Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Falling Between Two Treaties: A Reply To Dr Emily Beausoleil.

Bringing The Past Into The Present: For the proposed solutions of those promoting a Tiriti-based constitution of Aotearoa to work, the whole history of New Zealand subsequent to the signing of the Treaty must be set to one side, and New Zealanders living in 2021 must proceed as if they are living in 1840. This is necessary because in no other way can the terms employed to translate the English of the Treaty into the Maori of te Tiriti be infused with real constitutional significance. 

THE “CONVERSATION” demanded on the meaning of the Treaty of Waitangi is likely to be short. Not because there is no need for a national debate on how Maori and Pakeha should live together in the twenty-first century, but because the current defenders of te Tiriti (as it is now advisable to call the Maori translation of Captain Hobson’s document) will be unable to present a convincing defence of their ahistorical interpretation of its undertakings.

The reason for this incapacity is a simple one. To make their proposed solutions work, the whole history of New Zealand subsequent to the signing of the Treaty must be set to one side, and New Zealanders living in 2021 must proceed as if they are living in 1840. This is necessary because in no other way can the terms employed to translate the English of the Treaty into the Maori of te Tiriti be infused with real constitutional significance. What the promoters of a Tiriti-based constitution of Aotearoa are saying, in effect, is that everything which New Zealanders came to understand about their state must be cast aside, and that we must all begin again.

Is it reasonable to ask the five million human-beings inhabiting these islands in 2021 to agree to such a proposition? Dr Emily Beausoleil, senior lecturer in Political Science at Victoria University, writing for Newsroom, insists that it is.

Working from the strongly contested conclusion of the Waitangi Tribunal that “the rangatira who signed te Tiriti o Waitangi in February 1840 did not cede sovereignty to the British Crown”, Dr Beausoleil dismisses dissenters’ objections as “misconceptions” born out of “conflicting translations” and “the greater airtime the English version has had in our schools, media and government.” She does, however, acknowledge that the Tribunal’s 2014 rangatiratanga bombshell “also raises serious questions without any easy answers about what fulfilling these Articles [of te Tiriti] would require of us as a society today.”

Well, yes, it most certainly does.

Serious questions about the Treaty’s meaning have been raised before in New Zealand history. The most serious were arguably those raised by the leaders of the new settler state established by the New Zealand Constitution Act of 1852, whose first Parliament met in Auckland in 1854. A strong argument can be mounted that the Foreign and Colonial Office, in persuading the British parliament to grant its New Zealand colony a large measure of self-government, was effectively affirming the cynical view of the Treaty enunciated by one of the Governors of the land-grabbing New Zealand Company:

“We have always had very serious doubts whether the Treaty of Waitangi, made with naked savages by a consul invested with no plenipotentiary powers, without ratification by the Crown, could be treated by lawyers as anything but a praiseworthy device for amusing and pacifying savages for the moment.”

There is a logic to the Treaty, however, which is present in both the English and the Maori versions. A logic which asserted itself more and more forcefully as the settler government of New Zealand became ever more firmly established, and the number of Pakeha arriving in the country grew by leaps and bounds. The guarantees contained in Article 2 of the Treaty: that only the Crown could purchase Maori land; and that any decision to sell land had to conform with the tikanga (customs and practices) of chieftainship; were simply incompatible with the settler government’s vision of New Zealand’s future. The Maori King Movement, by refusing to sell any more land to the Crown, exposed the logic of the Treaty in a way that made a decisive settler response inevitable.

It came in 1863, when the settler government, aided by 12,000 imperial British troops, militarily overwhelmed the Maori Kingdom of the Waikato. Article 1, which, in the only version of the Treaty the settler government recognised, granted the Crown full and undivided sovereignty, was deemed to trump Article 2. This amounted to what the distinguished New Zealand legal scholar, Professor Jock Brookfield, described as a “revolutionary seizure of power”.

It was a revolution which resulted in the Treaty of Waitangi being dismissed as “a simple nullity”, and which led to the ruthless suppression of all Maori resistance to Pakeha rule. Built upon the expropriated resources of the autonomous Maori communities which preceded it, the New Zealand State has, with the passing of time, won both the de facto and the de jure right to dispose of these islands as it sees fit.

Dr Beausoleil’s arguments in favour of implementing the “Tiriti-led” recommendations of the controversial He Puapua Report would be a lot more convincing if she simply acknowledged that, for the logic of the Treaty to be successfully reasserted, then a similar “revolutionary seizure of power” will be necessary.

