Public Policy and the Maori

The following is a transcript of an interview by Carol Archie for Mana News broadcast on “Radio New Zealand”, 6.25am Tuesday 10 February 2004. It has been lightly edited.(“Hansard” rules – for presentation, syntax, and sense – but not for content).

Keywords: Maori; Social Policy;

Presenter (Dale Husband): This morning our focus is economics and how the National Party’s new policy around Maori services stacks up in the world of finance. One economist, Brian Easton, disagrees with Don Brash’s contention that resources should be based purely on need and never targeted specifically for Maori as a race. Brian Easton told Carol Archie that targeting particular groups often makes good economic sense.

Brian Easton: The fact of the matter is that in public policy, on some occasions, in some places, the Maori gets benefits which the Non-Maori does not. But that is also true, in other places, of other groups: women get benefits that men don’t, sole parents get benefits that ordinary parents don’t, and so on. Throughout public policy we are continually discriminating between different social groups. So the only issue is, when we should.

Take solo mothers. We can all think of good reasons why we might want to have a Domestic Purposes Benefit for them. If we look at the Maori cases where we do discriminate, in almost every case I know of, one can think of a good reason why we should discriminate. In many other areas we dont. For instance, the Maori has exactly the same entitlement to, say, the unemployment benefit; the Maori has exactly the same entitlement to superannuation.

But in some areas, the health area is an obvious area, there is a difference. It is instructive that it tends to be in the public health area, that is not where we’re dealing with individual Maori, but where we are dealing with a group of Maori. So it makes sense, for instance, to have a programme which the Maori take into their own hands, the problem of Maori smoking. One of the good things that came out of that was the ban that many marae now have rules against smoking on the marae. Now there is no way that a Non-Maori could have got that outcome, but by empowering the Maori, they took it into their hands to deal with on-marae smoking.

So if you look at each individual policy you end up with a conclusion that ‘yes, usually it makes sense to have that difference between Maori and Non-Maori’. I dont think that Don Brash has really come to terms with that, although when he was the Governor of the Reserve Bank he said we will have a particular attempt to bring some Maori on in the Reserve Bank by giving them support. That sounds to me to be a perfectly sensible policy and he was not doing anything different from the general policy.

That is not to say that we cant tidy up some marginal problems but the general principle is that in this country, we do discriminate in favour of the young and the old and women and men and Maori and Pacific Islanders and so on and that makes good public policy sense. It would be very disappointing if we backed down on one particular case without recognising that in fact a very general phenomenon.

Reporter (Carol Archie): Can you give me examples of how the public might benefit from discrimination on behalf of Maori?

Easton: If we can get down Maori smoking then we’re going to get big gains in reducing demand for health care by Maori in their middle years. And that releases resources to be used for other groups of people, for the young, for the old and for the sick. In the health area, the biggest single gain is probably from reducing smoking, so it makes sense for us to spend money to get the Maori smoking down. It is of benefit to the Maori but it would benefit the whole health system.

Reporter: What about in the education area, for instance?

Easton: I think it terribly important to recognise that people are culturally significant. Rather than give a Maori example I give a gender one. I support a programme which increases the number of men teaching in primary schools. It is good for the kids. Not that their teacher has to be a man, but that during their primary school experience that children should have some men working with them, perhaps particularly if they are from solo mother families and they dont have a lot to do with men. So it is beneficial for boys and girls to have both male and female models at primary school. It also makes sense for them to have Maori and Non-Maori teachers at primary school and one can think of other examples. For instance it may be advantageous for them to work with handicapped people when they’re at primary school. So yes, it does make sense in a number of areas for us to consciously make sure that our teaching profession, or anything else, reflects our society as a whole and is not biased towards, in the case of primary schools, towards white women and it is not biased at the university end towards white men.

Reporter: If Maori were better educated, healthier and better off financially, would the rest of the population get the benefits too?

Easton: There would be benefits to the community as a whole because in so far as we can close the gap, say in incomes between Maori and Non-Maori through health and education and those sorts of policies, that will reduce their dependence on the benefit system. It means that they are paying more tax and they’re contributing more to society. But that is not a peculiarly Maori problem. Exactly the same applies to the Non-Maori, to a white kid from a difficult background. We need to put some effort in to him or her just as we should in the Maori. So again to come back to the Brash concern, these policies on the whole are not peculiarly Maori. It just happens to be that very often one of the best ways of targeting a group is to look at the Maori component.

Reporter: So is what Don Brash is suggesting good economics?

Easton: It depends on your political perspective. If you think the main aim in public life is to reduce taxes on the rich and to reduce spending on the poor there is some logic in the Brash position. If you take the traditional New Zealand view that by spending money on the young and on the sick and on the poor we can enhance the general performance of the economy as a whole then, the Brash position, the National Party position, doesnt make that much sense. So it depends on your political values, and mine happen to be that we need to support the weak in society and society as a whole benefits from that support.

I am grateful for Ian Prior’s assistance with the transcript