4 May 2020

Māori health professionals left out of Epidemic Response Committee meetings

5:22 pm on 4 May 2020

Māori health experts and industry leaders have largely been excluded from Parliament's Epidemic Response Committee meetings, leaving many feeling extremely frustrated and left out.

Climate change iwi leaders group chair Mike Smith, Ngā Puhi and Ngāti Kuri.

Iwi Chairs Forum spokesperson Mike Smith. Photo: NZ Herald / File

The committee is tasked with challenging the government's response to Covid-19, but in six weeks only two Māori organisations, Te Whakaruruhau o Ngā Reo Irirangi Māori, the network of iwi radio stations and chair of the Federation of Māori Authorities, Traci Houpapa, have been invited to speak.

Not even the country's national Māori pandemic group Te Rōpū Whakakaupapa Urutā - which includes more than 50 leading Māori health experts, policy specialists and academics - has been approached by the committee.

Its co-leader Teresa Wall said that meant MPs had missed out on expert advice on how the government could be responding to the needs of Māori.

"It is unfortunate that we haven't been asked or that Māori haven't been asked," she said.

"Because of the breadth of expertise sitting within the group, we would have been able to provide policy advice and implementation and operational advice about how government could respond most effectively for Māori communities."

She said the government's $56 million Māori response package would go a long way, but Māori needed to be at the forefront of decision-making and policy too.

"The things that really drive inequalities or inequity, is not the little bus you know, putting more money into Māori initiatives or tampering around the edges. It's actually changing the whole bus," she said.

"Unless we maximise this opportunity to re-imagine what the new normal could look like, we will go back to Māori occupying the same social position that they had, or probably be at a worse level post-Covid-19.

"This select committee has that power to recommend to government what it needs to do to change the social trajectory for Māori coming out of Covid-19."

National Party leader and Epidemic Response Committee chair Simon Bridges has the final say on who appears in front of the Committee.

Screenshot of Simon Bridges chairing the Epidemic Response Committee

Simon Bridges during one of the Epidemic Response Committee's online meetings. Photo: Parliament

In a statement, Bridges said that Dr Shane Reti - a National MP - had been on the committee every week and had a reporting line back to the Northland Iwi leaders Forum, which was a conduit to iwi around the country.

Bridges said other National MPs had also been actively involved in the committee.

"Other National Māori party caucus members, Jo Hayes and Harete Hipango, have been involved in shaping and analysing questions for the ERC. All National Party caucus members received a copy of the Māori coronavirus testing rates for their region when they were released by the ERC."

He added his aspiration was to make the committee accessible to as many Kiwis as possible, including input from Māori and iwi.

But not a single iwi representative has been invited to speak so far.

Iwi Chairs Forum spokesperson Mike Smith said Māori suffered higher rates of chronic illnesses than other New Zealanders and were therefore particularly vulnerable to the virus.

As such, input from Māori health workers should have been urgently sought by the committee.

"We've got high vulnerabilities, including general underlying health problems, and Māori health professionals know and understand these issues and they're able to bring that lens to the discussion."

He argued that as Treaty partners, Māori should have been included at every stage.

"We haven't been invited at all which is a surprise to me and I would have expected that if the Crown was serious about its responsibilities to us and the Treaty partnership, and everything they put in our Treaty settlement agreements, then we would have been invited."

The absence of Māori voices was not lost on the government's former chief science advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, who has been invited to speak at the committee regularly.

"Māori have shown great community and wisdom in the way that they have looked to address the problems they face. Their voice at this committee would be useful," Sir Peter said

Te Rōpū Whakakaupapa Urutā said the group would still love the opportunity to present to the committee.

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Marama Davidson. Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

Green Party co-leader and committee member Marama Davidson was keen for Te Rōpū Whakakaupapa Urutā to speak at the meeting.

She said that Māori representation had been "absolutely lacking".

"What we're hearing is that the committee would benefit from at least a whole day of focus purely on the Māori response and Māori leadership to Covid-19 so I think that is something we will continue to raise and ask for."

However, she said it was ultimately up to the committee chair Simon Bridges to decide.

"I think that he has done a decent job of hearing from across the committee and we have negotiated here and there to get a spread of viewpoints [but] it hasn't yet happened that we have had a particularly focused Māori response day at least, and so I hope that is something that we can continue to discuss at the committee."

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