Heke Tangata

Last week, Dale Husband introduced us to Brian Easton, the historian and economist who wrote Heke Tangata, an account of the Māori migration to the towns and cities over the last 80 or so years.

This week, Kennedy Warne looks at the disturbing picture painted in the book — and wonders if the policies of successive New Zealand governments are evidence of benign neglect, wilful blindness, or calculated discrimination.


I once asked a Northland kaumātua to help me understand how it was that Māori participated in — were, in fact, dominant players in — the destruction of the great kauri forests of the north.

“All those children of Tane, the great kauri,” I said, “how could people who have such a deep sense of kauri being part of their whakapapa — ‘Ko au te kauri, ko te kauri ko au’ (I am the kauri, the kauri is me) — how was it possible for them to lift an axe against those trees?”

The kaumātua said I needed to realise how completely the Māori economy had been dismantled by the settler economy.

“Māori had their backs against the wall,” he said. “Their economy had been knocked back and knocked back. Their cupboards — the forest, the moana — were being emptied. They came to the point of saying: ‘Well, the only economy we have is to cut down the trees and sell them to the Pākēha. Same with the moana. The law says we can’t do it our way, we have to do it the Pākēha way.’ They knew it was wrong, but what else could they do? This is what happens when a people loses its sovereignty.”

That conversation came to mind when I was reading Heke Tangata, the economist and historian Brian Easton’s account of Māori economic decline since the Second World War.

The title of the book translates as “the human migration,” but heke can also mean the ebbing of the tide, and this, too, is accurate: the economic tide has been going out for lower-income Māori for 80 years.

Heke Tangata grew out of a report for Te Whānau o Waipareira Trust, and centres on Māori post-war urban migration. To understand that social movement, Easton delves back in time, and particularly to a landmark collection of essays, The Maori People Today: A General Survey, published in 1940.

Easton sees that snapshot of Māori life as a tupuna to his own.

Āpirana Ngata was a major contributor to The Maori People Today, and it was in the same year as the book’s publication, at Waitangi for the centenary of the signing of Te Tiriti, that Ngata gave his bitter assessment of what a hundred years of “civilisation” had brought his people.

“In retrospect, what does the Māori see?” Ngata asked the crowd. “Lands gone, the powers of the chiefs humbled in the dust, Māori culture scattered, broken. What remains at the end of one hundred years of the Treaty of Waitangi? … What remains of all the fine things said then?”

Almost 80 years later, that question haunts the pages of Heke Tangata: What remains of all the fine things said then?

I heard that question when I read a shocking statement in the book’s opening pages. Based on social indicators of education, employment, health, income, housing and wealth, Easton writes that Māori “are a generation behind the Pākehā population.”

How could this happen in “egalitarian New Zealand”?

The core problem, as Horace Belshaw, a professor of economics at Auckland university, identified in The Maori People, was land. For the previous 25 years, farming methods had become more land-intensive, so could support fewer jobs — and the subsistence economy that Māori, along with many Pākēha, depended on was becoming less tenable. By 1940, wrote Belshaw, “no tribe has sufficient land to support all its people.”

And so the movement to cities began.

Initially, urban migration was manageable and didn’t have the culturally-splintering impact it would later develop. In the early part of the 20th century, writes Easton, the largest urban centres for Māori were close to traditional Māori settlements. “Māori workers were a rural people; even those who lived in the small urban centres were barely separated from their rural roots.”

But then the urban exodus went into overdrive. It was swift, massive, and unplanned for. “In 1951, 71 per cent of Māori were living rurally; by 2006, that number had dropped to 16 per cent,” writes Easton.

Although some Māori made the urban move by choice — lifestyle, income, career prospects — they were a minority.

“While there were some very successful Tiki Whitingita (Dick Whittingtons),” writes Easton, “many more were driven into urban areas because there were insufficient prospects of economic, education and economic opportunities [at home].”

Regrettably, there was no “urban Ngata” to guide the migration and develop policies and support for a surge of people ill-prepared for the culture shock of city life and the rapid realisation that the promised land of jobs and income seemed always tantalisingly out of reach.

