Whare Runanga at Waitangi. Photo: Getty
Whare Runanga at Waitangi. Photo: Getty

ĀteaApril 28, 2021

Te Pūtahitanga: fashioning our own whare for science and policy in Aotearoa

Whare Runanga at Waitangi. Photo: Getty
Whare Runanga at Waitangi. Photo: Getty

We need a new approach to policymaking that gives full expression to Te Tiriti o Waitangi as Aotearoa’s founding document, and Mātauranga Māori as our country’s first knowledge system, write Tahu Kukutai and Jacinta Ruru.

Māku anō e hanga tōku nei whare …

I will build my own house …

So begins a tongikura or proverbial saying of Kīngi Tāwhiao, the second Māori King, made after the devastating invasion and confiscation of Waikato lands. To rebuild, Tāwhiao sought trees not typically used for construction, and urged his people to find sustenance from plants only eaten in lean times.

More than a call for self-sufficiency, Tāwhiao’s tongi was a proclamation of mana Māori motuhake. To survive and thrive, Māori futures needed to be fashioned by clever and inventive Māori hands.

This vision of Māori-led flourishing is front and centre of a new report released today, Te Pūtahitanga: A Tiriti-led science-policy approach for Aotearoa New Zealand. In it we join other Māori researchers to call for an approach to policymaking that gives full expression to Te Tiriti o Waitangi as Aotearoa’s founding document, and Mātauranga Māori as our country’s first knowledge system.

The report interrogates, from an unapologetically Māori vantage point, how science and evidence shapes policymaking. It finds that the current approach marginalises Māori experts, knowledge and priorities, with adverse consequences for Māori and Aotearoa generally. It argues for a Tiriti-led approach that is equity focused, unrelenting in its drive for positive Māori outcomes, more “bottom up” than “top down”, and that draws on Māori community knowledge and expertise in far more timely and connected ways.

The report comes amid ongoing concerns about the exclusion of Māori and Pacific expertise from science advice and key decision-making roles. As the government pushes on with its post-Covid “recover, reset and rebuild”, a system-level response that mobilises and invests in our unique strengths is crucial.

In Aotearoa we averted the mass mortality that occurred in so many other countries, in part because our government took science seriously. But we have emerged from the pandemic with starker inequities than when we entered lockdown, a housing sector still in crisis, and the need for urgent climate action barely registering on the national radar. Business as usual has wreaked havoc on the lives of far too many New Zealanders.

It’s a good thing that new legislation and policy is starting to catch up to the enormous potential for us all if we fully embrace Te Tiriti. Te Tiriti offers a powerful framework for connecting systems and communities of knowledge in ways that are mutually beneficial and future focused. New law, such as the Public Service Act 2020, requires the public service to support the Crown in its relationships with Māori under te Tiriti.

We believe this must mean working together “as equals” in a relational way. This new way of working together should  support the duties of the Crown to  exercise kāwanatanga, and Māori to exercise rangatiratanga. While Crown agencies are increasingly comfortable with the notion of partnership in a relational sphere, their understanding of and capability to engage with rangatiratanga is largely untested. Yet, for Māori, the space for self-determined development is critical.

For the intent of Te Tiriti to be brought into the science-policy interface – and the RSI system more broadly – changes at the systems level are needed. We need to move beyond symbolic gestures to meet responsibilities in transparent and tangible ways. To that end our report argues for both partnership (relational) and autonomous (rangatiratanga) approaches at the science-policy interface to drive positive Māori outcomes. We make five priority recommendations:

  1. Develop Tiriti-based guidelines for RSI funding.
  2. Appoint chief Māori science advisers in key government departments.
  3. Strengthen monitoring of Māori RSI investment and activity.
  4. Establish an autonomous Mātauranga Māori Commission.
  5. Develop regionally based Te Ao Māori policy hubs.

The report writers are well placed to make this call. Between us we have many decades of expertise and experience as researchers and advisers in Te Ao Māori, and in Pākehā-dominated institutions and settings. We have been up close and personal with the science-policy interface and know it isn’t working for Māori, for Pacific peoples, or many other marginalised communities.

We have all had the frustrating (and lonely) experience of being the only Māori around a high-powered table, or being part of Māori advisory groups whose recommendations are ignored, or diluted beyond recognition.  We have sat in meetings with senior officials and academics whose understanding of Te Ao Māori is tenuous, at best, and whose lived experiences are worlds away from the Māori and Pacific peoples whose livelihoods are shaped by their decisions. Like the many who have come before us (too many to acknowledge here), we care because we know what is at stake – it is the wellbeing of our whānau, our mokopuna and their mokopuna, our whenua, our rivers and oceans, our reo, our identities.

And despite hōhā narratives about “breaking the cycle”, we know that things weren’t always this way. Many of the issues that disproportionately impact Māori – whether poverty, domestic violence, or over-incarceration – are not natural or normal. Rather, they are the very predictable outcomes of a system that has systemically sought to disempower and dispossess us, as Māori. And just as these problems were manmade, so too can they be un-made. But it requires – among other things – the right people asking the right questions to get the right solutions. And it involves genuine power sharing in a relationship of equals.

There are signs of positive change with initiatives such as the newly-announced Māori Health Agency, Mana Orite agreements such as those between the Iwi Chairs Forum and Statistics NZ, and a prime minister’s chief science adviser who has publicly supported a more inclusive science-policy approach that recognises the importance of mātauranga Māori alongside western science.

Ultimately, however, the power to set this new science-policy agenda, to implement and benefit from it, requires Māori leadership. History has shown us, time and again, that transformational change for Māori must be Māori-led. Kōhanga Reo and Kura Kaupapa Māori were all uniquely Māori solutions, driven by and for Māori. And, as we are now seeing with te reo revitalization, these bold visions of Māori flourishing have also produced wider benefits for Aotearoa and New Zealanders generally. The new Te Urewera model for caring for land is another empowering example of what can happen when we trust Māori and mātauranga Māori.

Resilient. Inclusive. Generative. Unambiguously rooted in this whenua.

This is the whare we could all seek to fashion.

Tahu Kukutai is professor of demography, Te Rūnanga Tātari Tatauranga (National Institute of Demographic and Economic Analysis) at the University of Waikato. Professor Jacinta Ruru is co-director, Nga Pae o te Maramatanga, New Zealand’s Māori Centre of Research Excellence.

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