Significantly, the word “revolution” does not appear in Dr Beausoleil’s Newsroom post. The transition to a Tiriti-based constitution is, instead, to be accomplished by education and persuasion. In her words:

“When we understand these commitments, objections that He Puapua is divisive and undemocratic […] begin to ring hollow. Changing our institutions to more fully realise the unceded authority of tangata whenua would not only fulfil our Tiriti and United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples obligations and thereby make our power arrangements more legitimate – it would also mean greater self-determination, equality and meaningful voice among Tiriti partners.”

That’s a nice vision of the future, but, as someone who lectures in Political Science ought to know, the efficacy of education and persuasion in the state’s application of political, economic, social and cultural power is – to put it mildly – limited. Such a host of interests; such an array of prejudices; such a collection of legal and constitutional objections stand in the way of securing majority consent for even a tenth of He Puapua’s recommendations that the chances of bringing any of them into force by democratic means are vanishingly small.

More to the point, if a majority of New Zealanders come to believe that their government is attempting to bring about a revolutionary change in New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements by stealth, then the opportunity for any of us – Maori or Pakeha – to participate in the creation of Dr Beausoleil’s “more just, more honourable, more inclusive Aotearoa” will disappear entirely.

When Britain’s soldiers, having executed the “revolutionary seizure of power” demanded of them by the settler government, departed, did they leave behind them a more just, more honourable and more inclusive New Zealand? Or, did they bid farewell to a state which, having secured these islands by force of arms, would surrender them to nothing else?


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 11 May 2021.

Monday, 10 May 2021

Playing By A New Set Of Rules

Meet The New Rules, Not Like The Old Rules: The old book was written on the assumption that political principles are important, and that, accordingly, political consistency from political parties must also be important. At its core, the old rule book accepted that the game it was regulating was the game called “Democracy”. That’s why it enjoined politicians to put the convictions and interests of their core supporters at the heart of their policy decisions.

WHAT HAS HAPPENED to the old Political Rule Book? This government appears to have found a new edition: one which the rest of New Zealand has yet to see, let alone read. Actions which the old Political Rule Book once rejected as electorally disastrous are being implemented with a jarring and inexplicable confidence. What’s going on?

Let’s begin with the Labour Government’s decision to impose a three-year wage freeze on three-quarters of the Public Service. Under the old Political Rule Book, such an action would have been deemed extremely unwise. That rule book would have explained the sheer folly of effectively decreasing the purchasing power of some of the Labour Party’s most loyal supporters. This is hardly surprising: “Look after your electoral base.”; has always been the first and most important rule of electoral politics.

The old Political Rule Book would have further explained that to unfairly treat people regarded as heroes by a broad cross-section of the electorate is also a very bad idea. New Zealanders are three months into the second year of the Covid-19 global pandemic. That they have come this far without enduring the horrors witnessed in countries overseas is attributed in no small measure to the public servants who have positioned themselves courageously between their fellow citizens and the virus. Telling doctors, nurses, police officers, customs officials, military personnel, health ministry staff and teachers that they won’t be getting a pay-rise for three years, is likely to strike most Kiwis as not only grossly unfair, but as evidence of the most perverse ingratitude.

There was, of course, an entire section of the old Political Rule Book devoted to New Zealanders deep commitment to the idea of “Fairness”. It reiterated the scholarly argument that most New Zealanders feel about fairness the way most Americans feel about freedom. Threaten an American’s freedom and watch out! Fail to meet the ordinary New Zealander’s expectation of fair treatment and, again, watch out! Given the Government’s behaviour, it would appear that this whole section is missing from the new Political Rule Book.

Exactly what the new Political Rule Book does say is the puzzle so many Kiwis are struggling to solve. Once again, judging by the Government’s behaviour, it would appear to discount the old rule book’s warning that extraordinary events, giving rise to extraordinary outcomes, are most unlikely to be repeated. The 2020 General Election, for example, produced a result which the old Political Rule Book declared to be impossible – i.e. a single political party winning an absolute parliamentary majority. That was not supposed to happen under MMP, where coalition governments are the norm.

Not only must we suppose that the new Political Rule Book has radically reassessed the likelihood of a single party winning a majority of parliamentary seats, but that it also argues in favour of extraordinary outcomes being repeatable. More specifically: that the great red wave of electoral gratitude that washed over New Zealand in response to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic can, indeed, be replicated. That all those tens-of-thousands of National voters who defected to Labour in 2020 can be persuaded to vote for Labour again in 2023.

The new Political Rule Book also seems to have had second thoughts about the political rule-of-thumb advising Labour against allowing itself to be outflanked on its left.

Without an absolute majority of parliamentary seats, Labour would be forced to rely upon the Green Party for the numbers needed to govern. Now, the old Political Rule Book warned Labour in the strongest terms not to have a bar of this. (A warning which the Helen Clark-led Labour governments of 1999-2005 were careful to heed.) The rationale being that such overt dependence on the support of a much more radical party would aggravate voter concerns about “the tail wagging the dog”.

