Indigenous rights are serious business

There are now two Maori parties, both pushing indigenous rights challenging the “mainstream” but from different perspectives. Our bicultural politics is getting more complicated.

Hone Harawira forms common cause with “socialist” advocates for state action to lift living standards at the “bottom of the heap”. The Maori party often proclaims the same ambitions but also has to keep onside the Maori upper crust and power elite which, some say, often doesn’t form common cause with bottom-of-the-heap Maori.

Those in the Maori power elite deal directly with the Prime Minister and top ministers and officials. Their focus is the mana and cultural and economic interests of iwi. In Treaty of Waitangi terms this is article 2 stuff — tino rangatiratanga.

The living standard needs of those at bottom of the heap come under article 3, which guarantees common citizenship to all, indigenous or not. In modern terms citizenship is the capacity to participate well in society and the economy.

A crucial factor is a good start as a child. This sounds simple. But indigenous rights complicate policy initiatives to intervene in households where a child is being damaged.

This came though in a day-long symposium in April aimed at finding ways to infuse into government policy analysis and development the findings of the world-renowned continual study of a Dunedin cohort born 38 years ago.

A number of speakers at the symposium said “western science” and “western hierarchies” get in the way of Maori dealing with bad (the polite word is “dysfunctional”) Maori households. There was a need for “translational dialogue”, some said.

The Dunedin study is “western science”. It has definitively linked defective early upbringing to higher probability of underperformance in education and employment, teenage delinquency, addiction, mental and other health disorders and crime and imprisonment.

Add in another branch of “western science”, epigenetics — the effect on gene “switches” of mothers’ (and fathers’) behaviour before and soon after a child’s birth — and it seems clear that early intervention can significantly improve a child’s capacities and opportunities. A report due soon from a team led by Chief Science Adviser and epigenetics expert Sir Peter Gluckman will join these dots.

On a simple “western” view a child’s wellbeing matters more than culture. No moral principle says an individual child deserves a bad start. Economic analysis argues that it costs less to intervene early than patch up or pay up later and there is a payback: a productive worker and taxpayer. Business has an obvious interest.

An often-heard Maori view, including at the symposium, is that whanau can best see to children’s needs and “western hierarchies” get in the way. This view has overtones of article 2 indigenous rights: Maori must control and deliver intervention and help in the case of Maori children. That is at the heart of Tariana Turia’s whanau ora programme.

Whanau ora presumes whanau are well-organised and fully functional or, with culturally sensitive help, become so. Most whanau are and their members benefit from belonging to the whanau. But many at the bottom of the heap (any social heap) do not belong. They are dislocated from the surrounding society. They lack the cultural confidence even of those who just get on averagely in life. Poverty may contribute but alleviating poverty doesn’t automatically end the dislocation.

Dislocated adults are likely to produce dislocated children. Cultural correctness does not resonate with those outside the culture.

It is at this point that “translational dialogue” can’t help. The child gets damaged. Its individual claim to a good life is denied.

Is that “western” thinking? Or universal? If universal, what can bicultural politics offer that is superior to specific intervention, child by child?

Business is universal. It needs our now deeply embedded bicultural politics to work because it needs stable politics and policy. But it also needs capable future workers, not mucked-up non-workers. So it comes about that seemingly esoteric questions are serious business.