The main challenge — besides being a minority in a dominant Pākēha urban culture — was that the newcomers lacked the specialised skills needed to enter a workforce defined by new types of employment and new forms of technology.

“What was required, and what was not provided, were training schemes to reskill and upskill the labour force in general, and the unemployed in particular,” Easton writes.

But New Zealand had no tradition of providing quality training programmes.

Employers were reluctant to invest in on-the-job training, because in a high-turnover labour market they were unlikely to recoup their investment. There was no nationwide system of polytechnics until the 1970s. And the apprenticeship system, which would have provided vital upskilling, was restructured in the early 1990s, “in effect closing it down for a period when it was greatly needed.”

It was not as if the need for training was a novel concept. Belshaw had identified it 40 years earlier: Lack of training, he wrote in The Maori People, meant that “the undoubted capacities [of Māori] in many directions are insufficiently developed.”

Lack of investment in skills training would grow to become a debilitating liability in later decades.

It need not have been the case, argues Easton. New Zealand could have learned from European countries, with their emphasis on “post-secondary educational and training institutions for all,” but instead opted for the British model of tertiary professional education, largely decoupled from work experience.

“Comprehensive active labour market programmes have long been prominent” in Scandinavia and on the European continent, writes Easton — but New Zealand was only ever half-hearted about upskilling the labour force. “It takes a long time to build up quality training programmes. New Zealand never really started, except when there was a panic.”

And this remains the default position, as demonstrated in the Christchurch rebuild. “It was evident there would be a shortage of skilled workers, but from the beginning this was met by importing foreign skilled workers rather than upgrading the skills of available New Zealanders,” writes Easton.

That history is repeating with the Auckland building boom.

Easton is especially scathing about the political embrace of neoliberalism that led to the Rogernomics era. Policies in the period from the mid-1980s through into the 1990s, he believes, pushed low-income, low-skilled New Zealanders — disproportionately Māori — into a deprivation cycle from which they have never emerged.

If neoliberal thinking thwarted the development of a skilled workforce, its attitude to welfare was just as disastrous for low-income urban Māori.

Whereas the 1972 Royal Commission on Social Security had declared that the purpose of the welfare system was to ensure that “everyone is able to enjoy a standard of living much like that of the rest of the community, and thus is able to feel a sense of participation in and belonging to the community”, the 1990 National government made drastic cuts to benefit levels and entitlements, as well as attacking education, health, and housing components of the welfare state.

As a result, beneficiaries no longer shared in rising prosperity. That sense of “participation in and belonging to the community” was denied them. And, arguably, it was never restored.

Easton has a table which shows the time it took the real household incomes of various deciles (tenths) of the population to recover to the level they were at in 1984, before the Fourth Labour Government ushered in Rogernomics.

Those at the top of the income distribution recovered within four years. For the remaining 90 per cent of households, it took at least 12 years. In the case of the poorest 30 per cent, it was 20 years.

Twenty years — a life sentence. And worse than that, a sentence for multiple lives across many generations.

This is the tragedy that Easton discloses. The vast majority of households in poverty, he writes, consist of whānau: children and their caregivers. Poverty shatters the foundation for nurturing the next generation. “Children are a nation’s single most important investment,” writes Easton, “but the nation has been underinvesting in them, and it is now paying the costs of at least 25 years of severe underinvestment.”

Easton sees a callous motivation behind this indifference to the poor.

“The intention was, almost explicitly — even if politicians are rarely that honest — to reduce the lowest wage levels, with the expectation that lower wages would increase employment. It was argued that lowering benefit levels for those seeking work would make beneficiaries more ready to take low-paid jobs.”

That calculated driving down of wages had dire consequences “for diet, health and matters critical to social investment such as education” — and in the fact that income-pressured households are more likely to fracture under the stress and become incubators of domestic violence and delinquency.

“Although there is [now] considerable effort and spending on education and health measures to minimise these effects, they are ambulances at the bottom of the cliff, not fences at the top,” writes Easton. “The fences were weakened a quarter of a century ago. There are mokopuna today paying the price of that past weakening.”

