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New Zealand Government Faces Backlash Over Move to Abolish Maori Health Authority

Published February 27, 2024
4 months ago

New Zealand’s conservative government, led by Prime Minister Christopher Luxon, has ignited controversy by proposing legislation to dismantle Te Aka Whai Ora, also known as the Maori Health Authority. Health Minister Shane Reti announced that by the end of June, the authority, which was specifically created to enhance healthcare for Maori people, is set to be absorbed into the national health system.

Te Aka Whai Ora was only established in 2022 with explicit goals to address health disparities faced by Maori, who represent 17 percent of the country’s population. Traditionally, Maori communities have dealt with higher levels of deprivation, incarceration, and poorer health outcomes compared to the wider population. The Authority's creation was backed by the Waitangi Tribunal, a permanent commission addressing Maori claims since the 1970s.

The decision to abolish the health authority aligns with the centre-right coalition's agenda to reverse certain policies implemented by the previous Labour government. This included promoting the official use of the Maori language and improving Indigenous standards of living and rights. PM Luxon has stated that his policies aim to offer equal rights to all New Zealanders, implying a move away from targeted initiatives.

However, critics argue that dismantling Te Aka Whai Ora does not align with the ethos of equality Luxon advocates. Jacqui Harema, chief executive of Hapa to Hauora, has expressed alarm over the planned disestablishment, emphasizing that Maori communities are best positioned to know and address their health needs effectively. Harema cited the success of Maori health providers in delivering COVID-19 vaccines as evidence of the benefits of Maori-led initiatives, stressing their familiarity with community needs and dynamics.

The move has sparked protests across New Zealand and legal challenges, with a recent claim lodged with the Waitangi Tribunal in an effort to contest the government's decision. However, the tribunal's proceedings are likely not to conclude prior to the planned closure of the Maori Health Authority.

By abolishing Te Aka Whai Ora, the government argues that it is integrating its functions into the national health system, maintaining that this will benefit all citizens, including Maori. Minister Reti has proclaimed that the focus on disestablishment does not diminish their commitment to addressing Maori health issues.

Yet the pushback from Indigenous groups and health experts suggests that the absorption of the Maori Health Authority into the broader healthcare system may lead to a dilution of targeted approaches and advocacy for Maori, potentially worsening existing disparities. The issue raises deeper questions about the effectiveness and necessity of culturally specific health interventions in addressing historic and systemic inequities.

This developing situation highlights the broader tension between universal policy reforms and the needs of specific communities, a dilemma faced by many governments when addressing health disparities among Indigenous and minority populations.

The matter continues to attract significant attention, with implications for New Zealand's approach to Indigenous issues and health equity. It serves as a pivotal moment in the country’s efforts to reconcile the broader ideals of a unified health system with the cultural specificity and autonomy championed by Maori health advocates.

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