differently for those who find themselves relying on their community, rather than the state. Te Puea Marae as one example housed hundreds of homeless and sought to find them work last winter. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

"The dollar value for our intervention would be around $1500. The dollar value for the state over the same period would be three to four times that minimum and cause massive dislocation, queues at WINZ, so on and so forth, and you just keep a lot of bureaucrats in business."

"So just out of that one intervention we've stopped a rolling domino of adverse impacts for those three children and the mother."

He says Whānau Ora needs total independence to work properly, and is investing in social statistics collection to be self-reliant.

"We're not interested in what other people think, we're interested in what we can evidence through prudent, scrubbed data."

Tamihere - who served as a Labour Party cabinet minister from 2002 to 2004 - says he has no aspirations to get back into politics.

"All politicians are a whisker away from failure. Mine just came a lot sooner than I'd anticipated, slit my own throat with my own tongue."

His focus now is on the urban Māori community - but he takes a long view of the change process.

"You've just gotta keep pushing your agenda and growing the capacity of your community to lift itself.

"I'm a father of six, grandfather of five, got two more coming … sometimes you've got to leave enough problems in the tank for your kids to sort out."