Māori leaders including Dame Tariana Turia launch legal action against Government for 'failing' Whānau Ora policy

A group of Māori leaders including Dame Tariana Turia are launching legal action against the Government for what they see as a "failure" to deliver on the Whānau Ora initiative.

The group of leaders - Dame Tariana, Dame Naida Glavish, Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi, Lady Tureiti Moxon and Whānau Ora commissioning chair Merepeka Raukawa-Tait - have filed a Waitangi Tribunal claim under urgency.

They allege the Government has breached the Treaty of Waitangi by walking back on funding promises for the programme, and say they have "no confidence" in Whānau Ora Minister Peeni Henare, a Labour MP.

The Government is standing by the funding it has allocated to Whānau Ora, with Minister Henare telling NZME he suspects the legal action has a "political motive".

Whānau Ora has been a Government programme since 2010. It was initiated by Dame Tariana, who was co-leader of the Māori Party in government with the National Party at the time. 

The policy is described as a "culturally-based, and Whānau-centred approach to wellbeing focused on Whānau as a whole, as the decision-makers who determine their goals and aspirations".

The group of Māori leaders feel the Government has failed the policy by underfunding and undermining it, prompting them to write to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in October voicing their concerns and warning of legal action.

But the Prime Minister did not respond to the letter.

The letter informed Ardern that "multiple governing boards, in the Whānau Ora space, along with a number of our provider groups have endorsed a requirement that we proceed to litigate against the Minister of Whānau Ora and as a consequence your Government".

The letter added, "We have endeavoured to understand the policy position of your Government and have met on a number of occasions with the Minister of Whānau Ora, in an attempt to understand your approach to the Whānau Ora policy framework that has been deployed by us over the last five years.

"As a consequence we can no longer have confidence in the Minister of Whānau Ora given his lack of support, direction and confidence in the policy described as Whānau Ora."

The group of leaders say they are frustrated promises haven't been kept, pointing to funding promised for Whānau Ora in the 2019 Budget that they say was allocated to Government-backed projects outside of the commissioning agency. 

Before the 2017 election, Labour Party deputy leader Kelvin Davis announced that if elected, the party would boost Whānau Ora funding but also review it to ensure Government agencies are delivering the most effective services. 

While there was no boost in 2018, Budget 2019 provided an $80 million boost over four years for Whānau Ora, but only about $41 million of that went directly to the policy's three commissioning agencies.

It appears the Māori leaders are frustrated that the entire $80 million did not go directly to the commissioning agencies, as the whole point of Whānau Ora was for it to be Māori-led and essentially independent of government through the agencies. 

The statement of claim reads, "By starving the commissioning agencies of adequate funding, while lavishly funding Government projects, the Crown undermines Whānau Ora."

The Government's argument is that the $41 million extra over four years - $10.25 million a year -  is double what Labour promised in 2017: $20m extra over four years. 

The Māori leaders say the bulk of the additional funding is being allocated to Government-backed projects, "which are claimed to represent Whānau Ora, outside of the successful commissioning approach"

The legal action was taken to the Waitangi Tribunal on Monday.