Past work

A fair go for all

We think New Zealand should be a place where everyone, regardless of their culture or ethnicity, gets a fair go. However, it is clear that many miss out on opportunities for good health, education, work and an improved standard of living, based on their race or ethnicity, the colour of their skin, the country they or their family came from, and the language they speak at home.

These sections look at the role structural discrimination may play in perpetuating inequalities. We have examined health, justice, education, and economic systems – as well as the public service – to see what barriers exist, and what is happening to break them down. We then ask, is the Government doing enough?

A Fair Go For All Report

You can read the Commission's 2012 report on structural discrimination, 'A Fair Go For All' (PDF) (Accessible Version). 


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.

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:

  • 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
  • developing some specific indicators around mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) in order to properly gauge its Māori-focused activities
  • 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
  • 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 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:

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

A fair go in health

Inequalities persist in health. For non-Pākehā death rates for diseases such as cancer and diabetes are higher, and life expectancies are shorter. GPs often spend less time with non-Pākehā patients and offer fewer specialist referrals. There are several possible reasons for this inequity.

Failure of “universal health” system

New Zealand’s policy of “universal health provision”, where everyone gets the same service no matter what their socio-economic status or ethnicity, is clearly not working. It ignores the obstacles faced by ethnic groups in accessing services and “both legitimates the non-recognition of ethnic disparities and privileges Pākehā.”

Providing culturally-specific health initiatives has been successful in several cases with Māori and Pacific communities, such as the Māori language elements for the Quit anti-smoking campaigns and the One Heart Many Lives programme, which focused mainly on Māori men. Professor Mason Durie’s holistic health model of wellness – Te Whare Tapa Whā – employs a Māori philosophy of health—one that moves beyond physical health as the sole determinant for wellbeing. Te Whare Tapa Whā describes four cornerstones of Māori health: whānau (family health) tinana (physical health) hinengaro (mental health) and wairua (spiritual health).


Increasingly, research is finding that racism – either individual or institutional, – is a major factor in poorer health for non-Pākeha ethnic groups. A 2012 study of secondary school students found that those who had experienced racial discrimination were more likely to report poor health, experience depressive symptoms, and smoke cigarettes.  Studies consistently show doctors treat patients differently based on ethnicity because of cultural misunderstandings, unconscious bias or uninformed beliefs. For example, 2002 research found only 2 per cent of Māori diagnosed with clinical depression were offered medication, compared with 45 per cent of non-Māori patients with the same diagnosis. Another study found doctors spend 17 per cent less time (2 minutes out of a 12 minute consultation) interviewing Māori than non-Māori patients. General practitioners were also less likely to have a high level of rapport with their Pacific patients, ordered fewer tests (17.8 per cent compared to 24.9 per cent) and referred Pacific patients to specialists less often (20 per cent versus the national average of 30 per cent).)

While it is important to address the (often unconscious) bias of medical professionals, a significant shift in the policies, practices and procedures of the health system needs to be implemented.

Workforce diversity

The number of Pacific and Māori peoples working in health is low compared to the percentage they make of the population. Only 3 per cent of the nearly 60,000 people employed by district health boards are Pacific peoples. Even in Auckland, only 7 per cent of the health workforce are Pacific peoples, although they make up around 12 per cent of the population. Active Māori medical practitioners represented only 3 per cent of the New Zealand medical practitioner workforce (330 out of 11,164). In addition, most Māori and Pacific DHB employees are concentrated in administrative and nursing roles.

Research has shown that patients experience better outcomes when they are the same ethnicity as their health provider, although this in itself will not necessarily shift discriminatory practices.

Pay equity

Māori and Iwi health workers earn up to 25 per cent less than their colleagues in hospital settings. This funding inequity is an important barrier to recruitment and retention of Māori health workers.  In 2009, the Health Select Committee recommended that the Government establish a working group to address this issue. This was rejected and no further progress has yet been made.

Kerri Nuku of New Zealand Nurses Organisation argues that Māori health professionals are the key to improving the Māori health, whether it be quit smoking programmes or a whānau-based approach to Māori wellbeing. “Unless we achieve pay equity, our highly prized and overworked ‘Māori for Māori’ workforce will continue to be a limited resource, and any new initiatives will continue to struggle and fail,” she said.

In July 2011, the NZ Medical Association released a statement identifying structural barriers in health and set out a programme of action to address them. The NZMA said that improving health was everyone’s responsibility. Health agencies will need to work with other agencies to improve health outcomes for everyone.

