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The following column was written in May, 2002. It's as relevant today and worth revisiting. Michael Bassett served on the Waitangi Tribunal from 1994 to 2004.

Everywhere in the developed world the payment of welfare benefits to people of working age causes problems. Benefits trap them: if they try to better themselves, the benefit is soon reduced; but to stay on welfare is to settle for second class incomes and lifestyles. Gaps between those on welfare and those in employment inevitably widen. Yet the lure of easy money is seductive: whereas 3% of working age people received welfare in 1975, more than 14% do nowadays, despite more jobs being available, and today's buoyant economy. Increasing numbers try to improve lifestyles by crime.

It wasn't always like this. Before the 1970s, governments were reluctant to pay money without work. Political opposites like Peter Fraser and Apirana Ngata warned against a welfare culture, arguing it would encourage crime and alcoholism. Satan, they said, would find work for idle hands. Work schemes employed those having difficulty getting jobs. During the 1970s welfare gradually became a lifestyle option. Jenny Shipley's government introduced a requirement that the able-bodied seek jobs, but Helen Clark's government, true to its 1970s ideals, abolished it.

Today the largest group on welfare is Maori. The contraction in public sector jobs and work schemes, plus the abolition of any work requirement saw more Maori opt for welfare, just as Fraser and Ngata predicted. In remote parts of the East Coast where I visited last week, as many as 80% are beneficiaries. Shops are boarded up, and school attendance is spasmodic. Crime abounds. But its proceeds will never completely close gaps.

Ironically, just when many Maori were being seduced into careers on welfare, the Crown - most commendably - began taking its responsibilities under the Treaty of Waitangi more seriously. In 1975 a Waitangi Tribunal was established. It would hear Maori grievances about contemporary problems. Ten years later, the government in which I served gave it the power to investigate historical wrongs back to1840. Sadly, a poorly-drafted Act, coupled with inadequate attention to its implementation, allowed a major grievance industry to blossom. Nineteenth century land loss was quickly identified as the biggest problem for Maori. I'm not sure why, because once-productive East Coast farmland that had always been in Maori hands was steadily reverting to gorse and scrub, suggesting deeper causes of Maori poverty than landlessness. Crusading reports of mixed usefulness were published. They judged our ancestors by today's stricter Treaty standards, not those understood in the nineteenth century. Benefits of colonisation - and there were some - were downplayed, and emotive language was used to denounce the Crown - which often did act unjustly, sometimes through ignorance. Maori expectations of big financial settlements soon rose so rapidly that Jim Bolger's ministry introduced the "fiscal envelope", limiting them to $1 billion in total. The present government removed that bar too. Hopes have reached stellar proportions.

Militating against such expectations is the reality that Treaty mills grind slowly. They require more and more people to run them, and ever-increasing resources. Some say the industry now employs 500 people and consumes $80 million per annum (settlements excluded). Top of the money tree are lawyers, fishery consultants and Crown Forest Rental Trust researchers and trustees. Many do very nicely, and are comfortable with the pace. Some talk openly of the next generation's claims, despite today's being "full and final". The Office of Treaty Settlements that is the final negotiating authority clips the ticket too. Meantime the claimants wait.

Predictably, envy, one of the seven deadly sins, now stalks the Treaty world. At hearings people whisper in one's ear that some lawyers are pocketing exorbitant fees and/or queue-jumping with claims. Too many cream Legal Aid. One claimant researcher is said to have received more than $1 million for little more than a pile of photocopying. It scarcely matters whether such stories are true: the perception amongst many Maori is that they are.

This widening gap between the lives of claimants and those farming the Treaty industry is a recipe for social disaster. It cannot be allowed to continue. Cargo cults always end in tears. Ministers should settle quickly, or have the courage to cool unrealistic expectations, rather than foster them.

The trouble is that our government wants to fly back into office ruffling as few feathers as possible. Sooner rather than later ministers will be forced to take a grip of the Treaty industry or it will grip them. Maori need leadership, not patronising sentimentality. Ministers might like to consider appointing a Royal Commission headed by one of our most fearless lawyers to devise a swifter, tighter, fairer system for resolving grievances, one with no room for favouritism. Above all, the real cause of widening gaps must be tackled. Welfare dependency is its name. No Treaty settlements can substantially improve the socio-economic status of Maori unless they, themselves, take back control of their lives and accept responsibility to work the resources returned to them.

Data source: MSD Benefit Factsheets

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