Lost amongst the focus on BBQs, relentless positivity, and eloquent speeches at Waitangi, a fascinating and important shift in Government-Maori relations appeared to be underway. Labour and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern have been signalling that this Government is departing from the traditional culturalist and "race-based" approach to dealing with Maori deprivation and economic inequality. Instead, a more universal, economic-focused method will be used. The conventional approach of advancing Maori aspirations was epitomised by the Maori Party's focus on culture, race, and sovereignty issues, and it appears to be on the way out.

The Government's shift away from a race and cultural approach

Heralding what may be a highly controversial approach to "closing the gaps" in terms of Maori inequality, Jacinda Ardern made her most important speech at Waitangi by stating that the new Government would take a universalistic approach to inequality – by targeting everyone at the bottom, rather than specifically targeting Maori. Jacinda Ardern strongly emphasised the need to deal with the long list of social ills that have a disproportionate impact on Maori, but signalled that race-based methods were not the best way of moving forward.

This is covered in Anna Bracewell-Worrall's Govt promises to close the gaps – but not by targeting Maori. The article reports "that the Government won't attempt to close those gaps by taking affirmative action for Maori." And the prime minister is quoted explaining that "We are specifically targeting things like poverty. An actual by-product of that is it will positively impact Maori."

See also Bracewell-Worrall's report on Ardern's main speech in which she focused on the economic and social disparities she pledged to help fix – see: PM's historic speech: The distance between our houses, Maori and Pakeha.

Since then, the Finance Minister has confirmed this shift in approach to dealing with inequality. In an interview with Morning Report's Guyon Espiner on Wednesday, Grant Robertson responded to questions about whether the Government would specifically target Maori in its programmes, saying: "Our focus is on reducing inequality overall" – you can listen to the six-minute interview here: Global market dive: Grant Robertson optimistic.

Espiner sought clarification: "So there won't be a specific Closing the Gaps type programme that we saw under Helen Clark? We're not looking at heading off down that path?" Robertson replied: "That's not the approach that we are taking. But we believe that we will be able to lift a significant number of Maori out of poverty, and increase employment outcomes, because of the approach we are taking."

Robertson went on to explain that the Government would keep some targeted funding for Maori, but stressed that a more universal approach would dominate: "Maori will benefit disproportionally from the families package – from those payments, because at the moment, unfortunately, Maori appear in those negative statistics. We've got a range of programmes coming down the line that will support Maori and the wider population as well. Where it's appropriate, where there are programmes – particularly in an area like Corrections – where we know that we can have a real impact on that Maori prison population, then we'll have a look at them. Similarly, with employment programmes. But in the end, Guyon, this is about reducing inequality overall. It's about providing opportunities for all young people – and we know that Maori will benefit more from that, because unfortunately they are in those negative statistics."

Reactions to the shift away from a race-based approach

Essentially, this new approach means directing resources and solutions to poor Maori "because they are poor" rather than "because they are Maori". On Twitter, there's been a surprisingly muted reaction to this apparent shift. Political commentator Morgan Godfery (@MorganGodfery) stated "I see some angst over this, but surely grant is right: the point is lifting everyone out of poverty, and universal works best". Responding to this, Sam Gribben (@AotearoaSam) agreed: "Poverty is not just a Maori problem, the way to bring Maori up is to bring up all of the poor and the dispossessed. The best way to help any disadvantaged people is to... help disadvantaged people!"

In RNZ interviews following on from Robertson's, both Willie Jackson and John Tamihere reacted negatively against the notion that the Government was shifting in this direction – you can listen to the interviews with Jackson and Tamihere. Both have both been actively involved in recent years in contracting welfare and education function for the state, especially in terms of Whanau Ora and charter schools.

Today's Dominion Post editorial looks at this debate, saying "Robertson seems to have ruled out policies that specifically target Maori disadvantage or disparity. Instead, he believes that policies such as the families package, which are universal, will have a disproportionate benefit for Maori because of their economic disadvantage" – see: Government sends mixed messages to Maori.

The editorial highlight's that Tamihere "struggled with the possibility that Labour was in 'retreat' from promises made to Maori on the campaign trail", and says "Tamihere disputed RNZ's interpretations of Robertson's comments and assured listeners that there will indeed be specific, targeted funding for Maori and the continuation of earlier policies like Whanau Ora."

Labour's new focus on immediate economic inequality and disadvantage is unlikely to be well received by some Maori leaders. Photo / Dean Purcell
Labour's new focus on immediate economic inequality and disadvantage is unlikely to be well received by some Maori leaders. Photo / Dean Purcell

The Dominion Post concludes with a guarded endorsement of Labour's new approach: "it seems reasonable to argue, as Robertson does, that universal policies in areas such as health, employment and education will benefit Maori. But the Government also has to be careful to ensure that the images we saw in Waitangi this week are not remembered as hollow political theatre in 2020."

