Māori law, business and policy analyst Joshua Hitchcock on whether incremental progress is, in fact, progress at all.
“Not shit.” As far as budget 2021 takes go, this one by Emma Espiner on Twitter best summed up the feelings I’ve seen expressed by Māori since Thursday’s budget. The lack of ambition to address the serious crises affecting many communities around Aotearoa – both Māori and non-Māori – was at least counterbalanced with several initiatives directed towards ensuring that life does not get measurably worse for those already struggling to survive our modern, crony capitalistic society.
In the context of the government’s budgeting process it’s easy to see why Labour’s Māori caucus is celebrating over $1 billion of new Māori initiatives. It is unprecedented. Never before have we seen this level of investment into Māori communities through the adoption of “by Māori, for Māori” approaches. But let’s be honest, the bar was set pretty low to begin with. We have had one-off initiatives in the past – Whānau Ora and the kura kaupapa movement for example – but this is the first time that a government has made a sustained investment, over three consecutive budgets, towards kaupapa Māori initiatives.
Yet, we will never reduce the inequality between non-Māori and Māori through small carve outs each year. It might feel good. It might even feel like progress. But it is going to require true, systemic transformation to achieve equity. Add this year’s $1 billion to the $900 million secured in 2020 and the $600 million in 2019 and you almost – but not quite – reach the same amount of money we spend each year on our armed forces. Now that’s progress.
After budget 2020 made increased investments into Māori education and employment, budget 2021 shifts the focus towards much needed responses to Māori housing and health. That these are priority areas for this government is easy to understand. We are in the middle of a housing crisis. For Māori, this crisis has been ongoing since the early 1990s when home ownership rates started to plummet and the economic reforms of the fourth Labour government decimated Māori employment and whānau incomes. In health, Māori continue to experience worse outcomes across the board and the funding for the new Māori health authority is a step in the right direction towards addressing these inequities.
Earlier this week, The Side Eye highlighted the 2,700-day gap in life expectancy between Māori and non-Māori and discussed the experience of Māori dealing with a health system not designed with us in mind. It is one sobering example of the hundreds of inequities that Māori experience in Aotearoa. From life expectancy to health outcomes, employment and incomes, housing and incarceration – Māori are at the negative end of almost every statistical indicator of health, wealth, and prosperity in Aotearoa. The small carve outs and incrementalism of this government is unlikely to shift the dial on these statistics.
The government has the ability to fix these issues if they want to. We saw in 2020 the full power and potential of the state when it sets its mind to averting a catastrophe. With the threat of unemployment reaching double figures and an impending economic crash, a $50 billion Covid recovery fund was developed and allocated in a matter of days towards addressing the crisis. Jobs were protected, the economy stabilised, and life returned to (somewhat) normal. We need that same sense of urgency, of commitment, of direct action towards improving Māori outcomes. We need the full power of the state to partner with Māori to achieve this. We need a $50 billion colonisation recovery fund based on the three promises of Te Tiriti o Waitangi: equality, self-determination and equity. A fund that takes a strategic approach to addressing inequity, not a year by year, incremental, take what we can get and try again next year approach.
Progress in this area is always a positive outcome but it is one which is currently beholden to party politics. There is a massive risk in this piecemeal, incremental approach – evidenced by the current direction of the National party, which has come out strongly against key elements of these “by Māori, for Māori” initiatives. When the government changes and the strong Māori voice we currently have around the cabinet table disappears, what happens next?