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Dr Muriel Newman

Is Maori Disparity a Myth?

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“Mäori continue to experience relatively poorer outcomes than other New Zealanders, indicating that Mäori social potential has yet to be fully realised. In maintaining a focus on realising Mäori potential, the basis for the development of Te Puni Kökiri’s social policy advice and intervention is premised on what is important within a Mäori cultural construct… with a particular focus on the benefits that can be achieved through Mäori designed, developed and delivered initiatives”. Briefing to the Incoming Minister 2008, Te Puni Kokiri.[1]

Over the years claims of a growing disparity between the socio-economic outcomes of Maori and non-Maori have dominated the rhetoric of Maori ethnic politics. The existence of this so-called “gap” has been blamed on the failure of government to uphold Treaty of Waitangi rights along with a lack of ‘culturally appropriate’ government services. These arguments have led to an explosion in special taxpayer funded race-based services for Maori with an emphasis on ‘by Maori for Maori’ provision.

Helen Clark and her newly elected Labour Government escalated race-based spending to new heights in 2000 through a high profile “closing the gaps” campaign that allocated well over $100 million for Maori development. Three years later, a report published by ACT New Zealand demonstrated the extent of state subsidies to Maori, with estimates that total government spending on Maori had reached $7.3 billion a year, while the amount of total tax paid by Maori was $2.3 billion a year.[2]

Maori socio-economic disparity claims are based on data collected by the government. The main source is the five-yearly population Census. Up until the 1976 Census, ethnic data was based on the fraction of racial origin, with Maori being defined as having half or more of Maori blood.[3] In 1974, as a result of growing hostility by Maori rights activists to the question (no doubt driven by the looming inevitability of a diminishing population due to widespread intermarriage) the Kirk Labour Government changed the definition. The Maori Affairs Amendment Act of that year re-defined Maori: “All those with Maori ancestry, no matter how remote, were Maori for the purposes of the Act”.

The next Census in 1976 therefore asked two questions – the usual ‘degree of blood’ Maori descent question along with a new one about Maori ancestry. The respondents, however, found it all rather confusing, and as a result the next Census in 1981 reverted back to the fraction of blood question.

There have been many changes since that time to the way Maori are defined, with ethnicity information on births, deaths and hospitalisation using the fraction of Maori blood question right up until 1995 even though it had been finally dropped on Census forms in 1986. Nowadays, the Census asks: “Are you descended from Maori?” and “Which ethnic group do you belong to?” However, it is clear that comparative data about Maori is no longer as robust as it used to be when the degree of blood question was used.

Simon Chapple, a former senior researcher with the Department of Labour, challenged the concept of Maori disparity in a paper prepared for the Ministry of Social Policy in 2000. He explained that, as a result of widespread intermarriage, Maori are not a clearly defined ethnically homogenous group. He states, “At the margin Maori imperceptibly shade into non-Maori. For some people their Maori identity is likely to be very central to their lives. Other Maori are unlikely to think it greatly important: other aspects of their social and personal identities – class, occupation or profession, job, education, religion, leisure pursuits, sports clubs or other gang connections, regional location, family, gender, political leanings and so on – may take precedence”.[4]

He explained this “fluidity” of Maori by describing that “One in every four officially measured Maori in 1996 was not Maori in 1991. One in every twenty officially measured Maori in 1991 had exited the group in 1996”. He also outlined how, “One in every ten Maori descended person in 1996 had discovered their Maori ancestry over the last five years and one in every twenty had lost it”.

The reality is that as a result of intermarriage over the last 200 years, all Maori will have some non-Maori ancestors. The fluidity of Maori, which nowadays depends to a large degree on the public policy incentives that are on offer to those who identify as Maori, also makes a mockery of the notion of biculturalism which presupposes separate Maori and non-Maori populations that do not mix. In fact, most Maori children growing up in New Zealand today have a non-Maori parent. From a public policy perspective, the fact that all children with a Maori parent are counted as Maori for statistical purposes – no matter how distant the ancestry – creates a significant over-representation of Maori in official data.

