Dangerous Politics: Both Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson were up-close witnesses of the racist backlash that scuttled the Helen Clark-led Government’s attempt to “Close the Gaps” between Rich and Poor/Maori and Pakeha in the early 2000s. The National Party does not have a monopoly on redneckism. Many Labour voters also have plenty of unpleasant things to say on the subject of “the Maarees”.
THE WORST SIDE-EFFECT of New Zealand’s thirty-year “free-market” experiment is the way the words “Maori” and “dysfunctional” have become interchangeable. That the poor in New Zealand are disproportionately brown has made it much easier for the Pakeha majority to submerge their racial animosity in the less inflammatory vocabulary of socio-economic prejudice. Just like their White American counterparts, Pakeha racists have found a way to communicate their hatred and intolerance of ethnic minorities by couching their attacks in the language of economics and sociology.
As newspaper columnist Dave Witherow, and the former National Party leader, Dr Don Brash have both discovered over the past fortnight: to rant and rave publicly against Te Ao Maori is to invite instant, extensive and very loud condemnation. Condemning the poor for their ignorance, improvidence, laziness and criminality, however, provokes no such backlash. Liberal and progressive New Zealand is content to keep ethnicity and social deprivation in separate conceptual boxes. In the racist imagination, however, being poor, and being Maori, remain kindred categories.
This ethnically-coded discourse about poverty and the poor explains the otherwise puzzling phenomenon of the former National Government’s ability to embrace much of the programme of the Maori Party without provoking the mass desertion of the sort of National voter who had responded so dramatically to Dr Brash’s in/famous “Orewa Speech” of 2004. John Key may have basked in the praise of liberal New Zealand for throwing his arms around Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples, but National’s less “politically correct” supporters had only to observe his government’s hard-line approach to beneficiaries to be reassured that their party’s intolerance of all manifestations of “Maori/Dysfunction” remained as fierce as ever.
As political subterfuge goes, it was a pretty sophisticated double-act. On the one hand stood Chris Finlayson: working his way through the backlog of Treaty claims with admirable dispatch. On the other, Paula Bennett and Anne Tolley: wielding their punishing sticks against the undeserving poor – a disproportionate number of whom just happened to be brown. The urban liberals were moved, but so, too, were National’s provincial conservatives. A win-win strategy for everyone – except the Maori poor.
And on 23 September 2017, the Maori poor had their revenge. Unwilling to give the Maori Party the benefit of the doubt a fifth time, Maori voters drove its two remaining representatives out of Parliament altogether – thereby securing Labour a clean sweep of the seven Maori electorates. Between them, the Labour, NZ First and Green parties making up the current government contain an unprecedented 19 Maori MPs.
For these Maori politicians, the linkage between ethnicity and poverty is as important to the overall conduct of Jacinda Ardern’s government as it was to John Key’s – but for diametrically opposite reasons! Maori, both inside and outside the House of Representatives, will not tolerate an economic and social strategy that is not committed unequivocally to freeing their communities from the consequences of thirty years of racist neglect: those crippling social dysfunctions which so many Pakeha cite as justification for their prejudice.
This is dangerous politics. Both Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson were up-close witnesses of the racist backlash that scuttled the Helen Clark-led Government’s attempt to “Close the Gaps” between Rich and Poor/Maori and Pakeha in the early 2000s. The National Party does not have a monopoly on redneckism. Many Labour voters also have plenty of unpleasant things to say on the subject of “the Maarees”.
Enter NZ First’s Regional Economic Development Minister, Shane Jones. His mission, to unite conservative provincial New Zealanders, Maori and Pakeha, around an economic nationalist programme committed to uplifting both communities. Anyone who watched Jones’s bravura performance on TVNZ’s “Q+A” current-affairs programme of Sunday, 3 December – during which he openly talked about forcing his feckless Northland “nephews” “off the couch” and into paid work – can only have felt for Finance Minister Grant Robertson. Jones, undoubtedly speaking on behalf of his boss, Winston Peters, made it very clear that Robertson’s business-oriented commitment to “fiscal and economic responsibility” cut little ice with him – nor, one suspects, with the Coalition Government’s other Maori MPs.
“Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the Coalition Agreement”, quipped Jones, paraphrasing Psalm 20:7, and making it very clear to his political cohabiters that the Maori members of the Government will not be truncating their Maori-centred agenda to satisfy either Robertson’s “Budget Responsibility Rules” – or the prejudices of Pakeha.
What Jones and his comrades have come to understand, finally, is that the “market-failures” which they are determined to correct were also, perversely, politica successes. The free-market policies of the 1980s and 90s contributed to the disintegration of many Maori communities. The resulting “Maori underclass” spawned a host of seriously dysfunctional behaviours – creating fears which were exploited politically to “weaponise” Pakeha racism.
Fix the first problem, and the second falls apart.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 5 December 2017.