To be fair, that same old rule book also cautioned the Greens against allying themselves too closely with a more conservative political entity. Such an alliance was likely to create potentially fatal tensions within the party’s own ranks. (This was, indeed, the common fate of NZ First and the Alliance, both of whom were torn apart by internal conflicts over the party’s fraught relationship with its larger partner.)

Assuming that our guesses about the content of the new Political Rule Book are correct, we must assume that the Labour Government is proceeding on the basis that it is no longer imperative to look after its electoral base; that perceptions of behaving unfairly no longer matter; that even if holding onto all the sunshine socialists of 2020 turns out to be impossible, governing alongside the Greens comes with no electoral downside.

We would probably be further justified in assuming that the new Political Rule Book takes into account the recent spate of right-wing populist victories across the West. In this new political environment, policies aimed at inflaming right-wing prejudices should not be summarily dismissed – not even by ostensibly left-wing parties. Not when they could produce an expansion of the party’s electoral base. Labour need not fear the defection of their traditional supporters because, seriously, apart from the Greens, and maybe the Maori Party (both of whom are committed to coalescing with Labour) who else are its supporters going to vote for?

Certainly a new rule of this kind would explain why Grant Robertson and Chris Hipkins were willing to announce a policy calculated to win the enthusiastic backing of public-servant-hating conservative voters. Their new rule book may even have recommended throwing such a sop to Cerberus in advance of the Minister of Labour, Michael Wood, announcing the imminent introduction of Fair Pay Agreements – a policy aimed directly at the party’s trade union supporters.

Cynical in the extreme? Well, yes, obviously. But that may be the key difference between the old Political Rule Book and the new.

The old book was written on the assumption that political principles are important, and that, accordingly, political consistency from political parties must also be important. At its core, the old rule book accepted that the game it was regulating was the game called “Democracy”. That’s why it enjoined politicians to put the convictions and interests of their core supporters at the heart of their policy decisions.

The events of the past week – so at odds with the old rules of the game – would suggest that not only have the rules changed radically, but so, too, has the name of the game itself. What our politicians now appear to be playing is a game called “Holding On To Power At All Costs”. It is predicated on voters having a smaller set of principles, and a larger collection of prejudices. A greater propensity to complain, but a reduced willingness to do anything more than post their displeasure on social media. Most important of all, it assumes that voters are rapidly losing the ability to act consistently from first principles; and that they no longer expect their politicians and political parties to even try.


This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website of Monday, 10 May 2021.

Hiding He Puapua From Winston May Cost Labour Dearly.

Contemplating Utu? Had Peters known of its existence, he would have fallen upon He Puapua as a gift from God. No one has a more fearsome reputation for “fighting Maori separatism” than Winston. He Puapua, and all it represents, could have been sold to the electorate as the best possible reason for keeping the NZ First “handbrake” in place: the Kiwi voter’s insurance against extremism.

IF (OR SHOULD THAT BE ‘WHEN’) Winston Peters hits the comeback trail, Labour should look to its defences. Having transformed their erstwhile NZ First ally into a sworn enemy, Labour’s leadership will likely be forced to rely on the Greens to keep them in office. That reliance may end up costing Labour much more than anything NZ First ever asked it to pay.

The “crime” for which Peters and his party will be seeking vengeance is the deliberate suppression of the He Puapua Report. I must confess to missing this aspect of the He Puapua story. My assumption was that there were still enough people around Jacinda Ardern with the political smarts to spot the report’s enormous potential for inflicting electoral damage, and that is why it was kept under wraps until the 2020 general election was safely out of the way.

It took a journalist of Richard Harman’s insight and experience to identify the real reason. Writing on his Politik website, Harman put it like this:

“[S]ources close to NZ First believe the decision to keep He Puapua from Cabinet was deliberate. Once it had gone to Cabinet it would have been seen by NZ First’s four Cabinet Ministers and they would have been able to campaign on it; veto it and thus kill it. But now, NZ First are out of Parliament and the document is public.”

Like all shrewd observations, when you see it written down in black and white, Harman’s conclusion seems obvious. Had Peters known of its existence, he would have fallen upon He Puapua as a gift from God. No one has a more fearsome reputation for “fighting Maori separatism” than Winston. He Puapua, and all it represents, could have been sold to the electorate as the best possible reason for keeping the NZ First “handbrake” in place. Peters would have had little difficulty in painting a Labour-Green majority as both unable and unwilling to prevent the report’s “Maori separatist agenda” from being rolled out in its entirety. NZ First could have billed itself as the Kiwi voter’s insurance against extremism.

