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Peter Wilson: Government Must Make Sure Whanau Ora Works

Peter Wilson
Peter Wilson

During its first year in office, the Government managed to run its agenda without suffering any noticeable damage. When difficulties did arise, Prime Minister John Key found remedies and shrugged them off in that way he has of making problems appear insignificant.

He is going to need those attributes again this year, because there is a potential train wreck ahead called Whanau Ora.

There is nothing wrong with the concept, making it work is going to be the tricky part.

It is a Maori Party initiative and Tariana Turia has been working on it for at least a year and maybe more.

Whanau Ora is about bringing together the various agencies that help stricken families and delivering support in a more efficient and effective way. It will involve welfare, housing, health, justice, the police and community agencies, apparently working together through a single delivery organisation.

The idea is to deal comprehensively with at-risk families, handling all their inter-connected problems at once instead of the disconnected way it happens now.

That was what Key meant when he talked about a water bed, a comment treated as amusingly incomprehensible. If you push down one part, he said, a bulge comes up somewhere else. He was saying that if you deal with just one aspect of a family's problems, underlying difficulties still exist and another is going to arise somewhere else within it.

Apart from that somewhat obscure explanation, not much is known about Whanau Ora. This is frustrating the Labour Party, which is itching to have a go at it but doesn't know how.

Harassed in Parliament, Social Development Minister Paula Bennett says "wait for the budget".

It seems the Government, absorbed with handling the recession, let Turia work away on Whanau Ora without taking much notice of what she was actually constructing.

There's not much doubt she was constructing a welfare delivery system intended to be exclusively for Maori. She never gave any indication she was doing anything else.

The Government appears to have realised this somewhat late in the day, and when it did it knew it had a problem. It couldn't let Whanau Ora stay that way because it would be perceived as a race-based policy designed to benefit a single sector of society -- and that isn't the National Party way.

So it was announced Whanau Ora, which means family wellness, would be open to all families.

That moved it into a bigger league, and a more expensive one. It has become a new way of delivering support to any family that needs it or could benefit from it.

Turia was reported as saying that if Pakeha wanted a Whanau Ora programme, then they could work out their own.

After some damage control, she said she didn't have a problem with an "all families" policy although it was obviously going to cost more.

Key, in another attempt to explain it, said families using it would have to accept and acknowledge it was about "doing things the Maori way".

Whether that works out remains to be seen, and there are other issues capable of creating problems.

The Government initially said funding for Whanau Ora would come from baseline ministerial budgets, then Key said there would be some new money for it in the budget.

There won't be much new money because extra spending in the budget has been set at $1.1 billion compared with $1.5 billion last year and there is strong competition for slices of it -- not least from Health Minister Tony Ryall.

And ministries already in the gun over cost-cutting won't find it easy to siphon off cash into Whanau Ora. Presumably it would be money they would otherwise spend on family support, but on what basis would the transfers be made? Would each of the delivery agencies, and it isn't known how many there would be or exactly what they will be, apply for funding based on the number of families they are dealing with or would they get some sort of bulk funding? It could become an administrative tangle of the sort the Government doesn't want.

It seems the delivery agencies would be something like the Waipareira Trust, but is isn't known whether existing organisations will be used or new ones set up.

Either way, they will be outside the discipline that is applied to ministerial budgets and the Government is going to have to be very careful about ensuring there are robust and transparent audit procedures.

The current lack of available detail indicates there is still much work in progress to fix up Whanau Ora before the May 20 budget.

It could be the ground-breaking initiative Turia thinks it is, and the Government hopes it is going to be.

If it does help families -- Maori and Pakeha -- get a fresh start then it really will be worth the hassles surrounding its inception and it will be hailed as a win-win for the Maori Party and the Government.

And they both have a lot to lose if it doesn't deliver. If Whanau Ora goes wrong the Maori Party will be accused of failing its most vulnerable constituents, families which have always been at the forefront of Turia's concern. Labour would blame the Government for allowing what it is already calling a shambles to deteriorate into a costly blunder.

Whanau Ora is a high stakes policy, and the Government needs to use its most competent officials to make sure it doesn't fail -- if they aren't already on the case.

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