The State cannot understand whānau; the State cannot restore whānau

“There are close connections between the structure of the family and the structure of the nation.” – Frantz Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks pp 141.

I was struck still for a moment when I read these words.

I have been involved with supporting whānau in a myriad of settings over 15 years as a professional and a volunteer, latterly at the Merivale Community Centre in Merivale, Tauranga, New Zealand. We’ve been through five terms of government, three under Labour, two under National. The strategies to deal with whānau dysfunction have included Closing the Gaps, Working for Families, Family Start, income-related rents, blacklisting at Work and Income of particular towns and places, Modern Apprenticeships, Strengthening Families, restructuring welfare benefits, outsourcing support to NGOs for youth on benefits, Whānau Ora and the Vulnerable Children’s Act. All of them were aimed at people, families and whānau who were considered vulnerable and struggling.

This smorgasbord of policies has not substantially reduced dysfunction in whānau in our communities. More whānau are impoverished, violent, unhealthy, and disconnected from their community in 2015 than when I first dipped into community and whānau development in 2000.

Fanon’s simple statement is a revelation because it suggests our failure to shift dysfunction could be because the State is trying to restore whānau to an ideal model of family that is not the ideal for the whānau.

The mythologised ideal family for the nation state is the nuclear family. It is patriarchal; power rests with the father. It is a distinct economic unit. The formation of children into successful adults is a private and autonomous matter. The family is oriented around supporting the adults to be productive contributors to a capitalist economy in employment. Community activities are an addition to the family unit, not central.

Whānau are quite a different affair. I heard it said that Mason Durie was asked for a definition of whānau and, to paraphrase, he said to think of the oldest living relative in your family and ask them who is the oldest relative they remember meeting in their life. Then think of the latest addition to your family. From that oldest memory to the youngest child is your whānau. That is to say, whānau is a community that includes those who have gone before us, those we live with today, and those who are yet to come.

In this mythologised ideal whānau, there are both patriarchal and matriarchal roles, so power is diffuse. The economy is a gift economy where the basic unit is reciprocity. Children and grandchildren are a shared responsibility and a shared future resource. The whānau is oriented around protecting the relationships that ensure the continuity of whakapapa, or ongoing blood lines, so activities like employment are only valuable insofar as they help to ensure that continuity. To state that more plainly, your first responsibility is to your relations, not the state and not the economy. Community is central; a whānau cannot be functional if it excludes the community.

The policies of our state, whether Labour or National, are not geared to supporting this model of whānau. With all good intent, the policies are oriented to creating strong families, not strong whānau. Whilst Whānau Ora has the potential to change that, the current model of Whānau Direct funding and the strictures required by the Ministry of Social Development mean that it is merely perpetuating the nuclear family oriented policies.

A historical case that points to the risks for Whānau Ora is Pū-ao-te-ata-tū, the then ground breaking consultation and policy statement from Māori communities nationally, that transformed Social Welfare; part of what it suggested led to what we now call Family Group Conferences. FGCs have fundamentally failed to embody the vision of the original document, which was to properly resource wider whānau to be engaged as problem-solvers in dysfunction in their whānau. Whānau Ora risks going the same way because of the same poor resourcing and flawed support in government agencies.

The government and its agencies, particularly the Ministry of Social Development, need to go back to first principles and describe what they are aiming to restore whānau to. If we don’t, we will continue to fail as we will try and push whānau into a family mould. That statement needs to include the kind of definition that Mason Durie provided. But even that is not enough. Our systems actually need to be decolonised and allow for a re-framing of the State’s priorities. At this time, when we are increasingly stressed by geo-political and environmental problems that a neo-liberal capitalist state is incapable of responding to, a re-imagining is essential. And it starts, as everything does, with whānau.


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