It is important to remember the time-line here. He Puapua was presented to the then Minister of Maori Development, Nanaia Mahuta, in November 2019. Had it gone to Cabinet, Peters and his fellow NZ First ministers would have had close to a year to position it at the centre of their 2020 election campaign strategy. Even with the Covid-19 wind at its back, Labour was unable to prevent the nationalist and conspiratorial Right from amassing over 6 percent of the 2020 Party Vote. Had Winston had He Puapua to play with, there is every chance he would have claimed the lion’s share of that vote (and quite possibly a bonus sliver of National’s) to take him safely over the 5 percent MMP threshold.

Ironically, such a result may have served Labour’s long-term interests a great deal better than NZ First’s failure to be returned to Parliament. In retrospect, Winston’s judicious application of the conservative handbrake, looks suspiciously like a plus, not a minus, for Jacinda Ardern’s coalition government. It arguably prevented her from making a number of deeply unpopular decisions – as well as providing her with a handy excuse for not keeping her promises.

No chance of that now. All the major players in NZ First have been made aware of Labour’s deadly sin of omission. If they’re clever (and they can be) they will turn the suppression of He Puapua into a dark betrayal myth: a fundamental gesture of bad faith and ingratitude which cries out for vengeance.

Two years from now, the howling Covid gale that blew Labour into an absolute parliamentary majority will (hopefully) have sunk to a gentle zephyr. With “normalcy” restored, the electorate will be much less disposed to accept excuses for abject government failure, and much more willing to listen to alternative and harshly critical voices. Chances are that in 2023 National and Act will still have the biggest sound systems, but, as has happened three times before under MMP, it may prove to be Winston’s little loud-hailer that contributes the decisive voice.

And the inspiration for the song he’ll be singing will be He Puapua – but not in a good way.


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 7 May 2021.

Friday, 7 May 2021

With Friends Like These ...

He's On Our Side? When Australia’s very own Minister of Defence, Peter Dutton, is telling anyone who will listen that "a war over Taiwan cannot be discounted" and that Australia was "already under attack" from Chinese cyber-warriors, it is probably time to think again about who New Zealand's "friends" and "enemies" truly are.

“REMEMBER WHO YOUR FRIENDS ARE.” Most often this is said in a reassuring way: a reminder that in tough times your friends will always be there for you. Sometimes, however, it is said as a warning, with the word ‘friends’ placed between inverted commas. It would seem New Zealand is rapidly moving into one of those times. With ‘friends’ like our so-called “Five Eyes Partners” New Zealand doesn’t really need enemies.

Consider the view of Major-General Adam Findlay, described as one of Australia’s top military commanders, who warned an audience of Australian Special Forces personnel in April 2020 that Beijing was already engaged in “grey zone” warfare against their country, and that they should proceed on the strong assumption that this will escalate into actual conflict at some point in the [near?] future.

Now, just in case you were thinking of dismissing these daunting observations as the rantings of a bellicose Aussie boofhead, it might pay to consider the comments of “influential public servant”, Michael Pezzullo, who recently warned Australians that “the drums of war are beating”. Seriously? Yes, seriously. When the person saying such things is the Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, it would be unwise to ignore them. Especially when Australia’s very own Minister of Defence, Peter Dutton, is telling anyone who will listen that “a war over Taiwan cannot be discounted” and that Australia was “already under attack” from Chinese cyber-warriors.

Remember, these are our ‘friends’ – the people who accused our Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of sucking-up to the Chinese and betraying the Five Eyes ‘alliance’.

Frankly, Beijing scares me a whole lot less than these loud-mouthed, Aussie sabre-rattlers! Because, behind all the Washington-sanctioned bombast, one detects the reckless militaristic mindset that allows wars to happen by accident. Because people very like these war-hawks delivered very similar diatribes in London, Paris and St Petersburg; Berlin and Vienna; in the early months of 1914. (And that ended well!)

Thank God our own political, diplomatic and military leadership show no signs of the anti-Beijing distemper currently afflicting Canberra. It is reassuring to know that New Zealand’s ability to discern its own national interest is not degraded by this mania for a new cold war.

Before we pat ourselves too enthusiastically on the back, however, we should turn our eyes from our leaders and focus, instead, on the political campaign to undermine this country’s relationship with China by asking Parliament to condemn Beijing’s alleged “genocide” of the Uighurs of Xinjiang.

Genocide is one of those words that should be used with extreme care. Attempts to define it are fraught with difficulty. Tragically, it is much easier to recognise its effects. When we gaze in horror at the Holocaust’s death camps; or see the swollen corpses of Rwanda; we know that we are looking at genocide. But, when we consider the fact that the Uighur population of Xinjiang has grown from around five million in the 1980s, to more than twelve million today, we can be sure that whatever it is we are looking at, it isn’t genocide.

