Tracey Martin's comments on the uplift case of a Māori baby provide telling insight into the failings of the state's child care and protection system.
Martin, who holds the Children's portfolio, fronted after Oranga Tamariki released its investigation findings on the attempted uplift in Hastings. The case, exposed in a Newsroom documentary, spurred heated protests and a raft of inquiries into the department. Its subsequent internal investigation found nearly all actions its staff took had been incorrect and unjustified. It also highlighted a glaring lack of communication from the department to the baby's mother and whānau.
At the heart of the debate is the treatment of Māori by Oranga Tamariki — rebranded from Child, Youth and Family in 2017. Before that, it existed as part of the old Department of Social Welfare.
The department's history is important in understanding why it continues to fail many of our most vulnerable children and families. The majority of these are — as they were 30 years ago — Māori who are disconnected with their whakapapa and dealing with problems of social deprivation.
Martin knows this. It is the job she signed on for, she says. But is she really aware of the limitations of her department, and its contribution to disfranchisement of Māori?
In an interview , Martin talked about why she had not watched the uplift documentary. Footage was supplied by whānau of the mother who were present as social workers tried to remove her newborn baby. The whānau has questioned why the minister refused to view the documentary in dealing with their concerns.
"I didn't think I needed to watch that video," Martin said.
"This [investigation] report is about what happened before, what brought up to, what was that video. I take issue with the fact that supposedly ... I would have done nothing, unless a video had come out."
To another question, Martin said: "I don't actually understand [that] to do my job, you're suggesting I need to watch a 45-minute video. I would say to you that the outcome I'm doing now is me doing my job, making sure we change Oranga Tamariki into the child care and protection service that we need it to be."
Even if Martin feels comprehensively informed, her resistance to access information supplied by whānau directly reflects problems Māori have encountered for decades in the state system.
Why, even when it comes to their own lives, are their voices considered less than others?
The 1986 Puao-te-ata-tu report, often mentioned by Martin, contains answers. Produced by the Māori Perspective Advisory Committee on the machinations of the then-Department of Social Welfare, the report strips back layers of bureaucracy and policies.
"[Cultural racism] is entrenched philosophy and beliefs," the report states. "Its most obvious form in New Zealand is the assumption that Pākehā culture, lifestyle and values are superior to those of other New Zealand cultures, notably those of Māori and Polynesian people. It is rooted in the 19th century heritage of unshakeable belief in the cultural superiority of Europeans. It is a direct inheritance of colonialism and imperialism."
The report also illustrates how this impacts government departments and those working in them.
"While personal and cultural racism may be described in their own right, institutional racism is observed from its effects," it states. "It is a bias in our social and administrative institutions that automatically benefits the dominant race or culture, while penalising minority and subordinate groups."
That bias was towards Pākehā culture, values and beliefs, it stated. It had created monocultural institutions, including departments, which privilege and normalise "Pākehātanga" above Māoritanga.
I do not expect Martin to fix that bias and systemic racism in her department. However, her inability to understand how refusing to watch the Newsroom video is offensive to the whānau involved, and how that is pertinent to her ministerial capability is concerning.
Privileging the outcome of an investigation from a department that attempted to wrongfully uplift a Māori infant above the voices of the whānau is an example of the bias outlined in Puao-te-ata-tu.
Martin's proclamation that it has had no impact on her ability to do her job suggests she is unaware of it. It is the perfect example of how institutional racism is perpetuated.
I do not doubt Martin has well-meaning intentions for our care and protection system.
However, her lack of perception regarding the families her department deals with most frequently shows there is little hope for change under her leadership and the culture it is entrenched in.