Biculturalism revisited

I may be talking out of turn – as an old Pakeha bloke that is – but I think it is useful to reflect on the bicultural journey in Aotearoa-New Zealand. So, I’d like to share some of the things that trouble me. Within the boundaries of the liberal capitalist state one of the most useful and progressive things we could do as a society is introduce compulsory Te Reo Māori into all levels of the education system. That would make a difference in a generation. We are told we don’t have the teachers but it could be done if the political will was there – with money, effort and commitment. Imagine a bilingual Aotearoa.

State policy initiatives directed at Māori over time have often been less than successful. Some things change and some things stay the same – like the disproportionate representation of Māori in all negative socio-economic statistics (Perry, 2012; Ware, Breheny and Foster, 2016).

The Children, Young Persons and their Families Act, 1989 (now the Oranga Tamariki Act) was driven by the vision of Puao te Ata Tu (A New Dawn). The Act was specifically focussed on the addressing the over-representation of tamariki Māori in state care. Thirty years later and Māori children and young people are still grossly over-represented. In fact the situation is probably worse. What went wrong?

The official narrative is that the whanau empowerment vison of the Act was flawed and that this has led to re-abuse and re-traumatisation (Expert Panel, 2015). But official state narratives are seldom completely truthful. The counter-narrative gets closer to the mark – that whanau decision-making, particularly kin placements, have not been adequately resourced or supported – that the 1989 Act degenerated into quick-fix state social work on the cheap in a neoliberal political climate (Hyslop, 2017). This is quite a bit more accurate but it also obscures the bigger picture which is about power, self-determination and the legacy of colonisation.

The colonial encounter between the settler emissaries of the British Crown and tangata whenua has been described as a clash of life-worlds (Quentin-Baxter, 1998). This clash of ‘cultures’ ultimately resulted in the systematic imposition of a European ideological system (liberal capitalism), especially through the alienation of Maori land into a system of individual ownership.

Liberal capitalism revolves around the concept of individual title to private property. This process of alienation occurred through war, confiscation, and through the operation of the Native Land Acts from the 1870’s. Puao te Ata Tu (1988) illustrates the objective of the colonising power as follows:

Those early Pakeha power brokers knew exactly what they were doing. It was summed up by the distinguished 19th century politician Sir Francis Dillon-Bell when he said, “The first plank of public policy must be to stamp out the beastly communism of the Maori”.

Land alienation is not ancient history. Postcolonial New Zealand doesn’t have any ancient history. Do you remember the middle New Zealand public and state-sponsored hysteria around the foreshore and seabed issue in the mid 2000’s, when it appeared that some remnant of customary Maori title might still exist under New Zealand law?

Puao te Ata Tu is not always well understood and a deeper understanding is not particularly convenient for the guardians of the status quo. This Report was not just about allowing, encouraging, or permitting Māori to practice their culture: establishing kapa haka in institutions, inserting te reo greetings into our e-mail introductions, or teaching tamaiti in out-of-family care something about their cultural heritage. These are not bad things in themselves but they are not enough.

The New Dawn Report was about a transfer of power, about tino rangitiratanga – about the same thing the Māori struggle has always been about: self-determination (Walker, 1990). Nothing has happened for Maori without resistance and struggle.

The Puao te Ata Tu text describes racism at a personal level but more importantly it talks about racism at the structural level – as a form of power. Institutional racism is reflected in the institutional structure of this country because that is precisely what the process of colonisation set out to do. The Report suggests how redress might be achieved in its first recommendation as follows:

We recommend that the following social policy objective be endorsed by the Government for the development of Social Welfare policy in New Zealand:


To attack all forms of cultural racism in New Zealand that result in the values and lifestyle of the dominant group being regarded as superior to those of other groups, especially Maori, by: (a) Providing leadership and programmes which help develop a society in which the values of all groups are of central importance to its enhancement; and (b) Incorporating the values, cultures and beliefs of the Māori people in all practice developed for the future of New Zealand.

This recommendation is not addressed solely to the Department of Social Welfare as it then was. It is directed to the New Zealand Government – the executive, legislature, the courts: the whole of the state. This, of course, is the real change that never happened.  What did happen is that Tau Iwi authorities decided that institutional racism could be resolved by allowing Māori some degree of cultural process in child welfare decision making, some degree of cultural expression and that Tau Iwi might in fact benefit from learning some of this themselves. As illustrated above, this is not all that was recommended.