It is also advisable to look very closely at those who are making these claims. Earlier this week a spokesperson for the Uighurs living in New Zealand, interviewed on RNZ, cited the research of the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy as compelling evidence for their charge of genocide. But who stands behind New Lines? According to the Chinese newspaper, Global Times, New Lines has links to the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT). Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks the IIIT was raided by the FBI for suspected terrorist associations.

Given that the ongoing confrontation between Beijing and Xinjiang was originally sparked by the terrorist activities of Uighur Islamists and nationalists, the ultimate identity of those accusing the Chinese government of genocide is, surely, an important detail? So, too, I would have thought, is the fact that Beijing’s aggressive programme of de-radicalisation was inspired by the practices of Western powers engaged in the Global War On Terror.

Before our parliament votes on an Act Party motion, supported by the Greens, to condemn China’s “genocide”, it would, perhaps, be wise to ask itself two questions. In this exercise, are the Uighurs the end – or the means? And: Is this being done at the behest of our friends, or our enemies?


This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 7 May 2021.

Thursday, 6 May 2021

Developing Separately – Or Together?

'He iwi tahi tātou'? Should Maori poverty be addressed as a manifestation of the economic and social injustices inherent in free-market capitalism; or, is it the inevitable consequence of colonial oppression, white privilege and institutional racism? If it’s the former, then Maori and Pakeha can tackle the problem together. If it’s the latter, then the only effective solutions are those set forth in He Puapua. Maori and Pakeha will have to develop separately.

I’M NOT all that interested in Maori Separatism. It does not require much in the way of historical or rhetorical skill to construct an argument that Maori have lived separate lives for most of this country’s colonial history. Prior to World War II they lived separate lives in the countryside. After World War II they lived separate lives in places like Otara and Porirua. Their ongoing separation from the Pakeha world is plainly visible as you drive up Highway One into Northland. Drive through Moerewa, then through Kerikeri, and you’ll see what I mean.

If you really wanted to be hard-nosed about it, you could argue that a hell of a lot of Pakeha would be most unhappy if Maori separatism could suddenly be brought to an end. If the barriers of income, occupation and education were dissolved, and New Zealanders of all colours and creeds found themselves living on the same street – lawyers next door to check-out operators, doctors next door to cleaners – I rather suspect the reaction would fall well short of easy acceptance. In my experience, “racial tolerance” increases in inverse proportion to the proximity of economically deprived ethnicities.

Logically, if Maori are agitating to have themselves sealed-off from the Pakeha world, then all the white supremacists out there should be celebrating. If, as suggested in the extraordinary He Puapua report, Aotearoa should, once again, be divided into distinct and autonomous tribal territories – on the model of Tuhoe – Maori might be surprised at the number of Pakeha eager to facilitate their repatriation. Although, the white supremacists might not be quite so enthusiastic when they realised that colonial land-titles were most unlikely to survive the Maori exodus.

Personally, I am doubtful whether many Maori would be all that keen to up stakes and return to their rohe. In all of human history there has been nothing even remotely as liberating as the big city. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the individualism that underpins contemporary global culture surviving in any other setting. Historically-speaking, traditional societies tended to be uncompromisingly collectivist. But, living under the watchful eyes of the group, leaves very few places for the individual to be truly alone. It took centuries for people to identify themselves self-consciously with the first person singular: “I” is a reasonably recent invention.

Ironically, it is individualistic Maori who have done the most to break down Maori separatism. I vividly recall walking back from a seminar alongside the then National Party MP, Murray McCully. He was dismissive of the Maori nationalist agenda, pointing out with considerable relish than many more Maori voted for National than voted for the Maori Party. Given that the Party Vote for Te Paati Maori in 2020 was just 33,630, he was probably right. McCully referenced figures like Winston Peters as examples of indigenous men and women who identified themselves proudly as New Zealanders first and Maori second.

This is very far from being a recent phenomenon. From the very beginnings of European colonisation there were Maori who reached out eagerly to grasp the possibilities presented to them by the Pakeha colonisers. Even when the settler government, backed by 12,000 imperial troops, attacked Tawhiao’s Waikato kingdom in 1863, as many as 50 percent of the Maori population either threw in their lot with the British Crown, or maintained a studied neutrality. The strength and vitality of contemporary Maori culture owes much to these kupapa Maori. By opting to bend, they avoided being broken.

Presumably, these were the people Dr Ranginui Walker had in mind when he said the differences between Maori and Pakeha would ultimately be reconciled in the bedroom. Genetically-speaking, it’s a difficult claim to refute. Indeed, to argue otherwise one is required to adopt the bizarre “racial science” of the American South.

