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The myth of whanau? - John Tamihere speech

Hon John Tamihere
9 December, 2003 Speech Notes

The myth of whanau?

Speech at the launch of "Well-being and Disparity in Tamaki-makaurau", AUT, Tuesday, December 9, 10am



Usually when you get a politician along to launch your report, you'll have them unreservedly applauding what you have done and patting you on the back and all that. Well, a word of warning here: I'm going to be a bit more challenging than that.

First of all I want to congratulate the authors of the report for the valuable work they have undertaken in an area where, to date, research has been a bit thin on the ground. I would also like to say you have my total support in pursuing the aims of this study – that is in achieving wellbeing for all Maori. That is a hope we can all applaud.

It is the hope of the report's authors that the report will be used by policy makers and others in ensuring that all people in New Zealand may become actors rather than spectators in national life, and that it will be used in working to overcome the inequalities the confine some groups to the margins of society.

The stated purpose of the report is to assist policy development that will transform the urban Maori situation, and identify the factors that need attention to ensure that all urban Maori have the freedom to develop their capabilities so they achieve personal wellbeing and contribute positively to their whanau as a prerequisite to building a dynamic nation. I would endorse that goal.

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I also commend the report for looking not only at the failures, at those for whom urban life has been "disappointing, tragic, or crippling to the spirit," but also at the successes.

While we must not by any means turn away from our problems, we must also look to our successes, and what we can learn from them for the benefit of all.

Richard Benton, director of the James Henare Maori Research Centre, says in the preface to the report:

"What impressed us greatly about those who participated in the ethnographic component of the study …was their resilience, their hopefulness, the absence of a 'victim mentality', even among those whose rangatiratanga had been almost circumscribed, and the strength of the whanau in enabling their members to cope with adversity and rise above it."

Too often we hear so-called leaders telling our people about their problems and failures, and telling them why they should blame others for those problems and failures, instead of leading the solutions out of those problems and failures.

As Alan Duff put it, so much better than I can, we once were warriors. We were warriors, not whingers. So I am pleased that the central question that the report seeks to answer accentuates the positive. The report asks:

"What factors contribute to cultural, social, economic and political wellbeing among Maori in larger urban areas, and how are these interrelated?"

By looking for the factors that promote wellbeing, we can see where their lack contributes to disparities that reduce the wellbeing of some groups, and address those disparities.


The report's principle finding is that the whanau remains the predominant kin group among urban Maori, and that strengthening the whanau and harnessing its potential for social and economic development should be a major focus of social policy.

I accept that view – with some reservations. Too often the whanau is not representative of the positive characteristics we traditionally associate with whanau. In the ideal world, the whanau is nurturing, supporting, loving, protecting, teaching, guiding, sharing and strengthening.

Unfortunately, in the real world, that is too often not the case. Too many whanau in New Zealand are dysfunctional. Rather than reaping the rewards that a whanau should give them, too many Maori children live among whanau where the lessons they learn from their whanau are the lessons of violence, neglect, drug and alcohol abuse, lack of aspiration and responsibility, and welfare dependency. More than half of all reported child neglect and abuse cases in the last year were Maori children. That is a tragedy and a disgrace.

When nearly half of Maori families are headed by solo families, maybe its time we had a look at how we define whanau. Where are the caring and supportive fathers in our idyllic whanau? Not that I am trying to put the boot into solo mothers, but I am saying that what we want whanau to be, and what it actually is in reality, are often pretty far apart.

In an ideal world, the whanau has two committed parents in a loving relationship, who are devoted to the care and upbringing of their children, who have a connectedness with their cousins and uncles and aunties and grandparents around them. But for many Maori in urban areas, this is not the reality.
For a lot of Maori, whanau is a myth. It doesn't exist.

We need to make it a reality again. But meanwhile we need to work with the current reality, not the myth. By doing that, maybe the reality will start to look in reality more like the myth that we aspire to.


