Committed to Te Tiriti: For real or spiel?

This opinion piece is about organisations that espouse a commitment to Te Tiriti o Waitangi and do so without being accountable for their failure to act on that commitment. It is also about privileged white lensing in New Zealand social work, who accuse Māori practitioners ‘calling out racism’ of, “encouraging privilege-checking’ as a form of bullying and silencing.” Instead of blaming the voices that highlight problems, listen to them, lean into the pain of their truth, and be open to examining the structures of power that so successfully resist change.

Consciously or not, organisations that apply a one-size fits all (standardised) approach to their modus operandi often lose the needs and aspirations of their Tangata Whenua (TW) members in the mainstream mix. Let us take for example, Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers (ANZASW, aka the Association). TW membership has withered over recent years, perhaps (in part) because practitioners are just too busy working with our whānau grappling with the impact of ever en(cock)croaching ‘dis-ease’ of neoliberalist agendas. Or because the Association, represented at a national level largely acts and speaks on behalf of its wider TW membership with no consultation or accountability for this.

Tauiwi social workers do not experience the blanket daily grind of ‘in your face’ racism. They generally get to go home to their lives at 5 pm when most of our Māori practitioners/kaimahi, live and breathe the state of Māori need, 24/7. So the withering of the Association’s TW membership may not be a case of TW not wanting to be engaged, but rather the reverse. Māori practitioners are often the hardest working and most poorly paid in social work and it is taxing on the indigenous soul to work in a system that perpetually and negatively reflects our people. For example, statistics, over-representation, mental health, suicide, incarceration rates, and our mokopuna being uplifted out of their whakapapa in unprecedented numbers. Social work proclaims its intolerance towards injustice and inequality in spite of its lack of truthful understanding or indeed acceptance that economic injustice is a root cause of indigenous social injustice. Yet we continue to collectively ‘trough feed’ off of the brown school-to-prison pipeline, and “modernising” the child protection system just makes it upfront legalised child trafficking.

My point is biculturalism with integrity is about TW visibility and being an equal member at the table. Take for example, ANZASW’s commitment to, “partnership and collaboration under Te Tiriti o Waitangi” and how this commitment translates to reflecting how well TW members are valued. In terms of this so-called union or marriage, “the ANZASW Governance Board includes equal representation for Tangata Whenua and Tau Iwi.” Except there has not been equal representation for many years, and this, “Tangata Whenua Takawaenga o Aotearoa conducts national hui, has representation on all ANZASW Committees and has established several Roopu (branches) for Tangata Whenua members.” Well there are no more national hui, there is ‘some’ representation on committees, and most Roopu are no longer active. As well as, “Key activities include the development and support of the niho taniwha model for competency assessment and the publishing of Te Komako as an annual issue of the Association’s journal.” The Māori competency assessment process is no longer promoted (for some new members they are discouraged from using this process in favour of the cheaper paper-based option) and publishing an annual TW issue is not biculturalism; it is “littlebitism” (<humour).

And this, “Te Ahi Kaa as the day of national celebration” for TW members, although still referred to on the ANZASW website, hasn’t happened for years. What we have instead is New Zealand Social Workers Day, the mainstream mixing of us so that our celebration of ourselves as a Te Tiriti partner is over shadowed. Or the last minute budget introduced to the special general meeting that suddenly includes $2000 for TW development (the columns for the previous years read zero). Likely due to the recent outcry about ANZASW being anti-Treaty after 10% of the membership voted down their current Board, a Board totally committed to bringing back some alignment with and accountability to te Tiriti.

This translates like a marriage where power and control can be misused; where one partner gets to make all the decisions, manage the resources and speaks on behalf of the other. At which point does this partnership get reviewed so that he/she gets to say how it feels to be a shadow of ones former self, and the partner responds by waving the marriage certificate (te Tirirti) and declaring that he has done everything in his/her best interests. It does not ‘look like/feel like/quacks like’ a partnership when any organisation needing to make fiscal savings, firstly chops essential services to Māori. What we experience as TW members is that we are secondary and only good for ‘as and when’ or ‘dial a powhiri.’ The implication being, we loose the rich expertise of members who are strongly connected to their communities, whānau, hapu and iwi. What percentage of fees paid by TW members is actually spent on promoting indigenous development and equality within an organisation that proclaims a commitment Te Tiriti? How is the Association’s commitment to Te Tiriti measured/evaluated and who defines the parameters? Being a monocultural organisation that provides services to multicultural social workers is absolutely fine, but be straight up and call it for what it is. In the same way monocultural social workers are professionally ‘approved’ as culturally qualified (or get this, “culturally fluent”) to work with whānau, are not.