In the states of the old Confederacy, to possess so much as a single drop of “African” blood was to lose forever the privilege of calling oneself (or being called) “white”. Here in New Zealand it’s the other way ‘round. To possess even a single Maori ancestor – no matter how distant – is to be permanently and indisputably tangata whenua. That being the case, the very notion of Maori separatism must eventually be rendered a nonsense. All New Zealanders will be Maori – and vice-versa.

Which still leaves us with the separation imposed by socio-economic deprivation – a condition in which a disproportionate number of Maori find themselves trapped. Sadly, New Zealand society is becoming increasingly divided on the question of how best to free the Maori poor from their poverty.

Should their situation be addressed as a manifestation of the economic and social injustices inherent in free-market capitalism; or, is it the inevitable consequence of colonial oppression, white privilege and institutional racism? If it’s the former, then Maori and Pakeha can tackle the problem together. If it’s the latter, then the only effective solutions are those set forth in He Puapua. Maori and Pakeha will have to develop separately.

This is the separation that truly troubles me. Not the separation of Maori from Pakeha, but the division of New Zealand society into two mutually incomprehensible camps. The first camp, highly-educated and well-remunerated, is concentrated occupationally in the caring, teaching and communications professions, and in the administration and governance of society generally. The second, much larger, camp is composed of just about everybody else.

In the first camp, the ideas contained in He Puapua are regarded as both morally correct and politically necessary (not least because they will have to be implemented by people like themselves). For those in the second camp, such ideas (when they are comprehended at all) are perceived as dangerous and divisive. With Maori in both camps, this societal bifurcation has nothing to do with ethnicity. New Zealanders are being separated by an ideology which elevates cultural difference above social solidarity.

Personally speaking, I cannot think of a better way of bringing Maori and Pakeha together than to try and impose an ideology committed to forcing them apart.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 6 May 2021.

Tuesday, 4 May 2021

Shaken and Stirred: The Left Reacts To Judith Collins’ Race-Based Politicking.

Extremely Moderate: That was the “problem” with Judith Collins’ address to the National Party’s Northern Regional Conference on 1 May 2021: its totally unexpected moderation. This was no bilious outpouring of racial hate – quite the reverse. With a degree of political subtlety and tactical agility that did both Collins and her speechwriter, Michael Forbes, credit, the speech left Labour with nothing but questions to answer. 

THE REACTION to Judith Collins’ speech to National’s Northern Regional Conference (1/5/21) was always going to be instructive. It would signal just how seriously National’s opponents took both Collins and her race-based politicking. A flat line on the political seismograph would indicate complete indifference: proof that the National Party leader’s strategy was out of time, and that she, as Leader, was running out of luck. Were the seismograph’s needle to flutter, however, National would know that it was on to something.

And flutter it did. Not wildly, admittedly, but enough to register something large and dangerous shifting deep underground. To give the Prime Minister credit, she was careful to let Collins’ speech pass without comment. While undoubtedly registering the seismic shock, her instincts told her to pretend that she hadn’t. Prime Ministers have surrogates to do that for them. Dutiful as ever, Kelvin Davis let loose the necessary slings and arrows – as did Jacinda’s Pavlovian poodles in the Press Gallery. Given the quality of Collins’ speech, they really had no choice.

Because that was the “problem” with Collins’ address: its totally unexpected moderation. This was no bilious outpouring of racial hate – quite the reverse. With a degree of political subtlety and tactical agility that did both Collins and her speechwriter, Michael Forbes, credit, the speech left Labour with nothing but questions to answer. Difficult questions about the contents of He Puapua, the report of the secretive, Cabinet-appointed working group established to develop a plan for bringing New Zealand’s state institutions into conformity with both te Tiriti o Waitangi and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“The Prime Minister needs to explain why Labour has been busy implementing He Puapua’s recommendations one by one”, Collins stated in a follow-up media release, “without sharing this wider plan with New Zealanders.”

This is clever politics. We live in an age of mistrust. Fewer and fewer citizens have much faith in their country’s political institutions anymore. Fewer still have faith in the reliability of the nation’s news media – as a study released last week by AUT’s Centre for Journalism, Media and Democracy makes clear. Plant a seed of doubt in the voters’ minds about the Labour Government’s secretive “wider plan” for New Zealanders and watch it grow into a thornbush of paranoia.

Collins knows that Jacinda’s only hope of preventing that seed from sprouting is to dismiss He Puapua as just another of Labour’s many, many working party reports; and to reassure New Zealanders that any changes to New Zealand’s core constitutional structures will only ever be undertaken after they’ve been endorsed by a binding referendum. Except, even these undertakings offer Labour only the most fragile of defences. It was, after all, Helen Clark and Margaret Wilson who abolished appeals to the Privy Council and established the Supreme Court of New Zealand without holding a referendum. Moreover, it was precisely because referenda kept quashing attempts to set up Maori wards, that Jacinda’s government rushed through legislation denying local voters that option. On these matters, the public has every right to be sceptical.

