Jacinda Ardern is right and wrong about Whanau Ora. She’s right to insist that any programme funded by the state remain accountable (both figuratively and literally) to the state. But she is quite wrong to identify Whanau Ora as a progressive measure worthy of Labour’s support – provided it remain under the supervision of Te Puni Kokiri.
Far from being a modern and progressive social programme, Whanau Ora has been, from its very inception, an attempt to present a politically inspired programme for the enrichment of private individuals as a bold reassertion of traditional Maori values and practices.
Tariana Turia’s brainchild represents an extraordinarily brazen attempt to introduce the principles of neo-tribal capitalism to the intricate and largely voluntary world of Maori social service. In exactly the same way as the cultural power of the traditional iwi was used to mask the creation of powerful capitalist corporations, run by and for the Maori power-elites of the 1980s and 90s, the architects of Whanau Ora have seized upon the extended family structures of the Maori as an ideal framework for extending a web of nepotism and patronage across Maori society.
A web woven by and for the Maori Party out of golden thread.
In this respect, Whanau Ora represents an even more retrograde step than the diversion of the progressive struggle for indigenous rights into the oligarchic machinations of the leading iwi corporations.
In the latters’ case there are powerful incentives to re-invest a variable fraction of their Treaty settlement millions into cultural and educational programmes of at least some benefit to ordinary Maori people.
Whanau Ora, however, steps a long way past the complex legal obligations of the modern corporation. In removing her programme from Te Puni Kokiri’s oversight, Ms Turia has effectively taken Whanau Ora beyond the conceptual reach of modernity into the archaic and entirely anachronistic world of the culturally intact and uncorrupted extended family units of the classical Maori.
That no such social entities remain in the New Zealand of 2013 makes not the slightest impression on Ms Turia, whose entire political career has been predicated on the assumption that 200 years of contact with the wider world has left Maori culture essentially unchanged. Whanau Ora was launched in the extraordinary expectation that extended family structures, unmodified and uncorrupted by the devastating historical experience of colonisation, would step forward confidently to re-assume the social responsibilities of the pre-modern village-dweller.
But, we may be very sure that whatever emerges from under the Whanau Ora umbrella will look nothing like the social-support mechanisms developed by pre-European contact Maori. Much more likely is the emergence of a regime which fans of The Godfather trilogy and The Sopranos would recognize immediately.
We are, after all, talking about $60 million per annum – distributed according to rules that, as far as anyone can tell, will be made up as the distributors go along. Exactly what sort of reciprocation will be made, either formally or informally, by the recipients is not the sort of information Ms Turia believes the rest of us have the slightest right to ask for or receive.
It’s all pretty outrageous. The really intriguing question, however, is: what arcane arguments persuaded John Key’s National Party to sign up to such an egregious exemption from even the most basic expectations of transparent and accountable public administration? And the most truly frightening answer is that the National-led Government regards Ms Turia’s project as some sort of pilot programme for a more general privatisation of social service delivery.
This would suggest that our future lies in some terrifying hybrid of Late-Capitalism and Medieval Feudalism. A feudalised capitalism would dismantle the structures of the modern state to the point where most citizens would find themselves increasingly beholden to private power. Like our medieval forebears, we would be at the mercy of authorities over which we exercised no effective political control but upon whose good opinion and charitable impulses we were almost entirely dependent.
There has been a tendency among what used to be called the “New Left” to see all manifestations of bureaucratic state control and administration as oppressive. From the late-1960s the consistent call from the libertarian Left has been for devolution and participation: a sort of anarchistic self-management based on the principle that “small is beautiful”.
But those who add their voices to these demands have probably never lived in a village or a small town in which the writ of central government doesn’t so much run as hobble. Think about the small towns of America’s Deep South. Think about the personalisation of every form of resource distribution. Think about getting only what the patriarch in the big house up on the hill decides you and your family deserve. Think about what might happen to all those who, whether by thought or deed, refuse to conform to their community’s political, cultural and religious expectations.
They say it takes a village to raise a child. But they never tell us what sort of person the village-raised child grows into.
“City air makes you free.” That was the promise medieval society held out to the serf who broke free of his feudal master’s grip. Civilisation itself takes its name from the civis – the city – in which the concepts of individual freedom, democratic accountability, and rational, judgement-free public administration were born.
If Jacinda Ardern and the Labour Party were outraged by the General Practitioner who assumed the right to lecture his female patient on the evils of contraception, then they should step back in alarm from the whole concept of Whanau Ora.
There’s nothing progressive about it.
Chris Trotter blogs at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.co.nz. This essay was originally published in The Daily Blog.