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Walk on by? Māori and the “Compassion Gap”.

Most mornings I park my car at the Wellington Railway Station and briefly join the teeming masses heading into the CBD. Often I’ll walk by somewhat rumpled individuals sitting on the ground in the subway displaying hand-lettered cards asking for money. Often (not always) these individuals will be Māori. And every single time the same small war carries on in my head. My inner liberal asks: “how much can I spare today? Does she get any support from City Mission? How did she fall through the cracks?” My inner conservative asks ” If I give her any money will it go on food or alcohol? Did she bring this on herself? Why is she there? Where’s her whānau?” Often I don’t carry cash anyway, so the battle eventually abates and the parties evacuate my mind’s battlefield. If I do have cash I’ll usually give something, reserving one or two coins just in case I see someone else in the same position, or a charity seeking donations, on Lambton Quay later on. On a couple of occasions I have bought food and passed that on, rarely I’ll stop and talk to that person.  Usually I make a conscious effort not to avert my eyes. But once or twice I have taken a detour to avoid prompting my inner turmoil altogether. Once, at night, I saw an old man standing and berating a seated young woman and her nodding politely in response. I told him to leave her alone. He did. Only once he got his point across. Several times.

I don’t actually know what other people think when they walk the same route, and I can’t presume. What I do suspect is that my internal decision-making process, springing from my own personal discretion, and formed by my internal values, is not dissimilar to thousands of decisions being made all around the country by charity and government workers springing from their own official or informal discretion. Rules and regulations abound, but at the heart of government welfare and charities are individuals making discretionary choices: help or not? Deserving or not? Right or wrong?

Another factor in decision-making may well be the nature of the distance between the decision-maker/observer and the person asking for help. Received wisdom holds that we are more likely to extend compassion to those most like us. Sometimes evidence suggests the poor are more likely to give to the poor, than the rich are, for example; ( )
although I  dislike the counterproductive demonisation of wealthy people). Arguably it’s easier to feel empathy for those who somehow seem reachable across a divide. On the other hand, it might actually be easier to feel compassion for largely anonymous people half a world away, and have a picture of an African sponsored child on your fridge and walk past local supplicants every day (and yes, I speak from experience on that too).

An interesting tweet caught my eye the other day, from Sue Bradford. She was rueing the results of the Stuff/Ipsos Poll released on 20 June 2014 showing that over the course of the last two years increasing numbers of respondents have said they think New Zealand is heading in the “right” direction, while decreasing numbers thought us to be heading in the “wrong” direction. She tweeted;

This poll ‘63% think NZ on right track’ shows again the compassion-gap – for so many, homeless & poor don’t count  

This term ‘compassion gap’ is interesting. It has figured a bit lately in New Zealand and overseas on the Net largely in the wake of a recent New York Times opinion piece by

In that trailer in Appalachia, I don’t see a fat woman with tattoos; I see a loving mom who encapsulates any parent’s dreams for a child.

Johnny shouldn’t be written off at the age of 3 because of the straw he drew in the lottery of birth. To spread opportunity, let’s start by pointing fewer fingers and offering more helping hands.  

In New Zealand this equivalent phenomenon can be easily seen, often with Māori faces providing an instantly recognisable target to illustrate the gap between those deserving of our compassion and those patently not. Cartoonist Al Nisbet captures (and many would say embodies) this understanding of Māori as the  main group in the gap. Remember this charmer?

Al Nisbet Cartoon


The notion of a compassion gap towards poor Māori (deserving or undeserving) is not difficult to grasp or see, particularly when it is fed by mainstream notions of Māori (and especially poor Māori) being an identifiable and passive group at the bottom of the statistical heap separated from ordinary New Zealand, without agency or variety (except for that distinction between deserving and undeserving, of course).

Yeah. Well. Real life isn’t really so neatly dualistic. I’m interested in how Māori also exercise personal and collective discretion in determining who to extend aid to, and who to refuse. As the Treaty settlement process rolls on and more iwi are exercising a higher degree of decision making in social programmes for Māori are there likely to be more instances brought to public attention of the fruits of such decisions? Another headline caught my eye, a couple of days after Sue Bradford’s aforementioned ‘compassion gap’ tweet: “Eviction painful but our right – marae”, a story about a Marae committee’s decision to evict an elderly couple from their kaumatua flat on the basis of the husband’s abusive behaviour:

I know way too little to critique the decision, but I am interested to see how this public narrative develops, as Māori are increasingly seen as the decision-makers who can give or withhold aid based on an exercise of discretion. Of course, Māori have always exercised some level of such decision-making within Māori social organisation and Māori entities, but the idea of the Māori ‘Brown table’, the Māori corporate elite separated off from ordinary Māori has really only emerged with the first major treaty settlements (to my understanding at least) in the late 1990s. The recent Tūhoe settlement includes a social services management plan whereby the iwi works in partnership with Crown agencies to deliver better social services to Ngāi Tūhoe. Interestingly, Tāmati Kruger made the following statement in April:

…under mana motuhake, the iwi plans to take responsibility for the estimated $9 million of benefit money distributed to Tuhoe annually. As part of the 40-year plan, the tribe will take state funding and use it change the dependency culture.

Kruger said: “We want to work with the Ministry of Social Development in utilising the $9 million of benefits to use some of that for job creation, and also changing a mindset in Tuhoe around being beneficiaries of the state.” 

In working with a system of individual entitlement based on stringent eligibility criteria (as the benefit system is) Tūhoe are going to be engaged in deciding, in some way at least, who are deserving and who are not. How those decisions will be made and how tikanga will feature will be interesting to learn.

If we are to accept the notion of a compassion gap, we ought to be alert to it wherever it occurs, or could occur, in all parts of our society, and not make easy presumptions as to who resides on each side of the gap. And that includes my own decision making on my own uncomfortable walk to work every morning.

BTW: I’d be interested in your thoughts: do you agree there is a compassion gap in our society (generally speaking? Among Māori?)? How do you make your decisions on whether or not to help people?

About Sparrowhawk/Kārearea

Legal academic and writer, Wellington. (Te Rarawa, Ngāti Pākeha. Nō te Hāhi Mihinare hoki)

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