Collins also knows, or, at the very least, suspects, that throwing He Puapua over the side of Labour’s waka might prove to be a great deal harder than it sounds. If Labour’s Maori Caucus’s “Plan A” was a full-scale assault on the homelessness, joblessness, ill-health, incarceration-rates and general despair of so many of their people, then it has failed. Both Jacinda and her right-hand man, Finance Minister Grant Robertson, made it clear, very early on, that the rapid “transformational” effort required to move the dial on Maori deprivation was a fiscal bridge too far for them to contemplate. That made the slower, but much deeper, transformations set out in He Puapua, the Maori caucus’ “Plan B”. If Jacinda, bowing to pressure from National and Act, tosses He Puapua overboard, then Te Paati Maori will invite the Maori electorate to, once again, draw their own conclusions about the wisdom of expecting a Pakeha party to prioritise Maori concerns.

The truth is that Labour, just like Saint Peter, does not wish to be caught denying the messianic He Puapua, just as David Seymour and Judith Collins commence crowing.

If anybody knows this, then it’s Jacinda’s former Chief-of-Staff, and the current Director of the lobbying firm Capital Government Relations, Neale Jones. Sitting alongside his fellow Wellington insider, Brigette Morten, on this morning’s (3/5/21) Nine-to-Noon “Political Panel”, it was Neale who finally indicated exactly where on the Richter Scale, Collins’ political earthquake registered. And it was high. High enough, in fact, to thoroughly rattle Mr Jones who, unlike the identically named hero of Bob Dylan’s Ballad of a Thin Man, knows exactly what’s going on here.

Which is why, presumably, from the moment host Kathryn Ryan asked him for his take on Collins’s speech, Neale started throwing bombs. The Leader of the Opposition, he insisted, was guilty of “racist fearmongering”; engaging in a “toxic form of politics”; and had concocted her very own “conspiracy theory”. This is not the sort of language your average capital city insider generally uses to describe a political event of no impact or importance. On this occasion, I think it’s fair to say that the man licenced to kill Labour’s foes (at least rhetorically) was both shaken and stirred.

Perhaps the most disturbing element of Neale’s critique was his characterisation of any attempt to critique the rangatiratanga agenda of He Puapua and its ilk as illegitimate and sinister. It was difficult to avoid the conclusion that if Neale had his way this kind of “toxic” politics would be impermissible: a form of “hate speech”. As a line of argument, it is chilling: conveying the impression that some kinds of politics – most particularly the politics of Maori-Pakeha relations – should be considered “out-of-bounds” and strictly controlled.

Listening to this morning’s “Political Panel”, I found it impossible not to imagine Brigette Morten sitting in the RNZ studio with a grin as wide as a Cheshire Cat’s. Seeing, as we, the listeners, were hearing, Neale’s discomfort, Morten must have recognised just what a winner Collins has picked.

The National Party leader’s May Day address, unlike Brash’s Orewa Speech, will not be a sky-rocket – hauling National’s poll numbers up into the electoral stratosphere. No, He Puapua and all it stands for will be a slow-burner, spreading underground like a peat fire until, finally, it surfaces in clouds of acrid, choking smoke.

In the immortal words of Rachel Hunter: “It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.”


This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 4 May 2021.

Redefining Democracy.

The Dead Hand Of Privilege: To be white, male, heterosexual, well-educated, and – of course – wealthy, is to enjoy a high degree of “privilege” in a culture where such distinctions are generally esteemed. Formal democratic equality, it is asserted, actually serves to mask this privilege and, by doing so, permits the disproportionate power conferred upon its possessors’ to be wielded with, if not impunity, then without serious challenge.

DEMOCRACY – WHO NEEDS IT? Fewer and fewer people, both at home and abroad, seem as willing as previous generations to “defend democracy”. The term itself: once generally understood as a system of government dedicated to personal liberty, the inviolability of private property, equality before the law, and majority rule; has acquired a bewildering complexity. What you were born, and where, now pose a serious challenge to democracy’s universalist claims. To be a human-being is no longer enough.

There is an irony here. The rise of democracy – to the point of becoming the ultimate constitutional goal and the accepted measure of civilised government – has for the past three centuries been driven by the steady expansion of what it means to be a human-being. If a human-being may be defined, politically, as a person whose expressed opinion is accorded a determinative influence, then their numbers have indeed been growing steadily.

Males in possession of land and/or demonstrable martial prowess were the original political humans, to whose numbers were soon added males conspicuously successful in trade and commerce. For centuries, these barons and burghers had the game pretty much to themselves. It required an epochal shift: from feudalism to capitalism; to open the ranks of political humanity to middle-class males.

