On the 13th February The Salvation Army launched its 2019 State of the Nation report. I wrote this report for the Army as I have for the past 11 years. This year’s report has picked up on the theme of wellbeing and is titled ‘Are you well? Are we safe?
This focus on wellbeing is a response to the Prime Minister’s announcement in early 2018 that the 2019 Budget will be our first wellbeing budget. Since then Government agencies have been busy developing living standards frameworks, wellbeing indicators and child wellbeing strategies. These are all very worthy but risk quickly losing the public in mire of complexity and detail. If this happens then quite possibly ‘wellbeing’ will be lost as an organising idea for public policy because the Government has failed to ignite the public imagination that such a broader focus is feasible.
The Salvation Army’s offering through its 2019 State of the Nation report is an attempt to popularise this wellbeing narrative.
The 2019 report’s title ‘Are you well? Are we safe? was inspired by a mihi whakatau I heard from Te Aroha Morehu of Ngati Whatua Orakei at the opening of a workshop in November 2018. For me these questions define wellbeing. As well it is that act of enquiry with such questions that we are extending our focus to the welfare of our neighbours and fellow New Zealanders.
This year’s report for the first time offers a Maori-non-Maori gaps table as an appendix. This table uses 18 social indicators to report on outcomes for Maori and non-Maori over the past five years or so. These indicators range from teenage pregnancy rates, to youth unemployment and offending rates, to incomes and employment, to demand for welfare benefits and social housing. The table is backed up with a spreadsheet which provides the detailed data behind these indicators.
These 18 indicators were not chosen because they cast the social position of Maori people in the worst possible light so that this position could be used as political capital. They were chosen in part because they illustrate well the appalling inequality suffered by Maori from birth to death and in part because the data existed. There may be social indicators around where Maori do better than non-Maori and if you can find one let me know. I am doubtful that such an indicator exists however.
In the past I have made reference to Maori-non-Maori inequalities in the State of the Nation reports and been criticised a little by Maori and Pakeha for doing so. By some Maori for deficit thinking and highlighting failure; by some Pakeha for sowing the seeds of division and resentment. Against such criticism Maori people worshipping or working within The Salvation Army have asked that their experiences and those of their whanau are represented in the State of the Nation reports, and elsewhere, and this has driven and in fact inspired the publication of this gaps table.
But the Maori-non-Maori gaps table serves a bigger purpose as well. Primarily it points to the appalling inequality suffered by Maori on a comprehensive and enduring basis. For example the rate at which young Maori convicted of an offence are sent to prison is 2.5 times that for non-Maori.
Hopefully too the gaps table will also start to shift the focus on wellbeing away from the middle of middle class lives and experiences and begin to point out the inequalities which should become the main focus of our collective attempts to improve wellbeing.
We could debate endlessly the sources or causes of these inequalities and there is some value in doing so if only so that we can be more honest about our colonial history and the unjust legal and economic systems we continue to operate. There is however a limit to the value of such analysis and argument because it only takes us so far and risks us falling into a blame game which to date has not contributed to our progress as a nation.
The appalling inequality suffered by some Maori, and some non-Maori too, will only be addressed by quite radical reform of our education, welfare and criminal justice systems. The middle class privilege which is engineered into our public education system needs to be dismantled. The conditional and often mean-spirited nature of our welfare system should be over-turned. The patent racism of our criminal justice system needs to be challenged and extinguished.
The Government has set the stage for quite radical reform which such initiatives as the Tomorrows Schools taskforce, the Welfare Expert Advisory Group, and te Uepu or the Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group.
I am hopeful that the Government will stay the course and pursue radical or at least far reaching reforms which address inequality – especially Maori inequality.
However in being hopeful we have to remain mindful of the way the Clark Government chickened out of its ‘Closing the Gaps’ agenda as soon as the reactionary heat was turned up on it. However, given the subsequent disgraces of the Foreshore and Seabed legislation and the Tuhoe raids, that Government may have been reactionary at its core on any account.
We need to give the Government a mandate for radical policy change and right now such a mandate is not clear. Labour’s reliance on support from New Zealand First is something of a handbrake on any radical reform especially reforms focused specifically on addressing inequality suffered by Maori. By the time of the 2020 election the extent and nature of any reform agenda will be set and it seems likely that this agenda will be the centre-piece of that election.
There is a great deal of work to be done between now and the 2020 election in framing the political discourse around the need for radical change. The forces of reaction and conservatism will be busy attempting to hold back the tide of change. To counter these efforts we to need highlight the consequences of our history and the facts of our unequal society. I hope that the Maori-non-Maori gaps table is a worthwhile contribution to this work.