Friday 9 April 2010

Whanau Ora: Faith-Based Charity?

The architect of Whanau Ora: Encouraged and empowered by National's John Key and Act's Rodney Hide, Tariana Turia has constructed a culturally unassailable vehicle for the privatisation of social welfare delivery in New Zealand.

THE FIRST THING to grasp about the Whanau Ora programme is that it occupies in the New Zealand political environment precisely the same evolutionary niche as the so-called "Faith-based Charities" (FBCs) in the United States.

In the battle to wrest the provision of social services from federal and state authorities the FBCs acted as American Neoliberalism’s "Trojan Horses" – hiding the fundamental goal of welfare privatisation behind the culturally unassailable front of Christian community service.

Being a much more secular society that the United States, and being nowhere near as enthralled to the fundamentalist/evangelical Christian Right, New Zealand presented its home-grown neoliberals with a significant presentational problem. New Zealand’s established charities are by-and-large still relatively free of neoliberal contagion and in any case completely fail the "culturally unassailable" test – being as subject to media scrutiny as any other participant in New Zealand civil society.

Only one group in New Zealand is culturally unassailable – the tangata whenua. Any person or institution foolhardy enough to subject Maori to the same degree of critical scrutiny as other groups in our society runs the very real risk of being branded "racist". "Maori-bashing" has been politically ghettoised in the socially and intellectually disreputable milieu of the unsophisticated Right. "Respectable" New Zealand journalists and politicians are as loathe to attack Maori as American politicians and journalists are to attack Christianity.

All of which makes Maori community organisations the ideal vehicles to lead the private sector’s assault on the hitherto state-dominated welfare "marketplace". The concept of whanau ora is being advanced with exactly the same intention as the concept of "a personal encounter with Jesus": as a way of "turning people’s lives around" by means of an "experience" or "force" that is ultimately untestable – even supernatural.

Which is why the Whanau Ora Report is so full of what critics have called "waffle" and "psychobabble". It is proof positive that the policy we are dealing with is not in any way empirically mandated or scientifically verifiable. Tariana Turia and her hand-picked advisory taskforce are simply (and shamelessly) asking the rest of New Zealand to take "Whanau Ora" on faith.

And it’s working. A group of public servants who approached a journalist with the line: "Hi, We're from the Government and we're here to help" would be subjected to the most rigorous scrutiny – and quite possibly ridicule. But a few months from now, when someone says: "Kia ora, I’m from your local Whanau Ora service provider and I’m here to help" he or she will be received with unstinting respect and everything they say will be recorded at its face value.

The other thing which the presentation of the Whanau Ora Report has done is reveal the full measure of John Key’s political skill. His wooing of the Maori Party – like Ronald Reagan’s wooing of the Religious Right in the United States – has augmented the forces of New Zealand neoliberalism in a way very few people believed possible, and even fewer predicted.

Key had both the wit and the nerve to take on board what the more intelligent members of the neoliberal community (like the Business Roundtable’s Rob McLeod) were saying. That the Treaty settlement process was slowly but surely creating what Dr Elizabeth Rata calls a "neo-traditionalist elite" of tribal capitalists with sufficient economic power to co-opt the Maori middle-class – a group which, hitherto, had owed its primary allegiance to, received its salaries from, and been under the ideological guidance of the State Sector.

Key and his National Party colleagues (along with their ACT allies) have long understood that this situation conferred a considerable political advantage upon the Labour Party (whose connections to the State Sector are numerous and deep). But what if those connections were broken?

If the bulk of Maori middle-class employment could be transferred from public to private bureaucracies – especially bureaucracies masked by the culturally unassailable language of kaupapa Maori – then the outer walls of the public sector’s welfare delivery institutions would be breached, and the principles and practice of privatised welfare delivery firmly established.

No one can say we weren’t warned. The way GEO, the private US corporation which set up the Mt Eden Remand Centre, screened its naked profit-seeking behind an ethnically sensitive programme involving the tangata whenua showed us as long ago as the late 1990s how easily Maori could be persuaded to turn themselves into a culturally unassailable swipe-card for privatisation.

And just as privatised correctional facilities are on their way to becoming highly profitable cogs in the machinery of social control, Whanau Ora, too, will see private individuals, trusts and corporations (albeit brown-faced ones) profiting from the unrelenting institutional discrimination and structural inequality that drives working-class Maori and Pakeha alike into the arms of those who long ago mastered the art of doing well by doing good. 


Anonymous said...

What is so wrong with privatised welfare delivery?

Anonymous said...

Amidst all this I assume you have considered that the pakeha way of addressing failures in Maori education health, and "crime" have been, well, failures?

As a Pakeha member of our community I am quite prepared to give WO the benefit of the doubt for a few years to see if they can make positive inroads where "our" system, not surprisingly couldn't.

There are much larger failures of scrutiny in white collar industry than in brown faced industry. BILLIONS were only recently lost in a patently white faced industry and the govt and people like the BRT stayed remarkably quiet.