Democracy was the lever by which these middle-class males gained entry to the places where decisions are made. The problem with the core principles of liberty, equality and solidarity, however, is that they are dangerously extendable. The same arguments that secured political rights for the middle classes could be mounted on behalf of the working classes. Even more worryingly, they could be extended from males to females; from the old to the young; from persons of your colour, to persons of all colours.

When Abraham Lincoln so magisterially distilled the essence of democracy to: “government of the people, by the people, for the people”; the “people” he had in mind were white (and just possibly black) American males. Not included were American women of any colour, Native Americans or “Orientals”. For the next 160 years, American history would be driven by the efforts of those excluded from the definition of “the people” to be recognised as fully human beings.

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider the moral transgression required to drive people out of the human definition once it has been claimed and/or bestowed. The terrifying history of the Jim Crow South not only bears testimony to the level of harm that must be inflicted to enforce exclusion from the political community, but also to the disfiguring spiritual violence those responsible for such exclusion are required to inflict upon themselves. The “strange fruit” of the South describes not just the dangling bodies of lynched African Americans, but the dead eyes of the White killers who watched them die.

Recall, too, the extraordinary violence inflicted upon the Suffragettes by the Liberal Government of Herbert Asquith in the years immediately preceding World War I. The forced feeding of female hunger-strikers was widely condemned as a form of politically-inspired torture. And all because an insufficient number of British parliamentarians were willing to include women within the definition of the politically human.

No such blots appear on New Zealand’s democratic escutcheon. Indeed, this country boasts one of the longest continuously operating democratic political systems on earth. Since 1867 New Zealand’s parliament has reserved seats for the country’s indigenous population. In 1879, it granted full “manhood suffrage”. In 1893 the franchise was extended to include women. In 1969, the “voting age” was lowered from 21 to 20 years-of-age. Eighteen-year-olds were enfranchised in 1974. There is even a reasonable chance that at some point in the next decade the voting age will be lowered to 16 years. New Zealand is the only self-governing country that can boast an uninterrupted period of democratic government, based on universal suffrage, lasting 128 years. Certainly, none of our “Five Eyes Partners” can say as much!

With this history, one could be forgiven for assuming that faith in democracy would be stronger in New Zealand than anywhere else in the world. There are, however, worrying signs that New Zealand’s long democratic history has produced a sense of complacency among its citizens.

For decades, New Zealanders were famed for turning out to vote in record numbers. In the 1984 snap general election, for example, a record-breaking 93.7 percent of those registered to vote cast a ballot. In the intervening three decades, however, turnout has declined, falling to just 74.2 percent in 2011. Interestingly, the extraordinary “Covid Election” of 2020 registered a sharp improvement in turnout. At 82.5 percent, it was the highest since 1999.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Maori New Zealanders evince considerably less faith in democracy than their Pakeha compatriots. Certainly it is understandable why an indigenous people comprising only 16 percent of the total population might find reasons for looking at the principle of majority rule through narrowed eyes. The so-called “tyranny of the majority” has long been cited as one of the downsides of the democratic system of government. For an indigenous culture locked into permanent minority status, the dangers of uncompromising majoritarianism loom large.

Joining these Maori sceptics of democracy are those who are simply unwilling to accept formal political equality as the be-all and end-all of human rights. These are the people who enjoy quoting the Nineteenth Century French writer, Anatole France, who famously declared that: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” Or, as George Orwell slyly puts it in his political fable, Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

To be white, male, heterosexual, well-educated, and – of course – wealthy, is to enjoy a high degree of “privilege” in a culture where such distinctions are generally esteemed. Formal democratic equality, it is asserted, actually serves to mask this privilege and, by doing so, permits the disproportionate power conferred upon its possessors’ to be wielded with, if not impunity, then without serious challenge.

In its essence, this argument rejects the proposition that in a country like New Zealand all human-beings possess equal determinative influence. In effect, the possessors of privilege are said to enjoy super-human status. In short, they have the power to put their thumb on the scales of social justice, and secure for themselves an unfair share of society’s goods and services.

Democracy, as it is generally understood, is dismissed as a sham. Only when the privileges of these “supermen” are stripped from them can those who suffer from the deficiencies such inequity imposes: women, Maori, LGBTQI, the disabled; hope to enjoy the equal determinative influence they are entitled to as fully human beings.

By this reckoning, simply being human is no longer enough. True democracy cannot exist where privilege goes unchallenged and unchecked. It can only flourish where no one has to sleep under a bridge, beg in the streets, or steal bread. Where rape is unthinkable, and racism no more than an evil memory from a bitter past.


This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website of Monday, 3 May 2021.