What an unhappy coincidence, at least from the Maori Party’s point of view, that the party's flagship $1 billion-plus Whanau Ora scheme was unveiled just as The Dominion Post was exposing misuse of taxpayer money by a Maori health provider on the Kapiti Coast.
The Whanau Ora scheme will channel public money direct to Maori community groups in the belief that they are in the best position to achieve the desired health and welfare outcomes. It’s surely worth a try, given that the present government-centered approach seems to be making little or no headway against the disproportionate incidence of illness, violence, drug use, welfare dependency and low life expectancy among Maori. But what confidence can the public have that Whanau Ora spending will be subject to rigorous scrutiny and accountability?
Accountability, or the lack of it, seems to be the Achilles heel of taxpayer-funded, Maori-controlled initiatives. The Dom Post’s revelation that $590,000 of health funding was unaccounted for by Te Runanga O Te Ati Awa Ki Whakarongotai came only days after similar allegations were made about the Tekau Plus project (see earlier post, April 3), which swallowed up more than $1 million of money intended to promote Maori business.
In both cases, it seems the money was shovelled indiscriminately into a black hole. Even worse, repeated attempts to alert government ministers and public servants to the alleged misuse of public funds by the Waikanae runanga were ignored until whistle-blowers – local Maori, as it happened – threatened to go to the media. When I wrote last week that politicians, frightened of appearing unsympathetic to Maori aspirations, were turning a blind eye to the massive rorting potential created by loose control over handouts to Maori interests, I didn't expect to be proved right quite so soon.
These scandals will only reinforce fears that Maori agencies are a protected species, exempted from normal rules of accountability. A sceptical public will need a lot of persuading that spending under the Whanau Ora scheme will be monitored more carefully.