For instance in the 2006 Census, while 298,395 people indicated their ethnicity as “Maori only”(sole Maori), a further 266,931 people identified with Maori and other ethnic groups (mixed Maori). This means that while sole Maori made up only 7.4 percent of the population, when mixed Maori are added, the proportion rises to 14 percent. And when the 78,648 people who indicated they had Maori decent but did not identify with Maori ethnicity are also added, the number of Maori rises to 15.9 percent. If Statistics New Zealand’s classification practice categorised mixed Maori according to their other ethnicity, instead of their Maori ethnicity, the number of reported “Maori” in New Zealand today would virtually halve.

The categorising of mixed Maori as Maori and combining them with sole Maori for the purposes of claiming socio-economic disparity between Maori and non-Maori creates another problem. The differences between Maori and non-Maori, is effectively dwarfed by the differences between mixed Maori and sole Maori. The reason is that the mixed Maori group is younger, is more likely to be better educated with greater job flexibility, and is more likely to be geographically mobile, prepared to move to areas where jobs are available. In other words, this mixed Maori group shares greater similarities with non-Maori, than sole Maori. This makes their combination for policy and funding purposes illogical.

In a world where increasing intermarriage is rapidly blurring the homogeneity of racial groups, Statistics New Zealand’s classification protocol has resulted in Maori not only being significantly over-represented in official data, but by embedding such huge disparity between the various groups of Maori into the statistics, policy responses become almost meaningless.

Over the years, indigenous leaders around the world have made good use of racial disparity displayed in official statistics to argue for special rights and resources based on race. Professor Helen Hughes, a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies, along with her husband, Mark Hughes, an independent researcher, are this week’s NZCPR Guest Commentators with a paper Who are Iindigenous Australians, which looks at this issue from an Australian perspective.

Helen and Mark explain that in Australia, where the Census asks “Is the person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin?” the politics of indigenous rights has resulted in separatist policies that have created atrociously dysfunctional communities: “The impossibility of defining ‘Aboriginality’ emerges in defining entitlements. Self identification breaks down when entitlements are in sight. The right to reside in a community, distribution of royalties and hunting rights lead to frequent court disputes over ‘who is Aboriginal’. As the value of land, royalties, forestry, and farming on the 1.25 million km2 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander holdings increases, the disputes will become worse.”

They explain that “positive discrimination has led to appalling living standards. Communal, inalienable land title has deprived Aborigines of the private property rights that enabled other Australians to acquire land, houses, business and other assets. Jobs are limited to government services with virtually all taken by non-Aborigines because separate schools with special curriculums result in 100% illiteracy and non-numeracy. Australian apartheid policies have had the same dreadful results as they did in South Africa, but they continue to be supported by the ‘Aboriginal industry’. In South Africa, the left led the fight against apartheid; in Australia it supports it.”

There is very real danger in Apartheid policies. The Maori rights movement has been extremely successful in persuading successive New Zealand governments to allocate increasing levels of funding to race-based initiatives. Most have been appropriated in the name of reducing so-called Maori disadvantage, even though being “Maori” does not cause disparity. What causes disparity in New Zealand are factors like age, education, literacy, location, marital status and gender – as well as other dynamics like benefit dependence, sole parenthood, substance abuse, violence and criminality.

Being Maori does not signify socio-economic failure and so allocating resources on the basis of race is a gross waste of taxpayer’s money. The best way to tackle disadvantage is to ensure that all children succeed in school, that basic literacy and numeracy training is available to all, that workers in dying industries can re-train, and that the welfare system does not trap people in dependency – nor allow them to stay on a benefit in the long term in areas where there are no jobs.

1.Te Puni Kokiri, Briefing to the Incoming Minister
2.ACT New Zealand, The Maori Tax to Benefit Gap
3.Statistics NZ, Report of the Review of the Measurement of Ethnicity
4.Simon Chapple, Maori Socio-Economic Disparity