Power Grab: With the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to argue that the economic, administrative, social and cultural institutions mandated by New Zealand’s much-praised bicultural project were simultaneously a means of releasing political pressure and mechanisms for securing the control of Maori, by Maori.
WHAT DO WE do now? For more than forty years, the New Zealand State has embraced the idea of biculturalism and attempted to give it legal and administrative force. Beginning with the Waitangi Tribunal in the mid-1970s, and proceeding through the host of consequent bicultural building blocks, “official” New Zealand has doggedly claimed to be moving beyond its colonialist origins and towards the new hybrid, Pakeha/Maori, nation the biculturalists insisted was possible. Except that, more than forty years into the process, we are required to acknowledge that biculturalism is a lie.
The brute facts of the Pakeha/Maori relationship: a grim record of Maori disadvantage and marginalisation; have proved highly resistant to meaningful improvement. The official pursuit of the bicultural ideal may have created a Maori middle-class dedicated to its advancement, but only at considerable cost. As that Maori middle-class grew, the Maori working-class – once large, well-organised, and well-paid – shrank, and in its place there arose a sprawling Maori underclass. Imprisoned in poverty, and the multitude of social dysfunctions which economic deprivation spawns, the Maori underclass has become the prime generator of the most malign social statistics – and they are getting worse.
The great historical irony of this situation is that it mirrors almost exactly the fate of Maori in the aftermath of the first great assertion of the colonial state’s interests over those of the indigenous population. In the decades following the Land Wars of the 1860s, the overwhelming majority of Maori were reduced to a state of abject poverty and subjected to the most rigorous control by the triumphant settler state. A thin layer of Maori leaders mediated this grossly unjust relationship, brokering the survival of their people with the only indigenous asset the Pakeha had ever truly valued – their ever-dwindling stock of Maori land.
The only upside of this grim situation was that the country was so thinly populated that it was still possible for Maori – concentrated overwhelmingly in rural New Zealand – to sustain themselves as they had learned to do in pre-European centuries.
This ceased to be an option for the increasing number of Maori drawn into the cities by the steady advance of New Zealand’s secondary industries following the Second World War. This massive migration did, however, bring Maori into close contact with the Pakeha trade unions which were, in their turn, closely aligned with the Labour Party. Labour’s electoral pact with the millennial politico-religious movement created by Wiremu Ratana, forged in the mid-1930s, was powerfully reinforced by the steady growth of the Maori working-class.
For a period of roughly 30 years, Maori workers’ votes played a critical role in the struggle between Left and Right. Their economic importance within New Zealand’s import-substituting and meat-processing industries had made Maori politically influential in a way not seen since the 1840s and 50s.
It was not to last. By the late-1980s, globalisation and the neoliberal revolution it spawned was wiping out the industries upon which Maori communities, both urban and rural, had come to depend. Once again, it became necessary for the Settler State to both contain and control the indigenous victims of Pakeha capitalism’s “creative destruction”.
The New Zealand State’s quest for bicultural harmony takes on a very different character when viewed from this perspective. With the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to argue that the economic, administrative, social and cultural institutions mandated by New Zealand’s much-praised bicultural project were simultaneously a means of releasing political pressure and mechanisms for securing the control of Maori, by Maori.
By indigenising at least some of the processes required to prevent the Maori underclass from exploding, the Settler State was once again able to rely upon a thin layer of Maori intermediaries to blunt the sting of racial and economic pain. The location of colonial oppression may have shifted from the devastated rohe of the defeated iwi, to the state-owned slums of New Zealand’s largest cities, but the time-honoured imperial policy of divide and rule remained the same.
And so we are treated to the awful spectacle of a terrified young Maori mother being confronted by a group of implacable Maori social-workers determined to ‘uplift’ her tiny child. And, just as happened all those years ago, it has required all the efforts of courageous Maori leaders to first defuse and then resolve the situation.
While “we” look on – appalled.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 21 June 2019.