In other areas of the Government's programme there is also a move away from the status quo in terms of dealing with Maori disadvantage and aspirations. Richard Harman reports that two strands can be identified: "The Government knows that there are two parallel strands of issues that they must deal with Maori. It is clear that they regained all the Maori seats because of a sense of a need for urgency among Maori to deal with immediate social problems – jobs, housing, health, 'P'. And here they appear to be already making progress… But the other strand of Labour's relationship, the constitutional issues, particularly with regards to sovereignty is more problematical" – see "New" Waitangi – But the old issues that inspired so much protest have not gone away.

Chris Trotter noted, too, that Jacinda Ardern's speeches at Waitangi – even to the more traditional Iwi Leaders Forum – were more about this economic approach than a traditional, cultural one – see: Can Sovereignty Be Shared?.

Here's Trotter's main observation about Ardern's signal of where the Government is going on Maori issues: "Was she promising to turn that apparatus to the urgent task of uplifting Maori New Zealanders out of poverty, homelessness and the bitter legacy of 178 years of colonial oppression? Yes, she was. Was she proposing to unleash a constitutional revolution inspired by revisionist historians' interpretation of the Waitangi Treaty? No, she was not. Jacinda's speech to the Iwi Leaders Forum at the beginning of her five-day sojourn in the Far North made clear her government's intentions. In short, these were all about dealing with Maori material deprivation. Iwi leaders intent on pushing forward 'cultural' issues – by which they mean constitutional issues – will very soon find they are pushing in vain."

Of course, this new focus on immediate economic inequality and disadvantage is unlikely to be well received by some Maori leaders. At Ratana last month, there was reportedly some push-back from the Ratana church. Jacinda Ardern asserted her "positive message about working with Maori to tackle the big issues, like homelessness, health and deprivation" – see Laura Walters' Ratana offers support, special speaking rights, and a name for Jacinda Ardern's baby. But the Wanganui Chronicle reported that the chair of the Ratana Church, Andre Meihana, "said a petition first presented to Parliament in the 1930s by TW Ratana still needs action. It asks that the Treaty of Waitangi be put into New Zealand law. Feeding and housing unfortunate people is important, but putting the treaty into 'statute law' should come first, he said" – see: Prime Minister warmly welcomed at Ratana Pa.

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Explaining the shift in the Government's approach to Maori inequality

So why is the Government heading down this new route? Chris Trotter has also written this week about how Labour's clean sweep of the Maori seats at the election, killing off the Maori Party in the process, has been influential on the direction of the party. He suggests that the Labour leadership has discovered the need to shift to a more class-based approach to Maori aspirations, and place less emphasis on the more cultural/sovereignty path of the Maori Party – see: How Labour reforged the alliance with Māori to pick off National's support partners.

Trotter points to the way Labour won back the Maori vote last year as being significant: "Willie Jackson and his team ran an unabashedly class-based campaign in the Maori seats. In terms of tone and imagery, their propaganda celebrated and spoke directly to the lives and aspirations of working-class Maori families. In startling contrast to Labour's appeal to the general electorate, the party's message to the Maori electorate was all about working-class jobs, working-class aspirations and working-class pride."

And today, the NZ Herald has an editorial which makes some similar points, suggesting that the death of the Maori Party, and the return to Labour heralds the death of "the idea that Maori want a separate political identity in New Zealand" – see: Labour can even change some Maori customs.

The editorial states: "Their verdict is undeniable, Labour is the party that represents the real interests and aspirations of Maori and those are the same as the interests and aspirations of all the lower paid or unemployed and underprivileged in New Zealand… The Maori Party believed these problems were best tackled by Maori self-help, whanau ora, but that does not seem to be Labour's approach. It has brought Maori back inside a mainstream party and it may be a long time before an independent party is taken seriously again."

Similarly, a NZ Herald Waitangi Day editorial this week also spells out that this Government is shifting direction on these issues: "After five years of sustained economic growth, government over the next few years is going to be focused on those groups who it feels have not kept pace with prosperity", and the "new Government wants to see a more equitable distribution of the fruits to iwi prosperity just as it does with the wealth of the whole economy" – see: Nation has much to celebrate and challenges ahead.

The newspaper notes that the Treaty environment is now changing: "Governments have largely completed the long phase of negotiating compensation for colonial breaches. Most iwi, with the sad exception of the largest, Ngapuhi, have now not only acquired capital for their economic survival, their tribal administration, connections and identity have been strengthened in the process."

Of course, many on the political left have always been suspicious of the role of the biculturalism project and the Treaty settlement process in creating further inequality – especially in terms of inequality between Maori. And today, John Moore writes about how "this focus on culture, race, and sovereignty issues has failed to uplift the majority of Maori in terms of their economic position in New Zealand. And in fact, the emphasis on Treaty and cultural polices has occurred alongside an actual growth in Maori poverty" – see: Labour ditches the iwi elite.

Similarly, Dougal McNeill of Victoria University of Wellington puts forward a Marxist perspective on why a focus on the racial categories of Maori and Pakeha is a backward way to bring about greater equality – see his recent blog post, There are no white people.