A fair go in justice

Research suggests two forms of structural discrimination exist within New Zealand’s justice system. The first is related to the nature of the system itself, which is based on values that are often at odds with those of Māori and Pacific people. The second relates to biased practices within the system, which lead to higher rates of Māori and Pacific imprisonment.


The values New Zealand’s justice system is based on come from the British model in which perpetrators take individual responsibility for their crime. This is very different from Māori and Pacific justice frameworks, which count on greater whānau and community responsibility and involvement.

In tikanga Maori, victims and offenders, while individuals, are also part of a collective group. The whanau, hapu and iwi of the victim and offender are all affected by a crime, so the community as a whole is involved in the justice process. Pacific ideas of justice are also relationship-based and start from a state of well being.  Wellbeing exists when a person’s relationship with their environment, their God and other people are in a state of balance. Violation against other people, particularly family members, disturbs these sacred relationships. Most Pacific communities will try to re-establish the disrupted relationships and restore balance.

Generally, these values have not been included in New Zealand’s justice processes. However, some of our case studies show that there have been efforts to incorporate Māori and Pacific principles of conflict resolution into the justice system. Some would argue that ‘grafting Māori processes’ onto the existing system is not enough. In order for there to be significant change, there needs to be a shift in values so more priority is given to programmes that are locally designed, developed and delivered, such as programmes by Māori for Māori.

Biased practices

A 2007 report showed that Māori were more likely to have police contact; be charged; lack legal representation; not be granted bail; plead guilty; be convicted; be sentenced to non-monetary penalties; and be denied release to Home Detention. Pacific people are also disproportionately represented, though not to the same extent. There is a lack of good quality research that interprets these statistics and looks into the reasons behind them for Māori, and even less for Pacific peoples.

Social attitudes contribute towards Police being more likely to apprehend and arrest non-Europeans (racial profiling). Studies also show that Māori and police hold negative attitudes towards one another. This may make detainees less likely to co-operate with Police which then makes it more likely they will be charged. The Operation 8 raids at Ruatoki show a recent example of police practice which has done serious damage to relationships with community and Māori that will take time and effort to heal.

This also holds true with Pacific peoples. The 1970s “dawn raids” for example, were humiliating and insulting for Pacific peoples. They were out of proportion to the actual incidence of offending, and have likely contributed to a legacy of mistrust between police and Pacific communities.

Another important factor is the social and economic inequalities that tend to increase the risk of involvement with crime. Although this cannot be quantified, there is strong evidence that the two are related. The Department of Corrections states that early intervention in health, social support and education is the most effective way to combat the high rate of Māori imprisonment.

Efforts to address structural discrimination

There have been a number of efforts that have had some success at addressing structural discrimination such as the Rangitahi and Pasifika youth courts and Māori Focus Units. Studies have shown that features of such efforts include:

  1. including ethnic minority and/or indigenous peoples as a central role in programme design, implementation and governance
  2. adopting a holistic approach, looking beyond the remit of the criminal justice system to address structural inequalities more broadly
  3. incorporating appropriate cultural components.

These developments need to take place at both a process and policy level, and include a broader focus on the structural inequalities that contribute to involvement with the criminal justice system.

A fair go in education

Deficit theorising

Māori and Pacific peoples continue to experience disadvantage in education. These gaps in educational achievement are still sometimes explained using a ‘blame the student’ mentality. In order for this to change, the education system, rather than the student, needs to be framed as the ‘problem’.

As with health, a ‘one size fits all approach’ clearly has not worked. Whose knowledge is important, what success looks like, what achievement matters and how schools are organised has traditionally been dominated by a Pākehā perspective. For example, education policies developed to address low levels of literacy among Pacific children actually referred to low levels of English literacy. Such policies do not acknowledge multilingual homes or the importance of bi/multilingual education.

Culturally responsive practices

One way of dealing with this bias is to develop culturally responsive practices and policies. One example is validating Māori cultural values, settings and tikanga, and building relationships with whānau and community.  Changing the curriculum to incorporate students’ different cultural frameworks is another. These practices acknowledge that ethnically diverse students may make sense of the world differently.


Poverty also plays a critical role in children’s ability to engage in education. Students from low socio-economic communities are less likely to attain higher school qualifications. This is a significant proportion of the population, with a 2008 survey showing that 20 percent of New Zealand children live in relative poverty. The fact that Maori and Pacific peoples are disproportionately presented in these communities  makes them more likely to be affected by the impacts of structural discrimination.

