Matt McCarten on politics

Matt McCarten is a Herald on Sunday political columnist

Matt McCarten: Whanau Ora a masterstroke for the Maori Party

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Tariana Turia's Whanau Ora could transform the welfare state. Photo / Hawke's Bay Today
Tariana Turia's Whanau Ora could transform the welfare state. Photo / Hawke's Bay Today

Tariana Turia's Whanau Ora is - to quote US Vice President Joe Biden's famous remark - "a big f***ing deal".

If she pulls it off, it could be the transformation of the welfare state as we know it. It's potentially on the same scale as Labour's transformation of our economy in the 1980s.

It's been a great week for the Maori Party. They have had a huge win with the repeal of the Foreshore and Seabed Act.

It was always in National's interest to find a compromise and make the Maori Party look good.

The devil's in the detail, of course, but the symbolism of having the Act overturned that triggered the formation of Maori Party is probably enough.

Fudging ownership by calling it a public domain is good politics as, theoretically, it gives Maori and the Crown equal status.

The reinstatement of iwi rights to go to court or negotiate directly with the Crown will mollify iwi warlords.

For the rest of us, the right to go the beach takes away most of our concerns. And as long as no one can sell the coast to private developers we're happy enough.

But the real game-changer is the appointment of the Maori Party co-leader as the minister in charge of rolling out her Whanau Ora policy.

This project has been the driving force motivating Turia; she has subordinated everything else to get the National Party to sign up to it.

Having the top bosses of Health, Social Development and Te Puni Kokiri reporting to Turia shows she won the backroom fight.

National never took this policy seriously. Like Helen Clark, they underestimated Turia's stamina and resolve.

The arguments for Whanau Ora are compelling. A one-stop shop to help struggling families from an array of social services is hard to argue against.

Having a family advocate to liaise between all the players is a creative idea.

The Act Party came up with a similar idea several years ago but it was widely attacked by those of us on the left as a Trojan horse for privatisation. Which it was.

Turia's version is softer and gentler, but the intention to contract out the management of social services to private providers will ring alarm bells for the left.

The right knows that once the precedent is set, it could be extended to education, justice and other services that private contractors can make a good living from.

Although it's a Maori programme for Maori families, potentially it will be a help to every family, whatever their ethnicity.

It is difficult for Labour to argue against a Maori initiative given that, after 75 years of a welfare state, Maori still rank at the bottom of nearly every single social statistic. Whoever's fault it is, something new must be tried.

Turia will know that there will be powerful vested interests in the public bureaucracies who will covertly act to undermine it. No barons of a huge public domain will give up resources and turf to Whanau Ora without a fight.

That's why it was a significant success for Turia to get the top honchos reporting to her directly. It's hard to undermine a minister when she gets to see the whites of your eyes in her office every week.

Still, even with goodwill from the National Party there will be a temptation by them to underfund Whanau Ora contracts to save money. This will create capacity problems that will inevitably lead to failures and muck-ups.

Each disaster will be plastered over the front pages of newspapers. We don't like to admit it, but Maori organisations will always be held to a higher measuring rule than others.

The risks are high, but the political rewards will be high, too. If it works, the Maori Party will deserve to win the remaining Maori seats at the next election; if it fails the Maori Party is toast.

Both Labour and National will have their fingers crossed over the success of Whanau Ora - but for different reasons.

- Herald on Sunday

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