The deeper issue in the Waipareira affair

Is there a justification for Richard Prebble’s assault on the Waipareira Trust? Yes, regardless of the final outcome.

His characteristic rough-house, blood-sport style must be distinguished from the deeper issue in this matter.

Waipareira’s money is not a capital sum as Tainui’s is. Tainui’s money came by way of compensation for land taken illegally off the tribe and it is the tribe’s business what it does with the money, whether it uses it wisely or stupidly and which individuals benefit.

The taxpayer, having made such a capital payment, has no further legitimate interest except as a spectator or if there is any criminal activity.

Waipareira’s money is in the form of transfer payments and service contracts, which are an altogether different matter. They are intended by the state for identified recipients or classes of recipients, either directly or in the form of services. An agency handling that sort of money is required to see that it gets to the intended recipients and no one else — and, moreover, to do that efficiently.

Mr Prebble is not only entitled to inquire into allegations that the Waipareira Trust has diverted money from their intended purposes, even if temporarily or mistakenly — and even if the allegations are disproved. Mr Prebble is duty-bound to make inquiries, as an MP representing all taxpayers.

This point has important implications for the Labour party and the government.

Last week Labour ministers were slipping into speeches and statements as often as they could comments that something they were doing or saying was in the context of “closing the gaps”. This refers to the cabinet committee, which Prime Minister Helen Clark heads, aimed at bringing average Maori educational, employment and social performance up to the national average.

One mechanism Labour committed itself to before the election was “direct funding” – bulk funding by another name. On whose initiative, battled through the policy forums? MP John Tamihere’s, the man in Mr Prebble’s sights.

Labour has a bifurcated attitude to bulk funding, demonstrated last week when at the same press conference Education Minister Trevor Mallard announced the first legislative step to removing bulk funding in schools while Annette King announced bulk-funded primary health care organisations.

The point about bulk funding, as Ms King will discover, is that monitoring is more difficult. Bulk funding of Maori organisations such as the Waipareira Trust is potentially even more slippery.

This is not because Maori are incompetent or untrustworthy, which some people have taken as Mr Prebble’s subtext, though he has not said or implied that. Maori are no more or less incompetent or untrustworthy than the rest of the population. Mr Tamihere’s achievement was impressive.

The difference is that there is a strongly developing strand of Maori thinking and argument that iwi have an over-arching entitlement, in organising social services and cultural activities, that descends directly from the “partnership” principle of the Treaty of Waitangi and transcends governments of the day.

In other words, they should not be subject to the strictures of the Public Finance Act. They should be able to use the money in the ways they assess will meet their constituents’ best interests, accountable to Maori in Maori terms.

You can guess what Mr Prebble would make of that and of any irregularities in Public Finance Act terms.

And it is not acceptable to Ms Clark. She has on her desk in effect a conditional resignation from Mr Tamihere. Her response to the Prebble attack has been to examine the way government agencies monitored the funds going to Waipareira – and to have found them wanting. She is adamant that the Public Finance Act will apply.

Ms Clark also talked firmly last year of the need for demonstrable mandates for Maori structures handling taxpayer funding and squeaky-clean governance. Her political survival with what one of her aides calls the “Crown iwi” depends on leaving very little room for the sort of attack Mr Prebble has mounted.

How she will marry this to her need also for the Maori electorate vote will be one of the most demanding tests of her prime ministership.