Right on cue, the Government announces an inquiry. The footage of the Government’s persecution of a teenage mother in hospital was causing a PR headache. The remedy for that is more PR. When that doesn’t work, go to court. When that doesn’t work, call an inquiry. It’s the last option in the PR arsenal when you’re getting your arse kicked.

It gets it off the front page and means those in the firing line no longer have to explain their screw-up because someone else is looking into it.

Then there’s the press conference flanked by important people, ie. Labour Māori MPs and iwi.

For too long when it comes to state abuse of power over children, Māori MPs have been missing in action. Likewise iwi leaders.

One comment I hear variations of from state abuse survivors is “where the f#@k were iwi when I was being abused in (insert name of state institution here).” I’ve yet to come up with an answer.

But since the treaty was signed the Crown has always tried to find “iwi leaders” who will conform to its will and give their decisions legitimacy, even though many of those decisions have not been for the benefit of Māori at large.

Tracey Martin was on a hiding to nothing and her grip on her portfolios looks tenuous. She had to do something to take the heat out of a volatile situation that was only escalating and threatening to consume not just her but the government.

Government ministers and the bureaucracy that reports to them have immense resources and one of the greatest resources is that of managing their image. That resource can be deployed to put out fires or minimise criticism.

But even the highest paid spin doctor cannot get around the raw images of state employees harassing a young mother who has recently given birth and the whānau supporting her. The government had lost control of the message that they’ve crafted at the cost of millions and didn’t know where to turn. So let’s have an inquiry.

And this is all the “inquiry” exercise is about. Containing the problem. It is not about fixing the problem.

The problem is… well, that’s the problem. Everyone defines the problem differently, so don’t expect a solution to arrive any time soon.

The problem is usually defined as a social one and one that is specific to a certain group of people. They are poor and they are Māori. This fact is studiously overlooked, or alternatively they are labeled something else which is about judging their character – they’re lazy, they’re useless, they’re dysfunctional, they kill their children. Or in bureaucratic-speak, they have high and complex needs.

Actually no. Their needs are fairly basic. The need is actually singular. Economic security. Without economic security, you’re under constant stress from every direction and any human being only has a certain reservoir of tolerance for stress before things begin to unravel in all sorts of ugly ways. For a number of whānau things have been unraveling over multiple generations.

Time for a little historical excursion. Between the censuses of 1936 and 1961 the Māori population doubled. Doubled. From just over 80,000 to nearly 170,000. It was the first time since the signing of the treaty that the Māori population had been over 100,000. Until about the 1920s the Māori population had been steadily declining through a combination of introduced disease and poverty, bottoming out at around 40,000. One of the drivers of that poverty was the loss of their economic base in the form of land. They were also subjected to an education system that had a deliberate policy of preparing Māori for low-paying jobs and dissuading them or blocking their path to higher education.

Once the population started to recover, thanks to the tireless work of leaders like Maui Pomare, Te Rangi Hiroa and Sir Apirana Ngata and those they collaborated with in Maori communities, a massive shift happened. The Māori population not only started to recover and grow. It then flipped from predominantly rural to predominantly urban within a generation. That generation’s leadership was dealing with a problem it had never encountered and in some respects those leaders were left behind. The generation of the 1950s and 60s faced many of these new challenges on their own.

But with large families and lower incomes, these whānau were under pressure.

Here’s a summary of the situation by the economist Horace Belshaw in 1940: “There is an unambiguous picture of a people whose land resources are inadequate, so that a great and increasing majority must find other means of livelihood… if it is accepted that Māori must be economically self-supporting, large numbers must migrate to other districts, many of them to the towns… Until the full implications of this are understood there is no solution to the Māori problem. They are not yet understood either by the Māori or European communities of by the Government.”

That was written nearly 80 years ago. I’d argue that neither Māori or European leaders or the government itself has ever fully grasped the implications or responded in an adequate way to the “Māori problem” that Belshaw outlined. We’re still dealing with the implications.

One of those implications was that the welfare system became very tetchy about all these Māori kids running around in the towns and cities, spooking white middle class New Zealand who had never seen so many brown faces in the flesh at once. Starting in the 1950s and escalating in the 60s thousands of these Māori kids were scooped up by social workers who deemed them to be “not under proper control.”

Where they ended up was institutions like Kohitere, Epuni and Owairaka. The education they received there was not of the academic variety. It was an education in abuse and violence. It was an education that taught them how to give and take a hiding. It was an education that put them in solitary confinement, sometimes for months, giving them the capacity not to earn a living but to regard prison as a cakewalk.

And that’s where many ended up.

This was being noticed by those within Social Welfare, including John Rangihau. He challenged the underlying racism driving it and after holding numerous hui around the country he authored the report Tu Puao Te Atatu.

Te Puao Te Atatu was the basis for a major rethink and led to the CYF Act of 1989. The act was revolutionary for its day and put an emphasis on Māori children being kept within whānau, hapu and iwi.

However, it was never adequately put into practice. In a conversation with Andrew Becroft, now Children’s Commissioner and previously the Chief Youth Court Judge, he admitted sheepishly that he hadn’t previously understood the significance of that language when he was working as a judge. It was only when he took another look as the Children’s Commissioner that he realised how important it was but how it had never been properly resourced or implemented.

