The aura of the new whanau focus

It was an inauspicious week to launch whanau ora: a week when it was revealed public funds going to a Maori health provider had gone missing.

When Tariana Turia was Minister for the Community and Voluntary Sector in Helen Clark’s government she ran into flak over where some money went. Labour chief whip Tim Barnett was put in to monitor the processes.

Since then Turia has broken with Labour, co-led her new party to five seats and into a governing arrangement with National and a ministerial post — and agreement from John Key to implement whanau ora.

Is this the revolution Pita Sharples says it is?

Turia said at the launch: “If you always do what you have always done you will always get what you have always got.”

That is slippery ground for an indigenous rights party. Tradition is central to indigenous claims — and to whanau ora. And is not tradition “doing what you have always done”?

The taskforce topped its list of principles with “nga kaupapa tuku iho (the ways in which Maori values, beliefs, obligations and responsibilities are available to guide whanau in their day-to-day lives)”. It set as a test of success “when whanau are … confidently participating in te ao Maori”, the Maori world(view), and identified as its top “key operation element” “methodologies shaped by the values, protocols and knowledge contained within te ao Maori”.

Confidence in one’s cultural (and/or personal) identity is critical to social and economic success and urban Maori exhibit signs of a decultured underclass, which whanau ora’s cultural dimension might usefully address. But is heavy emphasis on tradition the path forward into the modern, internationalised society and economy?

And is Turia right to imply the government has just been doing what it has always done?

Actually, no. Whanau ora has a precursor.

Since early 2008 the Ministry of Social Development has been opening community link centres to deal with hard cases. These broadly do what whanau ora does: an “integrated approach around the whole family”. Where relevant, this is done within a Maori framework and includes a self-determination element, reconnection with iwi and te reo.

Community link is outcomes-focused — a major point of whanau ora. A plan is developed with a family, priorities are agreed and families helped to run themselves.

And, though this is still work in progress, it aims at coordinated action by the various agencies which deal with “at-risk” and “dysfunctional” families — that is, adults-and-kids households which by mainstream standards are not “families” at all. Such households come to the attention of a range of agencies, from police to schools. If they operate separately, that leaves root causes unaddressed.

Thousands of families have been dealt with through this process. And it is expanding.

Or was. Turia’s $1 billion has to come from somewhere. The most logical source will be from the service that most closely approximates whanau ora.

There are two political risks for Key.

One risk is that non-Maori, egged on by Winston Peters on state television, might resent what they see as special treatment for Maori. Key should be able to finesse this — at least through to the 2011 election — given his extraordinary ability to be nearly all things to nearly all people nearly all of the time.

The second risk is essentially for his second-term and comes in two parts.

One part is that, as Tony Ryall is demonstrating in health, boosting one spending area (in his case elective surgery) in tight-money conditions squeezes spending elsewhere: mental health and drug addiction, both important drivers of crime (now, it seems, off the government’s radar) and services for the disabled and for old people who need help at home. That gradually builds pockets of resentment which over time hollow out a government’s vote.

The second part is the risk that, with looser financial controls — a sort of bulk funding approach — some resources will be suboptimally spent and/or spent on activities “mainstream” New Zealand thinks dubious (remember the hip-hop tour) and/or siphoned off (the subject of last week’s hoo-haa).

Enter Bill English. Before the budget he and Key have to have worked up more of a response to the taskforce than that there will not be a separately funded trust running whanau ora and that non-Maori will be eligible for the services (which presumably will widen John Tamihere’s large, innovative Te Whanau o Waipareira Trust) though it is unclear how te ao Maori will apply.

English is a Southlander, with the right amount of suspicion to be the nation’s treasurer. But he has a history in this area: as Health Minister in the 1990s he promoted iwi and Pasifika providers. And generally he favours a more diverse range of delivery mechanisms as a way of “getting more from less”.

That’s Turia’s challenge. Getting more from less is tough. Much will be expected of her whanau ora teams. And Key’s decentralised management style will leave the proof to her.