Sending A Message: Justice Minister, Judith Collins, has responded to criticism of her appointment of Dame Susan Devoy as Race Relations Commissioner with the highly revealling comment: “The far left does not have a monopoly on caring about race relations.” History suggests, however, that if the Left doesn't have a monopoly on, then the Right isn't even in the market for, improved race relations.
DAME SUSAN DEVOY’s appointment as Race relations Commissioner sends a very clear message. But about what? And to whom?
An answer may be found in Justice Minister Judith Collins’ observation that: “The far left does not have a monopoly on caring about race relations”.
Ms Collins packs a great deal of political information into this typically belligerent statement.
It speaks powerfully and directly to the Right’s long-standing resentment at finding itself, again and again, on the morally indefensible side of history.
From the mid-1970s, the National Party positioned itself, politically, as the defender of the Pakeha majority against any and all charges of racism that the Maori minority, and others, were increasingly levelling against them.
According to National, race relations in New Zealand were extremely healthy, and it was an affront to this country’s internationally celebrated reputation for fairness and tolerance to suggest otherwise.
This position became increasingly untenable as, over the course of the 70s, 80s and 90s, a new generation of historians systematically demolished New Zealand’s great foundational myths: the version of history which the inheritors of colonialism had so assiduously constructed since the wars and confiscations of the Nineteenth Century.
The most important to be taken apart was the Myth of the Moriori.
For decades, New Zealand schoolchildren were taught that their country’s first inhabitants, the Moriori, had been wiped out by the Maori – the warlike, culturally superior race of settlers who supplanted them.
For the Europeans who had replaced Maori as the dominant racial group in New Zealand, the Moriori Myth was morally indispensable. By establishing an historical narrative based on successive waves of settlers, each one stronger and better fitted for survival than the last, the European conquest and despoliation of the Maori could be painted as part of a “natural” progression.
“We” (the Pakeha) were no worse than “they” (the Maori) when it came to asserting the right of the stronger to overpower the weaker. We were, however, “better” than they were – because rather than wipe out the people who’d stood in our way, we “advanced” Europeans were willing to share with the vanquished all the “benefits” of Western Civilisation.
That the Maori had not fared as appallingly as Australian Aborigines or the Native Americans spoke eloquently of New Zealand’s “progressive” record of race relations.
The true and tragic story of the Moriori people (of the Chatham Islands) offered as little to Pakeha as it did to Maori. (Which probably explains why both races were content to connive in its extraordinary distortion.)
The myth was , however, of such critical importance to Pakeha self-perception that, even today, you still find many New Zealanders clinging tenaciously to its reassuring message of moral equivalence.
Conservative New Zealanders remained highly resistant to the unpalatable truths emerging from their nation’s colonial past. Rather than let the new historical research bring about a re-evaluation of their previous assumptions concerning race, they and their National Party representatives became even more determined to uphold all the old shibboleths.
National’s defence of the Springbok Rugby Tour of 1981 not only made it a target for the entire New Zealand Left (from Labour to the Workers’ Communist League) but, as events steadily vindicated the arguments of the protesters, it also helped to foster a deep-seated sense of right-wing grievance.
Nelson Mandela Free: The National Party has found it very difficult to accept that on the question of Apartheid - as on so many other racial questions - the Left has been vindicated, and the Right condemned, by History.
The Left had accused the Right of being on the wrong side of history, and History had been unkind enough to concur. Politically, National had no option but to accept the enhanced role of the Treaty of Waitangi (and its tribunal) and celebrate the victory of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (once described as “terrorists” by Sir Robert Muldoon) but it rankled.
Oh yes, it rankled.
And as those historical victories were transmuted into a framework of human rights recognition and protection (building on the more liberal Sir Keith Holyoake-led National Party’s Office of the Race Relations Conciliator, and the Labour Prime Minister, Sir Geoffrey Palmer’s, Bill of Rights Act) the Right’s sense of grievance – of being put-upon by what it labelled “political correctness” – grew and festered in the body politic.
Just how large this cancer had grown was revealed in 2004 when National Party Leader, Dr Don Brash’s, “Nationhood” speech, at Orewa, saw his party’s position in the Colmar-Brunton opinion poll advance by a record 17 percentage points.
National’s narrow defeat in 2005, and Dr Brash’s successor, John Key’s, tactical alliance with the Maori Party, both muted and diverted the Right’s angry rejection of the Left’s “political correctness”. Anti-Maori prejudice was channelled into hard-line welfare and law-and-order “reforms” – measures guaranteed to hit Maori New Zealanders the hardest.
Dame Susan’s appointment is emblematic of National’s continuing denial of its historical moral delinquency. With her controversial announcement, Ms Collins simultaneously delivers reassurance to an aggrieved Right, and an obscene, two-fingered gesture to “the far left”.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 26 March 2013.