Oranga Tamariki, water rights, and a Covid recovery fit for Māori were among the hot topics during a debate between the high-profile candidates for Tāmaki Makaurau, as Sam Sachdeva reports

The rights of Māori children and their treatment by Oranga Tamariki have been put under the microscope by candidates for the Māori seat of Tāmaki Makaurau, with agreement that whānau need greater involvement in the process.

With Labour incumbent and Whānau Ora Minister Peeni Henare facing challenges from Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson and Māori Party co-leader (and ex-Labour MP) John Tamihere, all three candidates brought political acumen to Tuesday evening’s debate, hosted by The Hui‘s Mihingarangi Forbes.

The event was a constructive discussion of the issues facing Māori in the electorate, with the candidates trading praise more than criticism for each other’s ideas.

Seeking to make an improbable return to Parliament, Tamihere said Davidson and Henare had the best interests of their people at heart but claimed he was the one best placed to advocate for Māori.

“I report solely to Māori constituents, I don’t have to go into a caucus where Pākehā people can outvote me – that’s the difference between the three of us. Good people, three good people, but there’s only one person that reports directly to our Māori people.”

Davidson spoke about the importance of promoting Māori women, saying wahine had been at the frontlines of the fight for Te Tiriti o Waitangi, protecting the whenua (land) and wai (water), and battling racism across the system.

“It is a driver of my political responsibility to stay connected to those collective wahine-led movements because they have the enduring solutions to address the big crises, the big problems that our whānau are wanting to solve.”

Henare defended the Government against suggestions it had not done enough for Māori during the current term of Parliament, pointing to its initiatives in trades training and the support provided to whanau during the Covid-19 crisis.

Oranga Tamariki ‘drives wedges in families’

Oranga Tamariki’s uplifts of Māori tamariki provoked some passionate discussion from the candidates, who agreed the current system was not fit for purpose in its current form.

The Māori Party has proposed the establishment of an independent mokopuna Māori care entity to replace Oranga Tamariki, and Tamihere said Māori across Aotearoa had not been given the opportunity to build a relationship with an organisation that honoured or respected them.

“As a consequence, what it does is it drives wedges in families, it drives wedges in our communities, and it is reluctant at best and resistant to doing any business with Māori up and down the country…

“Why do we need so many Pākehā standing over us, regulating us? You see, our people are a solution waiting to happen, not a problem to be punished.”

Davidson said Māori whānau had been clear that they needed support, not separation, “and the stealing of our babies by the state has absolutely entrenched ongoing generational trauma”. 

Henare hinted at an impending announcement from Labour about looking after tamariki before they went into the state system, admitting that the current system “is certainly failing our people and much more work needs to be done”.

“I will say too that [Tracey] Martin over her tenure as the minister for Oranga Tamariki has confronted some hard questions, and I think has done a reasonable job, but we’ve got lots more mahi to do, not a shadow of a doubt about that.”

Oranga Tamariki had to move more quickly to work with iwi and whānau who were able to support tamariki, Henare said, suggesting Whānau Ora was an appropriate model to replicate.

“If we go back to first principles, and that is we be the kaitiakitanga of our water, wherever the water comes and wherever the water goes, Māori have the interest.”

Asked about how to ensure the needs of Māori were at the fore during the Covid-19 response, Tamihere said Māori should be given preferential access during government procurement, while Davidson spoke about the need to provide a sufficiently strong income support system.

Henare said the Government’s wage subsidy scheme had enabled Māori businesses to retain their staff and hire new employees, while pre-Covid training schemes like Mana in Mahi and He Poutama Rangatahi were as important as ever. 

Speaking about natural resources, Tamihere said the Māori Party was clear that Māori had never given up their customary title to water and so still retained ownership rights.

“If we go back to first principles, and that is we be the kaitiakitanga of our water, wherever the water comes and wherever the water goes, Māori have the interest.

“The day that the Crown monetises it, sends it offshore… or gives others the mana of our water to monetise it, they’re stealing our assets and our property.”

Henare said water sovereignty needed to be protected across the country, adding that Māori “without a shadow of a doubt have special interests in the water”, while Davidson said the Greens believed that Māori had customary, proprietary and kaitiaki rights to water.

With the country currently celebrating Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori (Māori Language Week), all three candidates laid out their plans to preserve and promote te reo.

Davidson reiterated the Greens’ push to train more te reo Māori teachers as part of the Covid response, Henare said he wanted to reinstate traditional wānanga – “not wānanga that we see in terms of an institution, but wānanga that actually not only teaches te reo but what it means” – while Tamihere said Māori needed a “reo protection authority” to invest in lifting the language across government and society.

“It’s an official language, it has to have the same mana as the English language, we have to get equality.”

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

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