Oranga Tamariki's 'uplifts' of Maori babies have prompted deep concern among whanau and iwi. Photo: Supplied.

With the Ihumātao occupation dominating headlines, a march on Parliament calling for an end to the state’s “theft” of Māori children has slipped under the radar. But as Sam Sachdeva writes, the issue may prove more damaging to the Government in the long run.

COMMENT: It was a video that shocked thousands of New Zealanders – yet one that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern still has not watched.

Newsroom’s investigation into the attempted uplift of a newborn baby in Hawke’s Bay has spurred public outrage, four separate inquiries – and today, a march on Parliament.

Hundreds, maybe thousands, will gather in Wellington on Tuesday afternoon to call for an overhaul of New Zealand’s state care system in a rally organised by protest movement Hands Off Our Tamariki.

They want an end to the growing numbers of Māori babies and children being taken by the state, and an overhaul of Oranga Tamariki – which the group pointedly refers to as the Ministry of Children – to bring it in line with kaupapa Māori.

With the occupation of Ihumātao by thousands dominating the Government’s agenda and newspaper columns, the rally has understandably failed to garner the amount of attention it would usually receive.

But there is still plenty of outrage that will be full on display, perhaps stoked in part by Ardern’s puzzling decision to avoid watching Newsroom’s video on the grounds she had seen uplifts before (although it was at least better than the excuse offered by Children’s Minister Tracey Martin, who attacked the media’s decision to “expose” the family without acknowledging that exposure had helped stop the uplift from taking place).

Somewhat serendipitously, it will be Kelvin Davis – acting Prime Minister for the day with Ardern in Tokelau and Peters en route to Thailand – who will meet the protesters outside Parliament.

As the most senior member of Labour’s Māori caucus – which has both privately and publicly seemed more closely aligned to the concerns than the party writ large – and an MP who has spoken out against institutionalised racism within the state, Davis seems likely to receive a more sympathetic hearing and present a more plausible argument that their concerns are being heard.

Jacinda Ardern’s decision to avoid watching the video of an uplift which created a public outcry seems puzzling at best. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

But it was Peters, filling in for the Prime Minister before himself heading overseas, who on Monday afternoon presented a robust defence of the Government’s response to date.

“If you ask me personally what my view is, let me say that Māori children have been killed since this issue broke – I don’t see many headlines about that, and that’s a tragedy.

“If any of you understand Māoridom, you’ll know that there is some deep disquiet with respect to the treatment of women and children in particular, so let’s not wipe our hands of this and own up to the fact that if there’s going to be a change, there has to be a cultural renaissance in Māoridom itself as to its internal responsibilities to help fix this issue.”

The call for a renaissance is certainly a Peters special, but his frustration over coverage of the topic seems to be shared more widely around the Beehive.

In fairness, the demand from some critics that not one more Māori child be taken by the state would seem an impossible ask of the Government. Clearly, there are some cases where to leave a vulnerable child with their whānau could prove a fatal mistake.

But there is undoubtedly room to improve the flaws in Oranga Tamariki’s processes as revealed by Newsroom; attempting to remove a young mother’s newborn baby in the dark of night after her family had left her side should appall most New Zealanders.

The Government has pointed to the fact that new legislation for the ministry, requiring it to work more closely with iwi and other Māori organisations and establishing national care standards for children under the guardianship of the state, has been in effect for barely a month.

Proposals to give greater oversight of Oranga Tamariki to the Children’s Commissioner and the Ombudsman, along with extra resourcing to make that stick, could go some way towards addressing the calls for an independent watchdog to hold the ministry to account.

But there is still a risk that in assuming a sense of complacency and defensiveness, Ardern and her ministers would appear out of touch with the concerns of Māori and trigger a new foreshore and seabed moment, as some have suggested could yet occur.

Ihumātao has taken on that mantle for now, but with a series of inquiries into Oranga Tamariki set to roll up over the coming months, the state’s treatment of Māori tamariki will surely rise to the forefront of the public’s minds yet again.

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

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