Labour's orientation to iwi elite

Going hand-in-hand with this shift, Labour appears to be deliberately downgrading its relationship with iwi elites. On a purely symbolic or stylistic level, this could be seen in Jacinda Ardern's striking decision to hold her Waitangi Day breakfast with the public – especially Ngapuhi – rather than the usual Iwi leaders invite-only breakfast at the Copthorne hotel. Jo Moir reported Ardern's logic: "She said the alternative was holding a private breakfast with iwi leaders and she felt they'd spent a lot of time meeting with them and Tuesday was an opportunity to meet with the public" – see: The Prime Minister's five days at Waitangi has gone off without a hitch or protest.

Similar symbolism was apparent throughout the five days of Ardern's visit to the Far North, with the PM spending much more time with ordinary people, and visiting small marae, rather than just seeing dignitaries. Peter de Graaf reported the reaction of the head of the local Maori Wardens, who Ardern had decided to visit: Dick Dargaville is quoted saying "It's the first time we've had a Prime Minister who's come up to talk to ordinary people. Usually it's only the big boys that get to talk to them" – see: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern breaks new ground at Waitangi.

But there was substance to the symbolism. Labour appears to be much less inclined to work closely and compliantly with either the iwi-appointed leadership group, the Iwi Chairs Forum, or the smaller Iwi Leaders Group. As Mihingarangi Forbes explains, this is "a group of Maori charged with managing iwi trusts and businesses worth billions of dollars, not Maori struggling at the bottom of the barrel" – see: PM at Waitangi: A step ahead, but untested.

For the last nine years these leaders have had a very close working relationship with the National Government and, in particular, with Bill English. As Annabelle Lee explains, "National has taken the concept of 'rangatira ki te rangatira' [meeting chief to chief] to the extreme, preferring the Iwi Leaders Forum as their primary point of contact with te ao Maori" – see: Why Jacinda Ardern's decision to spend five days at Waitangi is a really big deal.

But this government is much less keen on working so closely with such elites and, already, feathers have been ruffled. This is best covered by Claire Trevett in her article, Iwi leaders prepare for first meeting with PM Jacinda Ardern.

According to Trevett, "Labour MPs have been critical of it in the past for failing to address social issues, describing it as elitist and unrepresentative of Maori. In December, Maori Development Minister Nanaia Mahuta said it was failing to do its job properly by focusing on issues such as water rights at the expense of social issues. She and Treaty Negotiations Minister Andrew Little have both told the forum to refocus its attentions on issues such as poverty and employment under Labour."

In this article, John Tamihere is quoted saying that iwi leaders' would have to face major change, "after nine years of having their egos massaged by the National Government", and would have to get used to different priorities: "So instead of talking about their trees and their fish and their water, I want them to start talking about their kids and their mokopuna."

In contrast, an urban Maori leader is seen to be more in sync with Labour's approach: "Ngarimu Blair, deputy chairman of Ngati Whatua o Orakei, said he was pleased the new Government's priorities were housing and poverty because they were major issues for Auckland Maori."

Trevett has also written about how the iwi chairs forum has reacted with alarm to these changes: "The iwi chairs forum wrote to Ardern last year out of concern about the attitude some new ministers were taking to the forum, including insisting it focus more on the social wellbeing of their people rather than Maori constitutional rights" – see: Warm welcome for PM Jacinda Ardern by iwi, but thorny issues await.

The same article reports that following on from their meeting this week with the prime minister, "Ngapuhi leader Sonny Tau said he did not believe the Labour Government had fully understood the mandate of the iwi leaders and believed that because Labour had high support among Maori politically they represented Maoridom". Tau challenged the notion that Labour MPs represented Maori: "One of the myths they had is that they have a significant mandate from Maori because they have the seven seats. And that's a point. However, they are the Crown. They don't represent the iwi."

The Government's shift away from focusing on iwi property rights has also been signaled by Regional Development Minister Shane Jones. Sam Sachdeva reports: "Whereas English and his predecessor John Key seemed to focus on Article Two of the Treaty of Waitangi and property rights, Jones says the new government will have a greater emphasis on Article Three and the entitlements, rights and obligations of citizenship" – see: A fresh start at Waitangi?.

This might all end up in legal fights. 1News has obtained the letter from iwi leaders to the prime minister complaining about their change in direction, and threatening Supreme Court action if iwi rights to freshwater were not addressed – see TVNZ: Iwi leaders unhappy issues like water ownership aren't on new Government's radar.

According to blogger Martyn Bradbury, all of these developments mean the tradition Maori elites are in trouble: "Many Maori live in urban areas and are not tribe affiliated. Their needs for better social services, jobs and the legacy issues created by colonialism trump Treaty deals which is offside to the goals of the Maori King or the Iwi Leaders Forum. With urban Maori having a far more powerful voice inside the new Government, those movements will need to see any extra resources making a dynamic impact on the poorest" – see: The joy of a leader who understands the Treaty & how Iwi Leaders have to acknowledge the political rise of Urban Māori.

Finally, for an idea of how photographers, newspapers, and cartoonists have communicated the major political story of the week, see my blog post Images and cartoons about Waitangi 2018.