Whanau Ora helps families recover

QUAKE DAMAGE: A boulder ruined this Rapaki home. But should Maori victims of the quakes get special help from the Whanau Ora fund?
QUAKE DAMAGE: A boulder ruined this Rapaki home. But should Maori victims of the quakes get special help from the Whanau Ora fund?

Defenders of the Whanau Ora scheme say it provides a new way of helping families. But the scheme has come under heavy political attack in its short life, with Winston Peters saying it's a rort. 

The earthquake fired boulders like bullets at the people of Rapaki.

A rock the size of a car roared down from the hill Tamatea, crashed through a house and plummeted to the valley floor.

The picture of the house at Rapaki, a beautiful spot at the head of Lyttelton Harbour, is one of the most famous of the Canterbury earthquake in February 2011.

A roundish hole was smashed through one side of the house. The other side exploded outwards in a mess of smashed wood and domestic clutter.

Kopa Lee's daughter was at home that day and came out on the veranda when the rumbling began.

"She saw rocks raining down on the valley. What she commented on was that they bounced a good 20 feet into the air," says Lee, chairman of the local marae.

"The house where the boulder went through, they had three school-age children who were at school at the time.

"It wasn't good for other people because they were at work and buildings fell down. But it was good in particular for us."

"Good" in the sense that nobody died. But nine houses in the valley ended up red-zoned, including Lee's. Now he lives 40 kilometres away in Rangiora.

Two years on, the hapu is trying to rebuild its houses and bring back those, especially the older ones, still living in earthquake exile.

And Whanau Ora, the controversial Maori development programme, is playing its part.

A grant of $100,000 has helped the families deal with some particular Maori problems, such as the legal issues around rebuilding on tribally-owned land. And it has helped them cope with the problems faced by all earthquake survivors.

Whanau Ora is about the empowerment of families, and rebuilding broken houses surely falls under that title. But the programme is still coming under heavy political fire.

The chief critic is NZ First leader Winston Peters, who says it is a magnet for corruption and should be abolished.

Even some of the champions of Whanau Ora admit it has faults. Willie Jackson, of the Manukau Urban Maori Authority, says the programme is a boon for troubled families. It allows agencies such as his to tailor services to the families' needs but it is no soft option.

It requires families to front up and improve themselves rather than "rotting on the benefit".

But Jackson, a radio host and former MP, also attacks the $60,000 Whanau Ora grant to a rugby club in Otaki, a case highlighted and condemned by Peters.

The case "hurts, because we are doing such good work at the coalface and we know that mongrels like Winston will make a meal of it".

So what is Whanau Ora? Is it as good or as bad as they say?

* * * *

The grant to Rahui Rugby Club in Otaki "was never just for a game of footy", says club president Rex Kerr.

It also funded a research project looking at "a template and plan of how whanau can work together".

The Maori development ministry, Te Puni Kokiri (TPK), would have gained insights into how Maori sports clubs "can be vehicles for [greater] health and bringing people together".

Kerr says the funds allowed the club to host a match with a visiting team from Ngati Porou from the East Coast. The Raukawa people have deep ties with Ngati Porou, who sent their chief carver to work on the new meeting house at Otaki in the 1930s.

"So Ngati Raukawa always feel that there's a debt there, that they always have something owing to Ngati Porou."

The research report by the Wananga o Raukawa at Otaki, issued by TPK to Fairfax Media, certainly shows the important role played by the rugby club in the community.

Rahui Rugby Club was "the nucleus of Otaki" one whanau member told the researcher. ‘Without it, Otaki would have no soul. It's that important to Otaki, it brings the whole community together." The 11-page report concludes: "Rahui facilitates the development of relationships, both of whanau and friends. As the only club for the big team sports in Otaki, Rahui is a focal point for community activity, much in the same way as Raukawa marae."

The report briefly summarises the whanau plans developed as a result of the research project.

But the report hardly provides a template for the future. Rather, it simply describes what is already happening.

Peters scorns the report and says: "When the day's over, the money's all gone. Now what? My question is: What enduring thing happened there because of the $60,000 expenditure? I could send six Maori students to university for that."

Kerr believes the day was worthwhile but he says it's "fairly hard to assess" its longer-term effect.

Willie Jackson says "of course" he is bothered by the grant to the rugby club.

"It's not a good look. But now and then things are going to fall through the loophole.

"Look, I have no problem with Whanau Ora supporting something like that.

"But I don't think they would have needed $60,000 - $5000 or $10,000 might have done it."

* * * *

The Ngati Wheke hapu at Rapaki has lived under its sacred mountain Tamatea for hundreds of years, says marae chairman Kopa Lee.

The valley was very near the epicentre of the earthquake - 20 of the 44 families living there were affected.

Two had their houses pulverised. One still sits there, smashed by the boulders that lie amid the ruins. Nine houses were red-stickered and had to be vacated.

