Former Māori Party leader Dame Tariana Turia (Photo: Te Whānau o Waipareira)

Dame Tariana Turia: don’t understand kaupapa Māori? Either learn or step aside

Māori are looking to the Wellbeing Budget to increase targeted funding for initiatives like Whānau Ora, a system that, according to its architect, still hasn’t reached its potential.

Whānau Ora was one of the Māori party’s flagship policies. In 2010, a partnership with the Key government secured its implementation. Over nearly a decade, it has been subject to numerous reviews and evaluations. After all, a social issues initiative that relies on at-need families to identify how they want help and through which services is a dramatic departure from the prescriptive systems of mainstream agencies. In a recent visit to Auckland, Dame Tariana Turia – the architect of Whānau Ora – discussed its progress, and the barriers which continue to limit its reach. Simone Andersen, a member of the North Island agency which funds programmes built around the Whānau Ora kaupapa, was on hand for the conversation. The Spinoff sat in on the pair’s discussion.

Kia ora Dame Tariana. Ko Simone Andersen tōku ingoa. It’s lovely to have you in our West Auckland office. First, let’s talk about how you got Whānau Ora across the line. That couldn’t have been easy?

Tariana Turia: At the time, I thought the best people to convince were National’s John Key and Bill English. I knew if the Prime Minister and his deputy were on board, they would have sway over rest of their caucus. I was particularly focused on Bill English because he came from a large family – 11 in total – and had about six children of his own. Because Whānau Ora is built around family values, and aims at empowering entire family groups to decide and pursue the best way forward collectively, I believed he would understand what it was about. And he did, he absolutely got it. While John Key did not understand it, he was willing to test it. That was the first major hurdle overcome.

Simone Andersen: Whānau Ora sees families as best equipped to decide what they need for themselves. Help and information comes in the form of our kaiārahi navigators, who work alongside whānau members to discuss what type of support they might need and identify appropriate services. It seems quite simple, but it’s quite revolutionary isn’t it?

It certainly appears to be quite simple. Perhaps a better way to phrase it is Whānau Ora takes a more difficult approach. Trusting people who are in desperate situations to take control of their lives is not easy. That challenge should not be underestimated. However, for too long, agencies have gone into families and told them what is wrong, then doled out the services and programmes they believe they need. I like to call it ‘provider ora’, where agencies tend to focus on everything that is wrong within a family because ‘they know better’. Without realising it, they keep the families firmly in that situation because of the intense focus on their immediate shortfalls. The Whānau Ora approach challenges that.

Do you have an example where that type of myopic approach in the system has hurt a family?

Many, but one that springs to mind is from a number of years ago, before I ever went into parliament. An 18-year-old boy from Marton had developed a virus which attacked his heart. I was working in the public health sector at home at the time. The boy required a heart transplant and the hospital initially refused to give him one. His mother came to see me and she said the hospital believed he would not look after his heart, and that he would be unable to cope with the stress of having heart surgery. Essentially, they had made assumptions about him as a person. I called a meeting with the hospital specialist and the boy’s family. On the day, 30 whānau members turned up. The specialist walked into the meeting, then back out. He was annoyed at being confronted with so many people. The meeting eventually took place, but it was not easy for the specialist. However, I believe it made a big difference for everyone involved. The family were able to understand what was going on, and importantly the support required for a heart transplant. To the specialist’s credit, he has continued working and is an excellent doctor. I don’t think he ever dismissed another family’s inquiries again after that.

It is amazing what we learn when we move out of our comfort zone. One of the things that was released this year was the government review into the initiative that found many whānau had benefited from it. It also noted a lack of uptake of Whānau Ora practises in government agencies and across the wider NGO sector. What are the major barriers preventing Whānau Ora from being implemented effectively?

My word for it would be racism. Essentially, there are people in this land who think that their way is the right way. That translates to ‘the white way’. Unfortunately, it just isn’t the right way for all people. Until the state, all its agencies and those working in the name of the government of the day understand that, an initiative like Whānau Ora will always be limited.

Part of that is the lack of understanding among current policy makers about Whānau Ora’s aspirations. It is about having our people be independent thinkers, knowing and pursuing what is right for them and their families. It is not about having someone else determine that, and then putting systems in place to facilitate that.

I also believe the level of scrutiny Whānau Ora has been subjected to is another example of racism, and the ignorance of its objectives. Why haven’t other Pākehā or mainstream organisations been reviewed and evaluated so extensively?

It is difficult because we report on our progress quarterly and have complied with numerous requests and audit requirements over the years – and that takes a huge amount of resources. Our providers, which actually work at the coalface of our communities and form relationships with whānau, also report they are under the pump. Since 2015, they have worked with nearly 45,000 people. 90% of those live in households below the minimum wage. Do you think those working in areas aimed at eliminating poverty are paying enough attention to the work of Whānau Ora?

No. Because if they were, then we would not have so many whānau living in poverty. Whānau Ora works, but its programmes and processes need to be fully funded so we can get to all families that are struggling beneath the breadline.

Nothing irritates me more than when I see the government giving millions of dollars to an organisation that claim to be working with Māori families, when in reality, I know they are not doing the best for our people. I always think: ‘Are you really making the difference for them that you need to be making? Are you restoring their mana motuhake to them?’

I’ll use an example from when I was the associate minister of Child, Youth and Family. There was an organisation in Auckland which would receive approximately $300,000 per child per year. That is a huge amount of funding. Further, I found Māori providers taking in young people received considerably less. Most were actually paid according to the amount of time a child stayed, as opposed to bulk funding. I came to Auckland to check it out. The organisation, which I won’t name, wheeled out these kuia and kaumatua for the visit and said they received advice from them for looking after Māori children. Not only was it insulting, in the context of at-risk young people, the kuia and kaumatua were not the appropriate people to seek advice from.

When I returned to Wellington, I discussed how funding for one child at this organisation – which amounted to $750,000 as they received 2.5 years worth – could help in other ways. Back then, you could probably buy a family a decent home, a van, and pay for all the counselling that they needed with that money. It really showed the failures of the system.

Talking about that system, the Welfare Expert Advisory group referred to whakamana tangata as needing to “restore dignity to social services” in its report. What role does Whānau Ora have in that?

Whānau Ora is based on a philosophy that we could all practise and benefit from. You don’t have to be Māori for the approach to resonate with you. I know plenty of Pākehā families that have benefited from Whānau Ora, and it works well with many Pacific families too.

Yes, it is kaupapa Māori. And yes, that is a good thing. Whānau Ora is built on an aspect of our culture that builds families, builds their lives, and rebuilds it where it needs to happen. What part of that isn’t restoring dignity to a sector which many have no faith in?

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What do you think it will take for a wider buy-in to the Whānau Ora approach?

We need the political will and understanding of its potential from policy makers and bureaucrats. When you work in the public sector, you have a responsibility to actually learn about these things. If the majority of your clients are a particular group of people – Māori or Pacific – you either move aside and let someone who knows how to work with them do the job, or you remain in place and learn. It doesn’t matter what qualifications you have, if you are at odds with the people you are supposed to be serving than you need to think about how appropriate your place is, and how you are hindering a system from achieving for families what its intention is.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

This content was created in paid partnership with the National Urban Māori Authority. Learn more about our partnerships here.


National Urban Māori Authority is a collective that is influencing and advancing Māori economic and social development through strengthening and sustaining whānau success.

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