Dame Tariana Turia: Institutional racism - The evil whose time is up

To reduce inequality, politicians need to ensure Maori views are not frozen out by mono-cultural agencies and majority decisions.
Maori solutions such as the flax-woven bassinet called the wahakura, or pepi-pod, have helped babies sleep safely. Photo / Mike Scott
Maori solutions such as the flax-woven bassinet called the wahakura, or pepi-pod, have helped babies sleep safely. Photo / Mike Scott

I left Parliament in September 2014 with few regrets. But there was one - the failure of any government to address the systematic damage incurred by decades of institutional racism.

On her first day as British Prime Minister, Theresa May promised to combat the "burning injustice" in society. Her announcement of an audit into racial disparities across public services was a deft policy change which responded to the report from their Equality and Human Rights Commission warning of "systemic unfairness".

Not only will the audit review and monitor the way different populations are treated by the public service, the information gathered will also be used to force poor-performing services to improve.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Government has introduced a new Race Equality Framework to protect future generations from the impacts of racism and racial inequality. And in Northern Ireland a Racial Equality Strategy 2015-2025 has established a framework to tackle racial inequalities, eradicate racism and promote good race relations.

So why is it so hard for New Zealand politicians to do what is right? How is it that the egalitarian dream for Aotearoa seems so out of range?

Twenty eight years ago, a landmark report, Puao-te-ata-tū, a review of the Department of Social Welfare, identified a number of problems across the government in policy formation, service delivery, communication, racial imbalances in staffing, appointments, promotion and training practices.

It said, "The most insidious and destructive form of racism, though, is institutional racism. It is the outcome of mono-cultural institutions which simply ignore and freeze out the cultures of those who do not belong to the majority. National structures are evolved which are rooted in the values, systems and viewpoints of one culture only".

Puao-te-ata-tū informed the Children and Young Persons and their Families Act in 1979. It established procedures such as family group conferences and restorative justice. It created a new best practice of Maori-led solutions. But regrettably, the fundamental issues raised around institutional racism were minimised, ignored and forgotten by officials of the day and those that followed.

A decade later, former Social Welfare head Margaret Bazley provided evidence at a 1998 Waitangi Tribunal hearing that the early impetus of Puao-te-ata-Tū had not advanced into implementation. She called on staff to return to the wisdom of the recommendations. Yet another two decades would pass without any Cabinet being courageous enough to confront the bias and prejudice now well entrenched across our systems of power.

The Bill of Rights Act in 1990 enshrined human rights in law, including the right to be free from discrimination. In 1993, the Human Rights Act was introduced to protect New Zealanders against unlawful discrimination.

Institutional racism can manifest itself in specific ways. For example, in health sector research it reveals that Maori suffered poorer clinical health care in public hospitals than non-Maori, particularly in the areas of obstetric treatment, cardiac intervention, end-stage renal disease and mental illness. Maori are six times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Maori. Although Maori children make up 30 per cent of all children in New Zealand under 5, they comprise 57 per cent of children seen by CYF by age 5.

A month after I left the Beehive, the Public Health Association ratified a six-page policy on institutional racism. A series of priorities, drafted out of the experience of public health practitioners and leaders committed to transforming institutional racism, provides ample room for optimism.

We need practical solutions to tackle entrenched inequality; to create policies that make a difference. We have to act now or risk the unchecked growth of systemic bias that keeps our nation divided socially, culturally, economically. We have all the literature required to back ourselves. All we need to do is act.

A recent policy flip has shown what is possible when there's will to move.

Every year in New Zealand, 50 babies die from Sudden Unexpected Death in Infancy (SUDI), more than half are accidentally suffocated. A Herald investigation uncovered significant racial inequalities existing within these preventable deaths. Maori babies are eight times more likely to die from unintentional suffocation.

The Herald researched more than 75 coronial findings, hundreds of documents obtained through the Official Information Act and interviews with bereaved whanau, doctors and experts. It revealed that for the first time in 16 years, new research was showing Maori infant mortality rates have started to decline in regions with high numbers of pepi-pods, or wahakura, devised in 2006 by Dr David Tipene-Leach out of his concern for deaths of Maori babies by asphyxiation.

At least a dozen coroners had recommended wahakura be given to at-risk whanau over the last decade. Yet despite growing evidence, the Ministry of Health tore up a contract with a health advocacy group that was distributing wahakura, and distributed $800,000 to eight DHB to cut SUDI rates - but on one condition, the funding could not be used to buy pepi-pods.

Just weeks after the Herald story went to print, the Minister of Health over-turned this decision, to enable whanau to access wahakura and pepi-pods along with the safe-sleep messaging.

I welcomed the rethink by Jonathan Coleman. It represents a rare change of heart to allow Maori solutions to be adopted; to recognise Maori innovation as helpful in reducing the SUDI risks, in helping all our whanau to benefit from safe-sleep knowledge.

Addressing institutional racism does not have to be shelved for another decade. The United Nations report on racial discrimination in New Zealand identified some key areas we could address in the justice system, in health, education, employment. The "burning injustices" in our own system of government should provoke us all to action.

Let's not wait for another UN report, another tribunal finding, another newspaper inquiry to force the issue. Let's just do what is right.

- NZ Herald

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