I saw a photograph in the Gisborne Herald the other day of 200 patched Black Power members performing a haka at the graveside of a fellow gang member who had been slain by rival gang the Mongrel Mob. "Gang members killing cousins" the headline read. If that's pride in our Maori culture, then you can keep it. If it wasn't such a tragedy, it would be a joke.

The tragedy of that photo is that gangs have replaced whanau and hapu for those gang members. For whatever reasons, be they the drift to urban centres and the breaking of traditional kinship ties, those young men felt a void where they should have had the love, support, strength and guidance of their whanau. So they looked elsewhere, and found a different kind of kinship that is leading them down a path that can only lead to failure.

Yes, I agree that whanau can provide the focus of the solutions to ending disparities, but only if whanau are strong, functioning whanau.

Yes, we, as the government, have a role in supporting whanau so they are strong and functioning, but we as Maori cannot look to the Government alone for that support.


Another point from the report I agree with is that development should focus on Maori-ness, rather than tribal-ness. While I am happy to be Ngati Porou, I'm just as happy to be Maori, and that's the way forward. We need to identify our commonalities rather than our differences.

I am pleased to read the report's comment that "although there is a great diversity among Maori, there is a common miro or thread of 'Maoriness' that transcends social, economic and descent-related divisions. Therefore policies directed towards Maori … should not seek to subdivide the Maori population." I couldn't agree more.

Modern-day tribalism is too much about identifying our differences and wallowing in our differences, because doing so allows some people to exert greater control.


Urbanisation of the Maori population over the last century has probably had a bigger impact on the lives of Maori than any other population trend. Today more than 80 per cent of Maori live in urban areas, regardless of whether or not they still hold close affiliation and identification with their tribal background.

I was part of that urban drift – my family moved from Waihi around the time I was born and settled in West Auckland in pursuit of work and a better life. As a result I identify as strongly as a West Auckland urban Maori as I do with Ngati Porou. The experiences of many urban Maori today would be similar.

That brings a responsibility in ensuring that when we develop policy relating to Maori, we must make sure that that policy reaches Maori living in that modern reality – in urban communities. We need to closely examine whether the so-called "traditional" iwi-based mechanisms really deliver to all Maori, or whether they cater to a privileged few. There is no more certain way to ensure the continuation of disparities than to place advantage in the hands of a few in the name of the many.

Levels of difficulty in urban areas can be hidden by the numbers – the numbers of people doing well. In other areas the differences may be more easily isolated, and therefore and more easily identifiable and addressed.

In a city like Auckland, many of us may be doing well, and their prosperity may disguise the fact that others are not accessing opportunities to anything like the same extent. While the house may look OK from the outside, what's going on inside might not be so good, and this report shows that some people are not doing so well.


Finally, there was one other matter raised by the report that I wanted to address. That is the lack of data regarding Maori identified by the report, and as Minister of Statistics there are several matters I am currently working on to strengthen the collection of data in this area.

Good policy and accurate targeting relies on good data, and the projects I am working on will lift our game in compiling statistics in a number of areas relating to Maori to ensure data is comprehensive and systematic. Maori business, for example, is one area where data collation will be greatly strengthened.

Without the research and data to underpin policy, we cannot be certain that policy best meets the needs of Maori, and I therefore welcome the work undertaken in this report is a valuable contribution in that regard, and I thank you again for your work.


There is only one population that can lift our performance, and it is not the police, it is not the Corrections Department, it is not Child, Youth and Family and it is not Work and Income – it is us.

There is a great saying – that any nation can measure itself on the strength of its families. All the best things that we can possess as individuals can be traced back to our family and our upbringing: pride in ourselves, a sense of duty to each other, and a belief that we should contribute to the best of our potential. Unfortunately family also passes on its worst as well as its best attributes.

You are right – whanau is at the heart of our success. But the reality is that it is also at the heart of our failure. We need to turn that around.

And the only people who can drive that is ourselves. As well-intentioned as any number of State agencies may be, they cannot be stand-ins in the roles and responsibilities we must fill ourselves. We want a lot of do-gooders to get out of the sun and let us feel it for a change, rather than keeping us in their shadow.


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