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Does colonisation explain poor outcomes for Māori or justify co-governance?

In brief
  • Colonisation doesn’t always explain poor outcomes for Māori, but is used to justify divisive policies. 
  • An example: Māori life expectancy lags behind Pākehā, but has more than doubled since 1840. 
  • Pākehā, who were the Colonisers, aren’t even in the top 50% of longest living groups in New Zealand. 
  • Poverty is strongly linked to poor health, and broken families, which only became more widespread, in New Zealand, in the late 1960s. 

One sided view of colonisation used to justify extreme policies 

Colonisation and its effects are readily cited as explanations for poor outcomes for Māori and as a justification for co-governance. Is it that simple? 

Author James Pew writes social justice activists “only see conflict and never search for agreement, cooperation or any measure of harmony that may have existed” regarding European contact with indigenous people (i.e. colonisation). 

Patronising this one-sided view has led to “irrational policies” regarding cultural preservation and autonomy for indigenous people, which Pew argues is exemplified by the United Nations declaration on the rights of indigenous people (UNDRIP). 

But what does UNDRIP actually say? It is generally a number of platitudes which could be fulfilled in any number of ways, which each country is free to determine, in the context of their individual circumstances. It is emphatic about being non discriminatory towards anyone. 

In New Zealand, UNDRIP underpins Māori separatist co-governance policies. It is much like the interpretation of the Treaty itself. Take very general words and claim they are clear support for what is really just a certain perspective. 

Advocates for co-governance view European colonisation as always negative and disrupting an otherwise idyllic pre-colonial existence for Māori.

Let’s take a look then at one commonly touted example of a poor outcome for Māori often blamed on colonisation: life expectancy. 

Colonisation and life expectancy

“Decolonising” the health sector justifies, for some, ethnic based co-governance policies for a separate Māori health authority. It is premised partly on a desire to address abysmal health outcomes, including lower life expectancy. National MP Dr Shane Reti (himself of Māori descent) notes that average life expectancy for Māori males was 28 to 30 years in 1840 and since then has more than doubled.  

Does colonisation explain poor outcomes for Māori or justify co-governance? - Centrist
One sided views of colonisation are exemplified by the United Nations declaration of the rights of indigenous people (UNDRIP). Image by JasonParis

Dr Lawrie Knight writes that while Māori are at the bottom of the list for life expectancy (74.2 years for males and 78.2 years for females), Pākehā are only in the lower half of the “colonised” health system they created, doing worse than other ethnicities, like Chinese, in New Zealand.

Would a decolonised health system improve Māori life expectancy? 

According to Dr Knight, not likely. Cook Island Māori have been subject to a degree of decolonisation for nearly six decades. Their life expectancy is nearly identical to New Zealand Māori.

Dr Reti says the Government is refusing to release the report on the Māori Health Authority’s progress because it fails to show improved outcomes despite three years of planning and deployment. 

The link between colonisation, poverty and health

Dr Knight says poverty has the greatest impact on health, but its contributing factors ‘sit’ outside the health system. Knight says colonisation does contribute to poverty, but others say these links may not be as straightforward as you think.

Economics professor Walter Williams points out how some former colonies like Hong Kong have become extraordinarily wealthy. Other places, like Liberia and Nepal have never been colonised, but are among the world’s poorest nations. 

In New Zealand, critics of the welfare state say poverty is tied to broken families. Shifting cultural attitudes and the availability of the Domestic Purpose Benefit, for single parents, coincided with the number of single-mother families, which took off in the late 1960s. Declining rates of home ownership, which peaked in the 1990s, also correlates with increased rates of poverty.

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