Māori experts have been rarely seen in the official government response. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images
Māori experts have been rarely seen in the official government response. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

ĀteaOctober 7, 2021

Māori experts have been all but invisible in the government Covid-19 response. Why?

Māori experts have been rarely seen in the official government response. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images
Māori experts have been rarely seen in the official government response. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

The numbers are clear: Māori risk being left behind in the vaccination push. That throws the scant representation of tangata whenua among government experts into stark relief, writes Lara Greaves.

Experts, experts, experts. If the New Zealand government’s Covid-19 response rhetoric was a word cloud, we would surely see the word “experts” feature heavily, reflecting their frequent mention. That is very welcome: expertise and evidence should feature prominently in policy-making. But something I have struggled with is this: which experts? Which evidence? Across the course of the pandemic, Māori (and Pacific) experts simply have not been a visible feature of the government response.

Why?

Māori and Pacific experts (and allies) have long-aired concerns around inequity and Covid-19, citing the Spanish flu pandemic, past disaster responses, and inequities in the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. Additionally, we know there are inequities in access to healthcare and housing, and immunisation rates across a range of vaccines. The likely impact on Māori was predicted, and the inequities documented after the second outbreak. The benefits of a Māori-focused vaccine response for all New Zealanders have been demonstrated in published research.

These facts have been reinforced from the start of the pandemic and led many to call for Māori-specific responses. Te Rōpū Whakakaupapa Urutā, a group of Māori experts, formed in March 2020, most Covid-19 research teams have at least one Māori team member, and – while still underrepresented – there are generations of Māori and Pacific academics within universities to draw on.

But where did this blind spot form?

Does it stem from the doctrine of cabinet collective responsibility? Flashback to 2020 and many were celebrating the diverse parliament and cabinet. Indeed, five Māori ministers were featured in the new cabinet, along with three Pasifika: Kelvin Davis, Carmel Sepuloni, Nanaia Mahuta, Poto Williams, Kris Faafoi, Peeni Henare, Willie Jackson, Kiri Allan. They were joined by the newly elected public health expert Dr Ayesha Verrall (who authored the aforementioned paper on H1N1 hospitalisations). These ministers obviously know about equity: in their work – intellectually and in their personal experience. You cannot tell me that their thoughts on a targeted response were not aired around the cabinet table.

I suspect this was part of the complex weighing-up of priorities that those within cabinet face – while they can fight for something behind closed doors they can not publicly speak their dissent or they will lose their job. The conventions of the system fail Māori again.

Sceptically viewed, is this some type of pragmatic play at voters, a sacrifice of some supporters to play for other voter groups? A political party, by its fundamental nature, has the goal of gaining votes. The Māori electorates seemed fairly exempt from the red wave of 2023. As a fallback option, Māori roll voters will surely go to Māori Party in 2023. Māori voters are fundamentally unlikely to defect to the right. Given their renewed left-leaning platform, and history with National, the Māori Party could probably only partner with Labour in 2023 or sit on the cross benches.

Or is this all a byproduct of the way many have used Māori as a populist political football? Judith Collins’ positioning on He Puapua and other Māori issues has in my view shown she is willing to push back on equity measures. For some, Collins’ rhetoric might have felt like a distraction, an attempt at “shoring up her base”, or a strategy to create a culture war, but it is possible nevertheless that this rhetoric influenced the government’s decision-making. Has Labour been concerned that a strong and foregrounded Māori-specific response may lead them to lose the centrist voters they won over in 2020? Before the last election, you might imagine New Zealand First would have pushed back on ethnicity-specific plans. Today Labour is a single party majority.

Largely absent from the media in recent months has been the previously well-touted Doctor Shane Reti, someone with first-hand experience as a GP in Northland, indeed he has even published papers that discuss inequity in healthcare. I wonder how the Covid response may have varied if Reti – or even Bridges version 2 – were the leader of the opposition. They may have been able to lead the discourse in a way that supports positive, community-led responses, and leave populism to ACT.

In my quest to find meaning in Labour’s response, I have talked to others who point to institutional racism, their memories of the Foreshore and Seabed controversy, and remind me that Māori – regardless of tangata whenua status – are a minority.

At this point I have more questions than answers. When we get to look back at Māori vaccination rates which have been called a “train wreck in slow-mo”, I wonder what excuses will be made. I welcome the autobiographies, honest interviews, and potential splinter parties in the years to come.

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