Tertiary institutions have a significant part to play in increasing the participation and achievement of Māori and Pacific students. In 2006, only half of tertiary education organisations were developing relationships with Pacific communities. Most of these  focused on attracting more Pacific students with little understanding of  the needs and aspirations of the Pacific community. Creating an environment where students feel supported and engaged in tertiary life is also important. However, most research shows that early intervention is more effective in addressing systemic inequalities. Leaving it till secondary or tertiary level is often too late.

A fair go in the public sector

Diversity is important for an effective public service. It can help maintain core public values, increase managerial efficiency, improve policy effectiveness, raise the quality of public service and enhance social mobility.  Greater diversity in the public service can also contribute to improving inequalities. According to Business NZ CEO Phil O’Reilly: “If Māori and Pasifika don’t succeed in the next twenty years, New Zealand will fail as a nation. It’s that simple.”

What then, are the barriers to public senior management being more ethnically diverse? A State Services Commission report suggested this could be because of the high proportion of young people in Maori, Pacific and Asian populations. The majority of these populations also live in Auckland, while most high level public service jobs are in Wellington.  However, cultural differences also play their part, as does direct and indirect discrimination.

Although there were EEO objectives set up for state services in 2001, these were not met. A 2007 report found this was because of a lack of public sector wide leadership as well as a lack of genuine commitment. As we have seen in other areas, efforts were mostly confined to adding on ‘target groups’ to an existing structure, without seeking to change the structure itself. Another reason for this failure could be the tendency for recruiters to appoint (and listen more to) people like themselves, often being unaware they are doing so.

The Commission has found that public policy is not developed with the implications for Maori and Pacific peoples in mind. Cabinet paper checklists for example, state that Treaty of Waitangi principles must be followed, but do not ask whether the implications for Maori have been considered. Including an analysis of these implications early on is important to ensuring solutions for Maori are not an afterthought.

Some agencies have been trying to shift organisational attitudes. The Office of Ethnic Affairs published a report on improving policy related research about ethnic communities in 2007. The Department of Corrections refined its policy development process to include an “Effectiveness for Maori Guide”. The NZ Police were also one of the first government agencies to develop a dedicated ethnic strategy, which you can read about here.

What are we talking about

What is structural discrimination

The State Services Commission describes structural discrimination as occurring “when an entire network of rules and practices disadvantages less empowered groups while serving at the same time to advantage the dominant group”.

Structural discrimination can be more difficult to identify than individual discrimination because it is built into structures and systems. ‘One size fits all’ policies that claim to treat everyone the same, for example, can in fact privilege the majority they were designed for. The organisations concerned may not even realise that their practices unconsciously carry on disadvantage.

Examples of structural discrimination on the basis of race, colour, ethnicity and national origin include:

  • racial profiling by security and law enforcement agencies
  • support for measures that have a disproportionately negative effect on minority ethnic groups e.g. cutting funding to specific targeted programmes that are shown to improve outcomes for minority groups or implementing one-size-fits-all standards that do not account for different needs and values
  • under- or mis-representation of particular ethnic groups in the media
  • insufficient, patchy or poor-quality data collection on ethnicity
  • medical care and rehabilitation services that fail to account for the different health needs and cultural values of different communities.

Public attitudes

Racial prejudice is a significant barrier to achieving racial equality. While structural discrimination relates to groups and people, this is fed into by the racist and discriminatory attitudes of individuals. Systems are run, after all, by people. Research has shown that modern racism can be subtle. People do not openly slander other racial groups but may talk in prejudicial ways when ‘safe’ to do so. Minority groups may also be criticised for resisting mainstream values and their experience of prejudice denied. All of these strategies help normalise the dominant culture.

Deficit theorising

Deficit theorising is a model that blames minorities for the disadvantages they experience. Ethnic groups may be criticised for ‘not being able to speak English properly’ or ‘not working hard enough’. This approach ignores the structural factors within dominant culture systems that create inequalities.

Socio-economic factors

Poverty continues to be a massive barrier to achieving ethnic equality.  There are too many children who do not get enough to eat and live in overcrowded households where they have no space to read or do homework.  Their education would continue to be compromised even if their schools got rid of all discriminatory policies.

What can we do about it

The Commission has collected a number of case studies that show how some organisations are trying to deal with structural discrimination.

Health: Whānau Hauora Village, Te Matatini

Education: Te Kotahitanga teacher development

Justice:  Rangatahi and Pasifika Youth Courts, Māori Focus Units

Public sector: New Zealand Police Ethnic Strategy