A real transfer of power to Iwi Māori would require more than treaty settlements that simply facilitate Maori ventures into corporate capitalism. It would require constitutional reform of the sort that has been advocated by Māori lawyers for decades. Moana Jackson (1995), for example, has tirelessly pursued the vison set down in writing by his great grandfather in 1892:

Those who came after are the ones who believed in new stories and turning new pages hoping in that way to change the way that we tell our stories to ourselves. But I will struggle on with the old stories about our tikanga, about our history, about our Treaty, about what has happened to our people since then. And I will struggle on in the hope that before those stories are finished they will have made it worth all the trouble for us now and for our mokopuna tomorrow.

It is time to move on and start thinking beyond the comfortable idea that a little bit of cultural tolerance within a liberal capitalist Pakeha world is all that is required. Precolonial Māori law existed as naturally as language. Could mana be restored? Could a real degree of power be returned to Iwi Māori? The answer is yes it could. The Urewera governance arrangements negotiated with Ngai Tuhoe offer one possible sign-post. As with Māori language in schools a significant degree of Māori self-determination within our nation state is feasible but a courageous leap in political will is required. Why have so many of us learned to lower our sights?


Expert Panel – Modernising Child Youth and Family (2015) Final Report: Investing in New Zealand’s Children and Their Families, Wellington, New Zealand, Ministry of Social Development, available online at

Hyslop, I. (2017). Child Protection in New Zealand: A History of the Future. British Journal of Social Work, 47(6), 1800 – 1817.

Jackson, M. (1995). Treaty Settlements: The Unfinished Business. Victoria University of Wellington Law Review, 1995.

Perry, B. (2012). Household income in New Zealand; Trends in indicators of inequality and hardship 1982–2011. Retrieved from Ministry of Social Development website:…/household-incomes-report-2011-main-report

Puao Te Ata Tu (day break): The Report of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Māori perspective for the Department of Social Welfare. (1988). Wellington, New Zealand.

Walker, R. (1990). Ka Whawahi Tonu Matou – Struggle Without End.  Auckland, New Zealand: Penguin.

Ware, F., Breheny, M., & Forster, M. (2016). The politics of government ‘support’ in Aotearoa/New Zealand: Reinforcing and reproducing the poor citizenship of young Māori parents. Critical Social Policy, 37(4), 499-519. doi:10.1177/0261018316672111

Quentin-Baxter (Ed.). (1998). Recognizing the rights of indigenous people. Wellington, New Zealand: Institute of Policy Studies.


11 replies on “Biculturalism revisited”

I’d say, not just lower sights, but ignore completely. Active and wilful ignorance is the privilege of the dominating culture.

Excellent Ian. You raised some very good points. Why indeed have we lowered our sights?
Recently, I was part of a multi cultural team presenting to MSD on a new way of working with children in care and caregivers, not a new way for us, but a new approach to tackle this ongoing problem. Maori was one of the leaders of a team of very experienced professionals proposing to utilise our combined skills and expertise to focus on each individual child and what would be required of caregivers. The feeling we had coming away was that policy makers and the panel which only had one Māori on it, is again we were faced with aspects of colonialism.
I am very impressed with your article as this has been our recent experience to.

I struggle with the constant negativity in the discussions on Maori and their status at the bottom of the heap.
We focus on failure, not on success, and thus make it appear that Maori are bound to fail because of the past. Do we investigate those who succeed?
In my corner of the world the little lane I live in, in a quality suburb in Tauranga I see successful Maori. Not necessarily rich in money, but certainly in quality of life. In the eight houses six are owned by Maori families, one by a single pakeha man, and the other by an Indian family. These middle class families have good jobs, well behaved well loved children and extended whanau with whom they spend weekends and holidays. Their Maori heritage matters to them, and they participate in Marae activities as required to remain part of their community, but they also contribute to the general New Zealand community. Not just Maori, or Pakeha but to the complex structure that is New Zealand today.
They demonstrate to me that nationality had nothing to do with the fact they own a house in a good suburb and have good jobs. Hard work, courage, discipline and hope are the key components of their lives.
The people I meet at work and every day in the wider business community, are frequently Maori, as well as Pakeha and New New Zealanders all striving for a good life as they define it. They are following models of success, not failure.
I do know that there is racism around, both casual and structural. As an older woman I also suffered from sexism which could be just as destructive. But I see so many proud Maori who stand tall within our society, without a social cringe, without apology and with pride that I have such hopes for New Zealand.
Please let us look at success models and consider resilience, and hope as a feasible option. Let us focus on supporting and developing models that work for the various components of our society. By burdening Maori with the failure model we are supporting colonialisation and destructive behaviours.
While the past is always in front as we know and understand the past, it must be the spring board to success not the only road forward in life.