While Rangihau’s recommendations were radical, so were the economic changes that landed in the same period. Rogernomics tossed a lot of Māori who were on low-paying jobs onto the scrap heap. Many never recovered. Some years ago I talked to a guy who was a union delegate at the freezing works in Ngaruawahia at the time. He got visibly upset as he recalled the despair and frustration that seeped into the community he was part of when the majority of the men and a number of women were made redundant. And he pinpointed that as a turning point in the community’s slide into alcohol and drug abuse, violence and entrenched dysfunction.

In 20 years of journalism I’ve heard the same story repeated with variations all over the country. For a story I’ve worked on recently I talked to people in Gisborne. Same, same. This was the second/third generation after the post-war urbanisation and they were being hammered again.

What also changed was those communities became targeted and punished further for their poverty, material and spiritual, by the very government agencies that were set up as a safety net. Those agencies were no longer a safety net but a drag net to capture people who were not “performing”.

And here we are. Government agencies taking Māori children. Again. The young mother in Hawke’s Bay is a microcosm of this history. From the little I know, her father went through the same welfare system that destroyed so many Māori boys who then became men. Then Oranga Tamariki has the audacity to say the whānau is high risk. If there is a risk – and that assertion is questionable – the state made a significant contribution to that risk in the first place. The state can hardly take the high moral ground, particularly when over 200 children in their custody were abused in six months.

Social problems usually have underlying economic causes and this government came in on a platform of change. But it has been too timid to bring about that change, either economically or socially.

It’s attempt to tamp down the housing market has been a ham-fisted disaster. Instead of focusing on the housing market, it tried to apply the capital gains tax to the productive sector of farming and business. This over-reach, which was probably Michael Cullen’s idea, caused a backlash that led to Labour getting nothing across the line. 

On the social policy front this government is failing. The Royal Commission into abuse in state care is at risk of falling over because it is destroying its own credibility with survivors, credibility it has never really established. That’s a story on its own that I won’t traverse here. But it is compromised by the fact a Crown Law employee was heavily involved in setting it up. One of its flaws is that it has a cut-off of 1999. I’m hearing stories of people who were abused by the state after that date being turned away.

Now Tracey Martin is announcing an inquiry into the bullying “uplift” of a baby in Hawkes Bay. There is a straight line between the historic abuse that occurred in state institutions and the ugly practices evident in that incident. It would have made far more sense to broaden the scope of the Royal Commission to include today’s situation. They are deeply entwined. Instead, NZ First pushed for the Royal Commission to include the church, which is a separate issue. While important, it distracts from the state’s central role in intervening in families.

To have an inquiry into an individual case is extremely narrow and will not have the scope or powers to delve into the systemic policy problems that are entrenched in not just Oranga Tamariki but the entire bureaucracy. Even though it is a “new” ministry, it has inherited the same problems of its countless predecessors.

Then there’s the report back on the Family Court. That report has generated headlines which include the word “monocultural”. Translation – racist.

Like its Siamese twin the media, the politicians are always playing to an audience and that audience is the white middle class.

Tracey Martin’s main concern when she traveled to Hawke’s Bay was not the Māori whānau her ministry was harming. It was the harm Newsroom’s documentary was doing to her reputation in the eyes of the white middle class public. That white middle class public finally caught a glimpse, albeit fleeting, of the kind of persecution of poor Māori whānau that has been going on for several generations now. That glimpse was a dissonant experience for those viewers, but it is nothing new for too many Māori.

Both Tracey Martin and those under her authority are more concerned with preserving their reputation than they are with addressing the problems faced by Māori whānau on the margins. If they were really concerned with those Māori they would actually talk to them. Instead they meet with the friendly face of iwi leaders to give them an air of legitimacy. If she was really concerned she would have visited the Mongrel Mob in Hastings and asked them for their thoughts. They’re her “customers”. And their thoughts and views on the matter would be a little more on point than iwi leaders and politicians.

But those kinds of customers are constantly ignored or vilified in the public conversation. They are constantly having policies developed and imposed on them without anyone bothering to ask if it will help them. They are constantly being “held accountable” by institutions like Oranga Tamariki who constantly act without any accountability. They are repeatedly treated as “the Māori problem,” not tangata whenua, citizens of Aotearoa.

Judge Carolyn Henwood heard from over 1100 victims of state abuse in the Confidential Listening Service. One of her recommendations was for an independent inquiry. We’ve finally got that, although its effectiveness is open to question.

But one of Henwood’s main recommendations was that an independent body be set up to hold MSD accountable, in much the same way as the Independent Police Complaints Authority holds the police accountable. Former Police Commissioner Howard Broad discussed and commented favourably on something similar when he reviewed the CYF complaints system. This is yet to happen. Until it does Oranga Tamariki will continue to act with impunity.

But more broadly, until Māori under economic pressure are enabled to participate in the wealth this country has to offer, this conversation will be on a constant, repetitive loop with no end in sight. Māori will continue to be perceived as a problem, an inconvenient political nuisance that occasionally makes life uncomfortable for politicians while the rest of the country carries on apathetically.

Aaron Smale is Newsroom's Māori Issues Editor. Twitter: @ikon_media

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