Shane Jones’ proverbial “nephs on the couch” are the primary targets of a new employment initiative. But while there are signals of more targeted funding for Māori in this year’s Budget, the Government still seems caught in two minds, as Sam Sachdeva reports.

Shane Jones has never been shy of speaking his mind; take his premature proclamation to the NZ Herald in late 2017 that the Government would announce “work for the dole” schemes before Christmas that year.

“I am not going to remain silent any longer while my young ne’er-do-well nephews in Kaikohe and other places fall victims to the gangs,” the Regional Economic Development Minister said.

Labour ministers swiftly clarified that any youth involved in employment schemes should be paid the minimum wage and not the dole, with National seizing on the supposed divisions.

Just over a year later, Jones had a chance to see his vision in action with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the Landcorp-owned Mangatoa Station, 10 minutes west of Kaikohe.

There, young people have been building a nursery with over 3000 native seedlings which they will plant on the farm in March, as part of an employment initiative funded through the He Poutama Rangatahi youth employment scheme.

Kowhai Tonu and Shadae Rakete, two of the workers at Mangatoa, said the scheme was a welcome boost for young people in the area who often struggled to get into training or employment.

“There’s not much opportunities up here for the young people to do – so this course we’re doing is a great opportunity for young people,” Tonu said.

“We all look forward to coming to work to see each other, and we’re also a good team to work us … we all get along well so it makes the work easier.”

Employment Minister Willie Jackson says he understands the Government’s first-year focus on universal funding, but expects more targeted funding over the rest of its term. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Their work is set to be replicated around provincial New Zealand, with Ardern launching an $82 million Te Ara Mahi, or Pathways to Work, employment and skills initiative.

The initiative is being funded through Jones’ Provincial Growth Fund, with $60m ringfenced for the fund’s five “surge regions” – Northland, the Bay of Plenty, Tairāwhiti, Hawke’s Bay and Manawatū-Whanganui – which had particular problems with high unemployment, low wages or lower productivity.

Speaking at Mangatoa, Employment Minister Willie Jackson said Jones’ “nephs” comments had upset some people, “maybe some of the politically correct ones in Wellington”, but said Māori working at the coalface understood his point.

“I was happy about what he said, I know what he said, we know what he was saying, because it doesn’t matter whether you’re in Ngāpuhi or Ngāti Porou or Tainui or whatever, we all got nephs on the couch, and so we have to find the strategies to get them going.”

The key, said Jackson, was developing “specific programmes to target our own” – striking words, given the Government’s preference for universalist policies over targeted funding since taking power.

“There has to be a real push, particularly come Budget time, in terms of Māori-targeted funding – we’ve got to get the balance right.”

Talking to media later in the day, Jackson acknowledged there had been less of a focus on securing funding for Māori-specific initiatives, but suggested that could change come this year’s Budget.

“The first year [there] was a concentration in terms of universal funding, we accepted that: we actually understand there are more Māori who are not affiliated to Māori organisations than who are with Māori organisations, so we accepted that strategy for the first year…

“We’ve got the universal funding strategy. There has to be a real push, particularly come Budget time, in terms of Māori-targeted funding – we’ve got to get the balance right.”

The stumbling block has appeared to be New Zealand First’s opposition to such policies, with Winston Peters having been outspoken in his criticism.

But Jones appeared more supportive, noting Sunday’s announcement of $100m of funding to help develop Māori land.

“I know some people might say that it’s wrong to have a focus on $100 million for Māori land, but Māori land has the problems like no other land owner and we want to ensure the fund doesn’t end up being consumed by the people firing rockets from Mahia Peninsula but it ends up with the common people as well,” he said, referring to NZ-US aerospace company RocketLab.

Targeted funds, but universalism remains

Ardern confirmed there would be targeted funding in this year’s Budget, arguing there had been last year too, but suggested the universalist approach was not dead yet.

“Unfortunately when you target issues like young people not in employment, education and training, when you target things like rehabilitation programmes in prisons, unfortunately because of that disproportionate number of Māori who are in those statistics, ultimately we are investing in them.”

“There’s Tamaki and Brash: one’s a prince of darkness and the other is a self-proclaimed archangel.”

Don Brash, who has spoken out against race-based initiatives since his time as National leader, will have a chance to evaluate the Government’s work when he gives a speech at Te Tii Marae on Tuesday morning.

“There’s Tamaki and Brash: one’s a prince of darkness and the other is a self-proclaimed archangel.”

Te Tii Marae lost its hosting rights for the political pōwhiri under the National government, with Ardern hosted at the Upper Treaty Grounds last year. The marae organisers appear to be seeking the spotlight, having agreed to host both Brash and controversial religious leader Brian Tamaki.

While Ardern batted away questions about Brash and Tamaki, saying she was not involved in the organisation and would be spending most of her time at the Treaty grounds, Jones could not resist a chance to have a dig.

“There’s Tamaki and Brash: one’s a prince of darkness and the other is a self-proclaimed archangel.

“You can work out which is which, and I’m not interested in either of them in terms of what they’re saying down at the bottom marae…the gospel Don preaches, I think it’s got a very diminishing number of followers.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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