Editorial: They'll be the judge of that

Last updated 05:00 18/07/2013

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OPINION: The planned changes to how Whanau Ora is funded are ridiculous.

The social service scheme championed by the Maori Party takes on average $40 million each year and metes it out through the Ministry for Maori Development, Te Puni Kokiri.

But now the decisions on how the dosh is distributed will be made by three non-governmental organisations, yet to be set up. And piddly little details like whether the process will still be under the Official Information Act are something to be worked out later.

Seriously? To judge from the explanations of party co-leader Tariana Turia, losing the scrutiny afforded by the act wouldn't necessarily be a big deal because the change is just one big correction shifting the funding decisions from "bureaucracy" to "the community".

The upshot of this, we are assured, will be fixing the present system which is misfiring by handing out money on the basis of approved activities rather than measurable achievements.

That is an appealing line. The problem is who's going to be doing the measuring. Mrs Turia explains that the programmes will still be open to public scrutiny - it's just that the public in this case are the people within the scheme. Those who might throw their hands up at that thought, she says, would be buying into "a mistrust, by the Government, of the community".

Know what? A little institutional mistrust is no bad thing when you're handing out $40 million wrenched from taxpayers each year. You don't just ask those dispensing and receiving that little lot to take a moment, now and then, for something akin to breast or testicular self-examination. No, periodically they will need to grab their ankles. If they want to avoid that discomforting scrutiny, then they can use their own money and the rest of us will be only too happy to step well back and observe from a polite distance.

What we really have here is an entirely political move by National to try to shore up the political future of an ailing ally.

The rhetoric around these planned changes belies the reality. They're improving functional accountability but potentially blocking the Official Information Act? They're lessening bureaucracy but will need to set up not only three new funding organisations, but also a Crown-Iwi Whanau Ora Partnership Group comprising senior minister, iwi chairs and experts on Whanau Ora, to do it?

Way to streamline things, guys.

Labour says it would reverse these changes. And that ardent tormentor of Whanau Ora, Winston Peters, hasn't always been able to make his criticisms stick but this time puts it as well as anyone. He says sidelining the ministry in favour of three NGOs, the shape, membership and objectives of which have not been announced, is a case of "changing horse midstream when the second horse hasn't even learnt to swim yet".

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The Greens reaction seems to come more in sorrow than in anger. Co-leader Metiria Turei depicts the change as more premature than anything else. Whanau Ora needs to have widespread support among Maori before changing the model to something different, she says - and in so doing she inadvertently suggests that you wait until something's working well before you consider changing it.

Just how well Whanau Ora is operating is a contentious matter. Perhaps inevitably there have been some crook decisions. Examples of good work have also been held aloft. All of which means accountability matters hugely.

- The Southland Times

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