Whanau Ora provided "something in a time of dire need that would not otherwise have been available to us," says Lee, a former area adviser with the Corrections Department, who next week starts a new job as paid chief executive of the marae.

The programme provided $5000 per family, which was pooled in a common fund and given to families according to need. The aim is to build six two-bedroom units for kaumatua, now living away from their beloved valley.

One problem was the complex legal ownership of Maori reserve land "which needs to be unravelled to allow those living on unsafe land to negotiate land swaps or other ways" to allow the people to continue living in the ancestral community, says TPK.

Lee, who is the official "navigator" under the Whanau Ora programme, says specialist advice was needed, including help from the Maori Land Court.

It has also led to plans for the future, says businesswoman Christine Korako, an Australian-born Pakeha who married one of the hapu and wrote the whanau plans required under the programme.

"We don't grow our own veges - now we plan to put in mara kai [community] gardens," she says. There are also plans to plant forests on Tamatea to stabilise the land, and to provide measures for future emergencies.

The valley opens to the sea, and would be vulnerable to a tsunami.

The Whanau Ora grant, Lee says, provided "peace of mind as much as anything else.

"They [the hapu] actually had someone helping them, which make no bones about it, we would have done without the grant because that's what we do.

"But the grant enabled us to resource and map out plans and so on."

The hapu also helped the people of Christchurch. Displaced Pakeha came to stay in the meeting house and to be fed.

Is it fair that the Maori people of the valley qualify for special help under the Whanau Ora programme?

In theory the grant is open to all, including Pakeha, but clearly the vast bulk goes to Maori, with some to Pasifika communities. Pakeha recovering from the earthquake were unlikely to benefit.

Korako says the community had particular needs that required extra help.

"The hapu is home to one of the oldest marae in the Canterbury region," says TPK. "The earthquake shattered more than their homes - it also threatened the viability of this traditional community."

* * * *

A Dunedin gang member helped rip off $20,000 of Whanau Ora money in Dunedin and was sentenced to four years' jail last year.

Peters says Whanau Ora was misconceived from the start and was a beacon for those who would rip it off: "There is no accountability. They're not getting caught."

The evidence at the court case was chilling. The police said Korrey Cook told others the Dunedin chapter of the Notorious Mongrel Mob "was seen as a model for other chapters of the gang on how to receive Whanau Ora funding".

But the programme's defenders point out that all government programmes, Maori as well as Pakeha, face the risk of a rip-off. Business suffers occasional bouts of spectacular white-collar fraud.

Tamihere points to "a non-patched member of the Pakeha iwi who took through fraud $1.4m from the head office of Social Development".

Members of the same tribe steal millions from the state in a range of additional activities, he says.

As for waste of official money, he says, how many millions has the Government spent on Novopay?

The theft of the $20,000 was unacceptable conduct but it was a small amount "in the scheme of things".

Tahu Potiki, Press columnist and chairman of the Otago Whanau Ora collective, says the trust that included the thieves was doing useful work to promote healthier families.

"It would be fair to say there were some positive things happening. But it takes one cloud to make a thousand stars disappear."

The collective had called together the three chapters of the main gangs about 18 months ago. They had "fronted up and put aside their disagreements" and had accessed some services.

At present, the most troubled and dysfunctional families got most of the attention.

"Currently, 90 per cent of the investment is going to less than 10 per cent of the people, but they're posing the greatest risk.

"And there's a good 20 to 30 per cent beneath that 10 per cent that there's a lot of hope for.

"And that's where I hope that Whanau Ora is going to make the difference." The extreme cases were "beyond recovery, all you can do with them is treat them as a security risk to themselves and their families".

Potiki rejects Peters' charge that Whanau Ora is based on the fallacy that "the same child that was the result of the dysfunctional whanau would somehow find all the remedial care and improvement in his or future life in the same dysfunctional whanau."

In fact, Potiki says, "it's very rare that you cannot find within the whanau a functional champion."

If the resources were channelled to these people, "I've seen where these champions have either empowered themselves or pushed themselves into the social services just to ensure the resources are getting where they're supposed to.

"I've seen successful outcomes time after time."

One insider says that the scheme needed tightening up and to be made more rigorously accountable. This had happened in recent times - partly as a result of the political scandals.

Whanau Ora, Potiki says, is a good idea but "like all good ideas it's going to come down to when the rubber meets the road.

"Where there's good people and clear accountability and everybody's on the same page in terms of what we're trying to achieve, then it will be a very good thing."


Whanau Ora aims to help needy families by empowering them as a whole, rather than focusing on individual family members. It "requires multiple government agencies to work together with families rather than separately with individual relatives," according to the official definition. Whanau have a "navigator" to work with them to develop a plan and help them access a range of social services. Whanau Ora was launched in 2010 and so far has spent $27 million on service delivery. The Whanau Integration, Innovation and Engagement Fund has spent $13.6 million.

The Press