New Zealand moves to abolish Maori health authority despite protests

Centre-right government says health agency set up to improve access for Maori people will be shut down by end of June.

Demonstrators protest against New Zealand government's promises to wind back Indigenous policies of previous governments
Protesters in Wellington march against New Zealand's new government's policies on Indigenous rights [File: Lucy Craymer/ Reuters]

New Zealand’s conservative government has introduced a new bill to dismantle an agency set up to improve health outcomes for the Pacific nation’s Maori people.

Health Minister Shane Reti said on Tuesday the Maori Health Authority will be shut down by the end of June and that its functions will be absorbed by the national health system.

The legislation heralds the “start of a new vision for Maori health”, he said.

Known as Te Aka Whai Ora, the Maori Health Authority was established in 2022 to improve the health outcomes of Maori, who make up 17 percent of New Zealand’s people and have higher levels of deprivation and imprisonment and worse health outcomes than the broader population.

The move was recommended by a permanent commission, known as the Waitangi Tribunal, which has been hearing claims from Maori since the 1970s and suggesting redress where necessary.

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon’s centre-right coalition, which took office in October, has promised to undo policies of the previous Labour government, particularly those promoting the official use of the Maori language and seeking to enhance Indigenous living standards and rights.

Luxon says his policies are aimed at giving all New Zealanders equal rights.

Reti, the health minister, said on Tuesday that transferring the Maori Health Authority’s roles into the national system means that it keeps the expertise it needs to improve health outcomes for all New Zealanders including Maori.

“The narrow focus on disestablishment doesn’t mean an end to our focus on Maori health for those who need it,” he said, pledging to work with Indigenous groups to “chart a new direction for Maori health”.

Indigenous groups, however, say the dismantling of the Maori Health Authority undermines their rights.

Jacqui Harema, chief executive of the largest Maori public health entity Hapa to Hauora, said Maori knew better how to look after their own people and to improve their outcomes. She described the disestablishment of the Maori Health Authority as alarming.

“Maori know what is best for them. They need to be able to be funded to be able to resource solutions that are grounded in our own world view for our own people,” she said.

For example, when Maori heath providers were funded to deliver COVID-19 vaccines they were more successful at reaching their population, she said. That was because they worked with families and had vaccine providers who were known in communities.

The government’s Indigenous policies have triggered nationwide protests and legal action.

A claim has been lodged with the Waitangi Tribunal over the plan to close the Maori Health Authority but the closure will be official before the tribunal hears the claim.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies