What the United Nations says

Over the past five years, at least seven United Nations monitoring bodies have expressed concern about ethnic inequalities in New Zealand. They have called for greater understanding of the causes of inequalities, and action from the Government. In 2012 the UN said that the government should address structural discrimination – especially in health and education – and establish measurable targets to do so.

The Government’s response

The government has been looking into racial inequalities since the mid 1980s. A number of reports found institutional racism at work throughout the public service, and that the country’s mono-cultural laws discriminated against ethnic minorities. The government was urged to “attack all forms of cultural racism…that result in the values and lifestyle of the dominant group being regarded as superior to those of other groups, especially Māori”.

There was no consistent implementation of the recommendations contained in these reports by successive governments. Many of the findings of these reports remain relevant today[JP1] . [GW2]

Human Rights Act 1993

In New Zealand, discrimination on the grounds of race, colour, ethnicity or national origin is unlawful under the Human Rights Act 1993 (HRA). Structural discrimination can be considered as indirect discrimination. This occurs when an action or policy that appears to treat everyone the same way actually has a disproportionate negative effect on a person or group. In the 1990s, for example, a regional health authority decided to only subsidise doctors with New Zealand qualifications. A court found that this was indirect discrimination on the ground of national origin .

One means of addressing structural discrimination is the use of special measures (also known as affirmative action). Special measures are positive actions to assist or protect disadvantaged people. These are recognised in both the HRA and New Zealand Bill of Rights. They are not discriminatory if they assist people in certain groups to achieve equality.  An example of this is the Ministry of Health offering free cervical screening clinics to Maori, Pacific and Asian woman, as these ethnic groups have been shown to have lower cervical screening rates.

A Treaty of Waitangi based approach

All three articles of the Treaty concern the recognition of rights and the identification of responsibilities. These rights and responsibilities are central to addressing structural discrimination and include:

  • the rights and responsibilities of the Crown to govern
  • the collective rights and responsibilities of Māori to live as Māori  and protect and develop their taonga
  • the rights and responsibilties of equality and common citizenship for all New Zealanders.

Modern interpretations of the Treaty emphasise partnership between the Crown and Māori.

This guarantee of equal rights (for Māori as indigenous people) remains unfulfilled today. The Waitangi Tribunal has argued that in order to address these systemic inequalities, there needs to be a fundamental shift in philosophy, attitude and approach by the Government. Instead of viewing Māori as ‘a problem to be managed’, Māori culture and identity need to be ‘welcomed into the very centre’ of government activity. This provides Māori with a positive platform from which to address social issues instead of one based on grievance and negativity.

Specific tribunal recommendations related to health and education include:

  1. establishing a Crown–Māori partnership entity in the education sector. The tribunal suggests that Māori representatives be chosen via an electoral college to sit on it
  2. developing some specific indicators around mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) in order to properly gauge its Māori-focused activities
  3. recognising that rongoā Māori has significant potential as a weapon in the fight to improve Māori health. This will require the Crown to see the philosophical importance of holism in Māori health, and to be willing to draw on both of this country’s two founding systemsof knowledge
  4. incentivising the health system to expand rongoā services, for example, by requiring every primary health care organisation servicing a significant Māori population to include a rongoā clinic.

The Commission’s Treaty framework offers another tool to address structural discrimination. Based on years of extensive community engagement, the framework was launched in 2010, with ‘the promise of two peoples to take the best care of each other’ at its heart. It sets out the rights and responsibilities that the Treaty gave to both the Crown and Māori. It also recognises that ensuring equality for Māori involves the protection of rangatiratanga.  As part of this work, The Commission has collected case studies of existing Crown Māori relationships  and analysed them for elements of success. The common elements found are similar to those recommended by the Tribunal, as well as:

  1. entering into relationships with a genuine desire to improve outcomes for Māori and to provide redress for past actions
  2. regular dialogue to strengthen relationships and understand each other’s issues and aspirations
  3. foundational agreements based on acknowledgement of status, role, authority and obligations of each. All effective relationships were based on the recognition of rangatiratanga
  4. shared decision-making at all levels.

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