Dear Ian. Thanks for this piece. A few sound ideas coming forward from Oranga Tamariki to improve practice but no evaluated evidence of overall systemic change. Like what use is a complaints procedure for children in state care but NOT for their whaanau experiencing poor practice? A year later and our tamariki are still being removed more than ever before with 6 and a half thousand in care via unsung institutional racism. Such as ,non Maaori assessment processes that predict risk through a white is right lens, rather than assess family strengths). I have been at the centre of some of OTs recent ideas about partnering with hapu/iwi. Many OT staff in charge of approving new ideas such as kaupapa Maaori caregiver training have no idea about Maaori models, modes, methods of healing and re-connection. You just talk to a sea of blank faces.

Where are the discussions/stats about the true impact of predictive risk modelling uplift or how OT are tackling front line entrenched cultural incompetence and profound lack of understanding around family violence dynamics? I’m with you Ian, let’s talk about tino rangatirtanga! I say return our lands, return our resources and most of all return our children that continue to be genocidally transacted along a care to incarceration pipeline.

Naaku na
Paora Moyle

Hi Paora – Yep I wary of ‘speaking for’ Maaori but just trying to point out wider historical and political context because when a group of people experience inequality like this it is not just an individual or whanau problem and needs to be recognised as a structural problem to be addressed at that level – like constitutional reform. It is complex and challenging of course – like the relationship between Iwi and urban whanau – but all the more important to find solutions – the Ngapuhi Tiriti settlement deal will obviously be very important also …
And Frances – this is not a deficit approach – it is about social justice for indigenous people. Sure many Maaori are doing fine but that does not mean we are all happy diverse Kiwis living in a fair society. Very good to have the dialogue but and thanks for your comment also. I am away from NZ for a few weeks and will only get on-line now and again. Part of the point of this blog site is hard conversations abut ways forward for social work practice and for wider Aotearoa – NZ society generally. Social work involves working with individuals and families but we also ask who holds the power, who makes the rules, who benefits and what needs to change ??? in order for human freedom and well-being to grow – and this takes more than just running a profitable business market model of social life … In our little corner of the world the rights and needs of Maaori as a distinct people and a Treaty partner is a good and perennially challenging starting point to ask these unsettling questions. Best wishes – Ian

I totally agree with your comments on learning Te Reo. If we were a truly bilingual country it would benefit outcomes in all areas especially of course for Maori.

Ae Barbara – Aotearoa is not the country it could be – we need to redistribute wealth but we also need to redistribute mana and cultural capital and te reo in the whole education system would be the most effective step we could take – and it could be done – imagine all our mokopuna being bilingual – we are small enough to make this happen and we would lead the world. Partner with Iwi / kaumatua kuia … If we sovstrapped for cash I for one could cope without the America’s cup for a start! Thanks for your comment.

Kia ora Ian,
Excellent article.

I am just trying to follow up on one of your references:

Ware, F., Breheny, M. and Forster, M. (2016). The politics of government ‘support’ in the Aotearoa / New Zealand child welfare context: child abuse prevention or neo-liberal tool? Critical Social Policy. DOI: 10.1177/0261018314543224

When I enter the DOI it comes up with the following article, which has a similar but different title to the one above:

The ethics of predictive risk modelling in the Aotearoa/New Zealand child welfare context: Child abuse prevention or neo-liberal tool?

Is this the article you are referring to in this piece?

Ngā mihi,


Kia Ora Danielle – Well spotted!

Yes, it is a referencing error where I have mashed two references together – my mistake.

There are two articles mixed up here I am afraid – “The politics of government ‘support’ in Aotearoa/New Zealand: Reinforcing and reproducing the poor citizenship of young Maori parents” – is the Ware, Breheny and Forster article … and I have joined it up with a reference for Emily Keddell’s “The ethics of predictive risk modelling in the Aotearoa/New Zealand child welfare context: child abuse prevention or neo-liberal tool?”. Sorry about that and thanks for pointing it out. Ian

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