Thursday, November 03, 2005

A worn out welcome

In what seems to be an endorsement of National's campaign against "political correctness", Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples says he will ask the Maori affairs select committee to inquire into all cultural practices endorsed and adopted across the state sector.

"Questions have been asked by tangata whenua as to whether the use of tikanga across the state sector is for the benefit of the state more than for the benefit of the people. The Maori Party has brought a strong and distinctive Maori voice into Parliament. As part of this, we believe the consideration of how the State uses and applies tikanga is an appropriate issue for us to give priority to."

Sharples is a cultural conservative who would prefer Maori culture to remain in Maori settings such as marae. He is a creative and innovative practitioner within that culture, but his history is of cultural revival rather than creating a new and blended culture.

He has shown a preference for kaupapa Maori education models, setting up alternatives to the mainstream system rather than challenging the mainstream to be more responsive to the needs of Maori students. It is good the option is there, but it is not there for the bulk of Maori families, so cannot be left to stand alone.

Before the Maori Party fuels National's desire for a witch hunt, perhaps it should consider the history of tikanga within the public service, and whether that is the major issue vis a vis Maori.

Before the state sector reforms of the 1980s, the only places you were likely to find a Maori environment in the public service were the Maori Affairs Department, the Environment Ministry's Maruwhenua unit, the Waitangi Tribunal (small as it was in those days), the Maori units of the state-owned broadcasters and a very small unit of the Education Department.

Then came NZ Maori Council vs Attorney General, which articulated for the first time some of the obligations the government had towards Maori. The public sector responded with Maori advisory units being set up all over Wellington, staffed often by middle aged Maori men, ex-teachers or police or military, who were native speakers and had the cultural stuff down pat, even if they were useless at developing policy, advocacy or managing staff.

The result was a lot of form rather than substance.

Part of the problem is that while it was bringing in a lot of middle-level management and Maori graduates, the public service did not have any system of structured career development for Maori staff. The Maori and Pacific Island cadet scheme had been a victim of Stan Roger's reforms, and the core of institutional experience built up at Maori Affairs was dispersed with the axing of that department. There was also an over-reliance on consultants, often of extremely dubious quality, rather than building up internal capacity.

Looking around the public sector, I do not see the numbers of quality Maori in senior management positions I would expect if there had been a real commitment to equity and establishing a public sector which can meet the needs of Aotearoa going into the future.

That is not to say the Maori units have not done some good work, and the sector as a whole is more cognisant to Maori needs than it was in the past, even if many of its assumptions are flawed and its delivery mechanisms clumsy.

Getting back to the question of tikanga. Maybe the full powhiri is not always appropriate, but remember the alternative? People turn up on the job with no welcome, no orientation, no formal process in any culture to make sure they are known, that they meet their fellow workers, that they become quickly productive.

Part of the process we have gone through as a society, including attacks on "separatism", "cultural safety" and "political correctness", is to become aware that institutions and situations are never culturally neutral. Introducing an element of tikanga Maori into the life of an organisation highlights the fact that the alternative is just as much an imposition of a cultural norm which may not always be appropriate.

The state sector can be bilcultural, it can be multicultural when appropriate. What it should not do is return to being monocultural, creating an environment only Pakeha feel works for them.

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