That price is paid in multiple ways, which Easton itemises in a dispiriting list:

  • At the age of 15, Māori students are on average educationally behind Pākehā. About a quarter of them have not reached educational levels that enable them to function competently in society.
  • Unemployment is effectively much higher among Māori than is generally realised, if those discouraged from seeking work are included.
  • Māori have poorer health, as measured by mortality and independent life expectancy. They live fewer years and have poorer-quality health during those years.
  • Māori incomes are lower than those of Pākehā. Their earnings are lower, and Māori male earnings are relatively lower than those of Māori females.
  • Māori are over-represented in the criminal justice system (including as victims of crimes).
  • Māori have much lower net worth than Pākehā, not all of which can be explained by their being younger (half of all Māori are under the age of 25, and net worth tends to be lower among the young and builds to peak levels at retirement). One consequence is that Māori experience inferior housing, which affects their wellbeing, health, and prospects.

Does Easton see hope for improvement in these dismal social indicators? Not a lot.

His conclusion, after four decades of monitoring Māori economic progress, is distressing, and I quote it in full:

“At first, the overall pattern of steady incremental relative gains suggested Māori would eventually catch up to Pākehā — although ‘eventually’ would certainly have not been before the middle of this century, more than 100 years after the great urban migration began. However, the inventory of indicators suggests the steady incremental gains are no longer happening. Apparently, for a decade or more, there have been no marked gains. Instead there has been stagnation and even some setbacks.

“Māori education and employment levels remain below those of Pākehā with little evidence of catching up, while the evidence points to Māori household incomes as not only markedly lower than non-Māori ones, but growing more slowly than the national average.

“What is happening? The simple answer is that social security benefit levels were not indexed to prosperity but, except for the April 2016 increase in family support, have been maintained at the same real level as they were set in 1990 (that is, adjusted only for inflation), which was not very different from the level the Royal Commission on Social Security judged inadequate in 1972. Others have benefited from growing prosperity since then; social security beneficiaries have not.”

All of which leads to an inevitable outcome, which is this: a Māori person in 2013 was 85 percent more likely to be in poverty than the population as a whole.

Easton ends his book with a challenge. Will New Zealanders accept the long-term disparities between Pākehā and Māori as inevitable, or will the country take action to change the policies and processes which are causing stagnation and regression? It is a choice with disturbing generational consequences.

Reading Easton, I found myself wondering if any of this history of economic failure could be actionable as a claim with the Waitangi Tribunal. There is certainly a grievance here — perhaps the mother of all grievances. Were successive governments’ policies evidence of benign neglect, wilful blindness, or calculated discrimination?

There are some people, no doubt, who would regard Māori deprivation as an inevitable and unavoidable consequence of being a minority in a society dominated and structured by others. That has always been an argument favoured by the powerful. But it is almost certainly wrong.

In Ramp Hollow, a heartbreaking book about poverty and land loss among subsistence farmers in the Appalachian Mountains of the United States, the historian Steven Stoll writes: “We will fail to ask the right questions if we are deceived into thinking that some people have no history, that their poverty is inherent, its causes self-evident. Without knowing history, we might conclude that the one billion people who live in slums have always picked through garbage for food. Seeing the world without the past would be like visiting a city after a devastating hurricane and declaring that the people there have always lived in ruins.”

The importance of Heke Tangata is that it provides the necessary history, told through actual statistics. And it suggests that there are indeed causes to present-day poverty that may be hiding in the policies of the past.

I suspect that most of us live in the economy the way fish live in an aquarium: it may not be perfect, but it’s the best we’ve got. It’s only when the water becomes murky, or turns toxic, or when some of our mates go belly up, that it becomes apparent that something fundamental is wrong.

If the statement Easton opens Heke Tangata with — that Māori are a generation behind Pākehā — doesn’t disrupt society’s acquiescence, what will?

Stoll ends his book on Appalachia with these challenging words, a wero to us all:

“The question we need to ask of every migration from country to city is whether it originated from a government scheme or corporate gambit that so degraded a people’s autonomy as to give them no choice. We need to know history in order to make policy. Otherwise, we might allow an old story to think for us, a story told for centuries that has never told the truth.”


© E-Tangata, 2018

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