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Eating its words: National backtracks on Māori language bonuses for public servants

Kate MacNamara,
Publish Date
Tue, 5 Dec 2023, 5:00am

Eating its words: National backtracks on Māori language bonuses for public servants

Kate MacNamara,
Publish Date
Tue, 5 Dec 2023, 5:00am

ZB Plus has confirmed that three more of the government’s core public agencies – the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Social Development and the Department of Corrections – have agreed to pay staff bonuses of up to $3500 for proficiency in te reo Māori.

The payments, described in collective agreements as “allowances”, will also be offered to Department of Conservation (DoC) staff from next year, despite the agency’s considerable budget shortfall.

With the exception of Corrections - which says it offers the bonuses only to “frontline” positions - the money is not aimed at direct job requirements.

The recent wave of bonuses follows longstanding schemes at the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) and the Ministry of Māori Development (Te Puni Kokiri/TPK), which say they have been paying similar bonuses for decades.

When the Herald reported DoC’s newly agreed bonuses in July the National Party was unequivocal in promising to scrap the measures: “National encourages people to learn te reo if they want to or if required as part of a job. But taxpayers should not fund special bonuses for staff that learn it, and these will be removed under a National Government,” then spokesman for the Public Service Simeon Brown said.

Brown, impish by nature and among National’s more right-leaning MPs, now has his hands full with the Transport, Energy, Local Government and Auckland portfolios.

The jobs of chopping and wrangling the sprawling public service – including what many see as its wide-ranging distractions from the efficient and effective delivery of government services – has gone to the more centrist Nicola Willis.

True to form last week, Willis retreated from National’s promise to cancel the bonuses.

“The Government will uphold its obligations contained in existing collective agreements, including the clauses [relating to te reo Māori allowances],” she told ZB Plus.

She said the Government has yet to issue new policy or directives on the use of te reo Māori across the public service, though she suggested this was coming.

The reversal will annoy some, especially on the right of the party (and within coalition partner the Act Party). And there are good reasons to oppose the provisions.

The bonuses prioritise competency in Māori language over other skills, even as the public service appears to have considerable deficiencies, not the least of which is numeracy and a capacity to do work such as detailed business cases, which are frequently farmed out to consultants.

They’ve come to light at a time when the public service – the 38 departments at the heart of the public sector – is suffering from considerable bloat: it employed 63,117 full-time equivalent staff at the end of June this year, a 29 per cent increase on 2017. And that’s before adding the very considerable employment of contractors and consultants, worth a whopping $1.268b in the past financial year.

The National-led Government has promised to cut ballooning public service budgets by about 6.5 per cent.

In this context, the bonuses are largely symbolic; the cost is, as yet, very low and the number of staff who qualify appears to be just a few hundred, so far.

The new Government’s real battle will be to demolish their underpinnings. Willis knows this: “I have asked the Public Service Commission to provide me with advice on the Whāinga Amorangi framework. Our priority is to drive better delivery and performance in the public service.”

At least in recent form, the bonuses flow from the previous Labour and Labour-led Governments’ insistence that the Crown’s obligations to Māori extend to novel efforts at decolonising and re-educating its own ranks.

Awkwardly, current Government coalition partner, New Zealand First, was also a partner in the Labour-led Government of 2017-2020, which laid much of the groundwork for these efforts, including the establishment of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) departmental agency, Te Arawhiti, the Office for Māori Crown Relations (established in January 2019), and the passage of the Public Service Act 2020, given assent in August of that year.

Among other things, the Act made public service chief executives responsible for “good employer” provisions that included: “recognition of (i) the aims and aspirations of Māori; and (ii) the employment requirements of Māori; and (iii) the need for greater involvement of Māori in the public service…”

After the passage of this bill, Te Arawhiti devised a related programme of change, dubbed “Whāinga Amorangi”, which set out “six core competency areas” for Māori-Crown relations and required the public service to address them: “New Zealand history/Treaty of Waitangi literacy; Te Reo Māori; Engagement with Māori; understanding racial equity and institutional racism; [Māori] worldview knowledge; and, tikanga/kawa [Māori customary principles and practices].”

The Māori language bonuses instituted at Corrections, MoJ and DoC are all part of those agencies’ “phase one” Whāinga Amorangi provisions. Most agencies took different routes to meet their new obligations, and many relied on providing staff with Treaty training, anti-racism training, New Zealand history lessons, training in “Te Ao Māori” (a Māori worldview), and Māori language lessons.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s (MBIE) “phase one” commitments to the programme include that: “te reo Māori is incorporated across everything we do, and we are progressing to a bilingual organisation by 2040.”

If the Government parties are to last more than one term, they will need to make good on the expectations they fed voters: for an end to race-based policies, for a considerable cut to public sector fat, and for greater economic efficiency.

It is likely that if these voters even knew the name Whāinga Amorangi (the programme has no English handle) much less its provisions, they would have demanded its end.

Willis’ job is therefore a delicate one. For many in Wellington’s sinecure class, reformation will feel like war. But she must battle the bureaucrats (and amend the Public Service Act) even as she plots a lasting peace with those who survive her cuts. Whether she proves an effective general remains to be seen.

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