So how does it feel to be a TW member of an Association that states, “the principles of biculturalism and partnership are evident in our actions,” but those ‘actions’ present (at best) as sparsely window dressed lip service? As a Māori woman I am intrinsically connected to Te Tiriti, both here in this life and through my tīpuna, now past. Te Tiriti is a part of my physical as well as spiritual makeup, because its significance is passed down through whakapapa (DNA, cellular memory in the same way historical trauma is biochemically recorded and carried). Hence, there is a telepathy between hearts, worlds and ancestors. Every single person with whakapapa (who came from the love of thousands) is the living embodiment of Te Tiriti and all that it encompasses. Te Tiriti is not just a rat nibbled piece of cloth that sits in a tauiwi archive in the capital city. It is not merely and interesting curiosity that pops up in our country. It is not the hollow title that ‘adorns’ the top of an organisation’s constitution and website. Least of all, it is not your white privilege and entitled attitude, your expectation of Māori to quell their emotions and calmly educate you about what Te Tiriti is NOT.

Te Tiriti is not a tino rangatiratanga sticker in the front window of your office or a flag to be waved to score ‘brownie’ points. We are not a rimu veneer to be grafted onto monocultural one-size-fits-all constitution, mode of operating, a task, or a social work intervention. Nor a harakeke weave design, or graphic of a pounamu pendant that adorns your website or AGM report. Having a Māori in the office does not make you bicultural, just as painting a kowhaiwhai on the door of a youth justice residence does not make it culturally responsive; it is still a place where our tamariki and rangatahi are mass incarcerated. When an organisation states that, “Te Tiriti informs our existence” this lip serviced window dressing is the same message they send to your TW membership. For those of us who are intrinsically linked to our past, our tīpuna, it can physically hurt, like a slap in the face when an organisation disrespects our founding document. And, a blow to the heart when our own people support/reassure/confirm an organisations belief that their tokenistic use of Te Tiriti is politically correct, bicultural and all-embracing.

The central goal of a strong bicultural organisation should be the ‘measurable support’ for members working to ultimately support whānau hapu and iwi to regain their rangatiratanga, their power to determine their own future. To maintain their living culture their shared heritage, their links with their ancestral landscape, their natural environments, their identity, and status as tangata whenua in Aotearoa. This includes NOT blocking the voice of TW members by refusing their access to online platforms that tauiwi have open access to, just because you do not agree with the content of what is being expressed. Tauiwi do not ever have a mandate to speak on behalf of TW or to vote off their Board members who have been democratically elected by the TW membership. This is just overt unadulterated racism by way of white lensing and privileged positioning.

Raising up TW visibility has to start with respectful listening to TW members who dare to speak out about issues affecting them within the Association. Honouring Te Tiriti means upholding the rights and responsibilities our tīpuna entrusted us with. We all have a duty to challenge power structures because it is power structures that recognise nationhood and the need to build on those in a constructive way. Speaking up intends to not only liberate TW; it is about liberating tauiwi from their extreme blinkeredness. So much more needs to be done in social work in order to become truthfully bicultural and liberate Māori from oppression, and tauiwi from their inability to realise that their own liberation is intrinsically linked to it.

Being committed Te Tiriti is about a fundamental responsibility to provide for and protect Māori, their tino rangatiratanga, and their interests in such diverse areas as culture, economic development and the environment. Being an Association that uplifts rather than denigrates the mana of its members would be truly an Association worthy of leading others by example. Doing so would also acknowledge the essential place of He Wakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga (Declaration of Independence), and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in Aotearoa New Zealand social work.

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