Ki te hoe tātou

Ki te hoe tātou

DR MIKE ROSS (Ngāti Hauā) sees a way forward in building an Aotearoa public service.

Tēnā koutou katoa

Working in the New Zealand public service is a noble occupation. You’re appointed by merit to work with elected governments to build a better New Zealand for all its people, serving citizens without political bias, with openness and transparency, and providing free and frank advice. The integrity and legitimacy of our public service has been recognised in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index as the world’s least corrupt public sector (first equal with Denmark). Tino pai! (Well done us!)

However, these high ideals have not been reflected in the experience of Māori who, when compared with fellow New Zealanders, rank low in most measures of wellbeing. The services provided by the public service in areas such as health, education, and justice produce outcomes where Māori have poorer health, are less educated, and are subject to higher imprisonment rates. The state through successive governments hasn’t been kind to Māori.

How can these two opposing positions operate in the single space? Ani Mikaere and others argue it is the perception of Pākehā superiority and the corresponding conclusion by Pākehā of Māori inferiority. The consequence of this thinking led to war, loss, and marginalisation for Māori, while it became the basis to establish behaviour, structures, and organisations like the public service, which was groomed to support settler governments and Pākehā constituents.

Māori people have consistently resisted the idea of inferiority and choose “kia mangu ki waho, kia mā ki roto” – to be Māori outwardly and maintain the integrity of our identity inwardly. At times, Māori have done this through war, through political lobbying (for example, from the Kīngitanga to the Māori Party), and by maintaining their distinct language and practices. This has been a difficult position to maintain for both Māori and Pākehā, and the legacy of our history is evident in the gap that exists between the public service delivery and Māori wellbeing.

There continues to be a residue of early policies of coercion, assimilation, surface accommodation, and exploitation. However, in recent decades, some positive but hard-fought advancements have been seen through Treaty settlements and the integration of Māori-led initiatives in education, health, and justice – all inspiring some hope. Pākehā allies in the public service and politics have also been important to counter the power imbalance and resentment in the general population, providing optimism for jointly creating a better Aotearoa. Sadly though, the waka isn’t turning as quickly as we’d all like, and this requires us to press onward.

Where to from here? For our own integrity, we should be transparent and acknowledge our past. Along with all the good things, that past includes the inherent bias in the public service – but as our tupuna L.V. Martin said, “It’s the putting right that counts.” A part of putting it right is supporting a Māori lens in developing policy, then debating a joint strategy as we go forward. While avoiding the “riwai” pattern of amenability, we need to give time and resources to rebuild Māori confidence and expertise as Māori and do this alongside non-Māori. In practice, this could include employing or contracting Māori staff, having internship agreements with local iwi, training staff in mātauranga Māori and language, and so on. We have examples of how this can be done independently as Māori and collectively as Aotearoa public servants. Ki te hoe tātou! Let’s do this!