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Govt's Closing The Gaps Strategy Challenged



Last week I received a copy of a sensitive report exposing fundamental flaws in the government’s closing the gaps strategy. “Maori socio-economic disparity paper for the Ministry of Social Policy, September 2000” by Simon Chapple, a senior government research analyst, uses census and Statistics New Zealand data to show that rather than widening, the gaps between Maori and non-Maori have significantly closed over the last decade. The post 1970’s Maori population is in absolute terms larger, materially wealthier on a per capita basis, and has a longer life expectancy than at any other time in our history.

In particular the paper looks at employment, education and income as key measurements of so-called ‘gaps’. It argues that while disadvantage does exist, it is across all ethnic groups and that ethnicity is not the pre-determining factor for socio-economic disparity.

There is absolutely no doubt that employment gaps between Maori and non-Maori opened up under the Lange Labour government. As a result of the highly regulated, union-controlled labour market, Maori, displaced by widespread restructuring, were prevented from re-entering the workforce. However, by deregulating the labour market, the 1991 Employment Contracts Act was responsible for the fastest period of job growth in our history, with some 250,000 new jobs being created. Maori were amongst the biggest beneficiaries of expanding workplace opportunities with employment rate disparity dropping from a peak of 14 per cent in 1991 to just 6 per cent today.

Similarly, as Maori unemployment grew between 1986 and 1991, so too did income disparity, peaking when median Maori incomes were just 75.5 per cent of median non-Maori incomes in 1991. The 1996 census shows that the gap has closed to 79.3 per cent, with further increases more than likely to show through in the next census.

The paper goes on to highlight the fact that, educationally, gaps are also closing with a slow progressive decline in the differences between the population shares of Maori and non-Maori without qualifications.

These findings are at odds with those of the “Closing the Gaps Report’, published by the Ministry of Maori Affairs, Te Puni Kokiri. That report, which has become a cornerstone of the government’s flagship closing the gaps policy, has consistently indicated that socio-economic disparity between Maori and non-Maori has been growing over the last decade.

The differences in the two conclusions – Chapple indicating that the so-called gaps between Maori and non-Maori are closing, while TPK states that they are widening – can be largely explained by the variations in methodology. TPK uses averages extensively, instead of recognising the importance of using additional measures of distribution or spread, together with regional variation, to enable a more comprehensive and detailed analysis of data. By evaluating these other statistics, Simon Chapple concludes that being “Maori” has a very low predictive power for socio-economic success or failure, and that disparity amongst Maori overwhelms the differences between Maori and other ethnic groups.

He does acknowledge that significant disadvantage is being experienced by some Maori, particularly those who lack education and skills and live in isolated areas where there are no jobs. However, he states that those who are the most disadvantaged in society, cross all ethnic boundaries, and that government social policies to support and lift those families should not be based on race.

Finally, he concludes that “broad based policies which target the Maori population, which may be thought to close the gaps (such as fisheries settlements, other treaty settlements, cheap access to radio spectrum etc,) risk being captured by the considerable number of Maori who already have jobs, skills, high incomes and good prospects”.

This conclusion shadows concerns amongst the wider population, that policies based on race alone may provide special privilege to many who don’t need it, while those who are genuinely disadvantaged, are effectively ignored.

The government would do well to heed the recommendations in Simon Chapple’s paper, with a view to modifying their closing the gaps strategy, and ensure our finite extra resources are well targeted to those most in need, regardless of ethnicity.


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