The ongoing legacy of Puao te ata tu

puao-te-ata-tuPuao te ata tu (daybreak) was aptly named, with its arrival being timed at the point when people were waking up to the demands of indigenous people in New Zealand in the mid-1980s. The origin of the report comes through a group of feminist women in the Department of Social Welfare that first identified racism within their institution. They began the work that developed into work led by the Māori advisory group. Ultimately, this led to the Ministry Advisory Committee produing Puao te ata tu.

This landmark report is remembered for exposing institutional racism within the public sector. It also established the need for Māori solutions for Māori clients, which become established as best practice. This in turn informed the Children and Young Persons and their Families Act in 1979 and its subsequent amendments. This work reaffirmed the right of whānau (families) to raise their tamariki (children) and established procedures such as family group conferences and restorative justice processes. It gave youth offenders access to a process where they faced their victims and ideally came to a mediated agreement about a way to move on.

The report established if you had an overwhelming number of Māori clients, you needed a critical mass of Māori staff. Non-Māori staff are not the right people to direct problem solving involving Māori. The ability to solve problems lay within Māori themselves. It was a transfer of the power of decision-making from Pākehā structures to Māori workers. This collection of reforms put New Zealand back in the lead as a ‘social laboratory’ and many visitors from overseas come to observe and study this ground breaking legislation.

By the mid-1990s former DSW Head Margaret Bazley provided evidence at a Waitangi Tribunal (1998) hearing, confirming that the structural changes that had been implemented in the wake of Puao Te Ata Tu had not endured even a decade. She conceded (1998, p. 120): “…the early impetus given by Puao-Te-Ata-Tu had gone and many Maori staff were very angry and bitter about the failure to follow through”. She encouraged her staff to re-engage with the recommendations of Puao Te Ata Tu. It was very affirming for those of us that had been arguing that was what needed to be done.

Ultimately the reforms were only going to be as good as the resources provided to implement them. In recent years these resources have seen severely cut back.

Susan da Silva


Berridge, D., Cowan, L., Cumberland, T., Davys, A., McDowell, H., Morgan, J., . . . Wallis, P. (1984). Institutional racism in the Department of Social Welfare. Auckland, New Zealand: Department of Social Welfare.

Herewini, M., Wilson, R., & Peri, M. (1985). Maori Advisory Unit Report. Auckland, New Zealand: Department of Social Welfare.

Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Maori Perspective on Social Welfare. (1988). Puao te ata tu (Day break). Wellington, New Zealand: Department of Social Welfare.

Waitangi Tribunal. (1998). Te Whanau o Waipareira report (WAI 414)   Retrieved from{1C99EEB3-27C4-4E47-8A37-C64B1A7F0E52}.pdf

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