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Dunne Speaks: Turia is Right on Whanau Ora

When a Minister dismisses the criticisms of a high-powered group of citizens as just “political” one knows immediately the criticisms being made both have more substance than that and are probably pretty accurate. So it is with the case of Whanau Ora Minister Peeni Henare and the group of distinguished Maori women led by Dame Tariana Turia who have spoken out strongly against the government’s management of the Whanau Ora programme.

In my view, Whanau Ora, the brainchild of Dame Tariana and the Maori Party, is one of the most innovative and potentially effective social intervention programmes initiated by any government in recent years. Whanau Ora unashamedly places the family at the centre of resolving the issues affecting families, recognising that flourishing families lie at the heart of the nation’s wellbeing, and that when they flourish, the country flourishes. It aligned very closely with UnitedFuture’s family-centred focus which was why we were keen supporters of it.

One of the keys to Whanau Ora’s success is its flexibility, recognising that no two families are the same, and that different responses will be required in so many cases. Implicit in this is an understanding that services need to be nimble, flexible and participatory. Support for families is not just something passive – to be done to them at their time of need – but an active process requiring full participation. Families are much more than just recipients of help – Whanau Ora works with them to overcome their challenges together. Its constancy and tailored hands-on approach to specific circumstances was and remains Whanau Ora’s strength, but, by its very nature, it was almost inevitable that it would run into conflict with the Labour-led Government.

The is not because of Labour’s churlishness towards the Maori Party, which its insensitivity had spawned originally, but because of a much more fundamental difference of view about the best way to make social interventions of this type. There is probably no less concern within the ranks of the Labour Party than among Dame Tariana and her colleagues, or the Maori Party at the time Whanau Ora was introduced, about the negative social impacts of dysfunctional families and the need to break those cycles. Rather, the difference lies in the way of going about it.

Labour is still wedded solidly to its historic principles that the state knows best when it comes to the welfare of its citizens, and that, therefore, it is not only the prime role of the state to look after them, but ipso facto, only the state is capable of looking after them. I was astounded to hear from the head of a community-based welfare support programme just before the last election that the now Prime Minister and Finance Minister, still in Opposition at that point, had visited their programme and while full of praise for the work they were doing, had left them flabbergasted by going on to say in no uncertain terms that they should not be doing such community work, because that was the responsibility of the government.

In office, Labour has taken a similar approach to programmes like Whanau Ora. Rather than fund a range of innovative providers to provide an agreed range of services and be held accountable for them against an approved range of targets, Labour not only quickly abolished all the targets, but decided that all services would henceforth be provided by central government agencies. The nimble, flexible, family-centric, highly individualised approach of Whanau Ora quickly gave way to the return of the rigid, awkward, one-size-fits-all, only the public sector can deliver help approach that had characterised the provision of social services previously. The breath of fresh air and focused, practical help and support Whanau Ora is all about, with its attendant risks of failure from to time, was simply too much for Labour to contemplate. It really believes its own propaganda that it is the party that has historically cared for the disadvantaged. It just cannot bring itself to believe that anyone else could have a similar concern, let alone a more successful way of dealing with it, or that there are people out there who might like a more different, personally centred approach. In its mind, Whanau Ora is an affront to all Labour stands for, not an innovative approach to the resolution of hitherto intractable social problems.

Against that backdrop, the criticisms of Dame Tariana (who has committed the other cardinal sin in the Labour book of daring to attack the Prime Minister as “not up to it” on this issue) and her colleagues are hardly surprising. Particularly at a time when family deprivation, homelessness, child poverty and overall dependence levels are rising sharply, all on Labour’s watch. The party’s long self-proclaimed mortgage on concern for the disadvantaged is looking more than a little tatty, and the last thing Labour wants now is a distinguished group, like the Maori women leaders Dame Tariana has brought together, to point that out.

In dismissing them in the brusque way he has, Minister Henare is the one playing politics – and badly at that.

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