OPINION: Whanau Ora is supposed to help troubled families help themselves. Unfortunately, the Maori Party's pet project has been at the centre of a couple of spending scandals, and public doubts about the scheme remain. These doubts won't be laid to rest by the new decision-making structure for Whanau Ora announced this week.
The new model will put NGOs at the centre of Whanau Ora. Three will commission plans under the scheme, replacing the existing regional groups. This devolves decisions about the spending of taxpayers' money to private organisations, and there are clear dangers in the process. Taxpayers must be reassured that their money is being properly spent and audited.
It does not help that there is some doubt as to whether the NGOs would be covered by the Official Information Act. The Government must act to ensure that the spending would be covered by that legislation. It is public money and the public must be able to find where it went.
The Government also needs to ensure there is tough oversight, auditing and accounting of the spending. It appears that Te Puni Kokiri will have an important role here. Unfortunately, Te Puni Kokiri did the same under the former scheme, and the scandals erupted on its watch. It may, in fact, not be up to the job.
Whanau Ora Minister Tariana Turia must realise that for the public the jury is out on the scheme and that she needs to restore taxpayers' confidence. If there is a new scandal, she and her party will take the blame and suffer the political damage.
In the past Mrs Turia has tended to dismiss the critics, but the scandals were real, as even the scheme's supporters conceded. The $60,000 grant to Rahui Rugby Club was "not a good look", as Willie Jackson of the Manukau Urban Maori Authority said in February. What's more, oversight clearly failed. An 11-page report by the Wananga o Raukawa at Otaki on the grant was feeble.
The other scandal involved gangs ripping off the scheme in Dunedin. Defenders point out that this was calculated fraud by a criminal group, and that no part of our society is free of it. Certainly, business has seen plenty of white-collar criminals sent to jail. So why pick on Whanau Ora?
The evidence suggests that Whanau Ora can work well if it is properly run. Mr Jackson says it is not a soft touch, but requires families who benefit from it to be accountable. Instead of "rotting on the benefit", he says, the families are required to take active steps to help themselves.
Whanau Ora at its best has shown that this can happen, but when the scheme is sloppily administered and accountability goes begging, it is a waste and abuse of public money.
Whether the new structure will reassure taxpayers is an open question.
It is up to Mrs Turia and her colleagues to prove its worth. She, after all, knows that the Whanau Ora whistleblowers have been Maori. Maori are taxpayers too, and they don't want their money wasted. Mrs Turia is on notice.
- The Dominion Post