Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Ten Years Ago This Week: The Battle of Wounded Tree

Ironic Victory: The destruction of the iconic tree at the top of Auckland's One Tree Hill was celebrated by Maori nationalists as a victory for tino rangatiratanga. Curiously, the presumably more offensive obelisk - erected in 1940 to celebrate 100 years of European colonisation - was left untouched.

THE SYMBOLISM was perfect. Standing in front of the repeatedly savaged pine tree at the summit of Auckland’s One Tree Hill, the ACT Leader, Richard Prebble, announced his party’s determination to wind up the Treaty Settlement process, abolish the Waitangi Tribunal and do away with the Maori Seats.

That lonely pine tree symbolises something more than the historical contradictions which lie at the heart of New Zealand’s race relations; it is also a powerful metaphor for the vulnerability of the existing bi-partisan consensus on Treaty settlements. Like the damaged pine, the settlement process is currently protected by a complex arrangement of barriers, supports, and surveillance equipment; the priority for National and Labour being to keep it alive for as long as possible. The big – and so far unanswered – question confronting the two major parties is the same question confronting the Auckland City Council vis-à-vis its doomed pine tree: "What do we replace it with?"

ACT’s bold answer to that question is "nothing". And there can be no doubt that their Gordian Knot solution to New Zealand race relations will be welcomed by the very large number of Pakeha New Zealanders, whose patience with the Treaty Settlement process ran out a long time ago.

Richard Prebble’s decision to locate ACT beyond the Pale of elite opinion on the Treaty reflects not only the growing strength of the right-wing populist faction inside his party, but a broader intuition that the "Cultural Revolution" which swept New Zealand during the 1970s and the early 1980s is on the wane. Race and Gender lay at the heart of the "new social movements" which emerged from the tumult of the late 1960s. In the course of their "long march through the institutions" young radical lawyers like Margaret Wilson and Jane Kelsey became highly skilled at using the legal system to further their anti-racist and anti-sexist agendas. The crowning moment of the anti-racist cause came in 1987 when Lord Cooke of Thorndon and his judicially active Court of Appeal used the New Zealand Maori Council v Attorney General case to confer a quasi-constitutional status upon the Waitangi treaty.

The use of the legal system to further the liberal/radical agenda proved to be a highly effective method of achieving social change. Measures which would never have seen the light of day had they been dependent upon the will of popularly elected parliamentarians, acquired legal force through the decisions of an unelected judiciary. In this respect New Zealand was merely following the precedent established by the United States Supreme Court, which, under its activist Chief Justice, Warren Burger, had become the "Liberal East Coast Establishment’s" secret weapon. Whether the issue was the "bussing" of black children into "white" school districts, or the right of a woman to seek an abortion, the Supreme Court was able to over-ride the wishes of often-hostile legislators and impose social change from above.

The problem with this method of achieving social change is that it quite consciously bypasses the grimy business of winning over ordinary voters, in favour of a strategy designed to influence elites. The Ngai Tahu leader, Sir Tipene O’Reagan, has made no secret of his preference for dealing with "The Crown" - the populist instincts of the democratically elected Parliament being much less to his taste.

Many Treaty activists profited by this approach. Throughout the late 1980s and on through the 1990s, numerous small companies composed of dedicated anti-racists won lucrative contracts from both the public and private sectors to explain the significance of The Treaty to high level bureaucrats and managers. Offering a volatile mixture of revisionist history, romanticised anthropology, and coercive group psychology, these slick commercial units became expert at inducing "white guilt" in their clients. Dissenting opinions were shamed into silence, and the Treaty elevated to a level approximating holy writ.

The irony of this approach is that it matches in almost every respect the strategic political template of the New Right. Like the social liberals on the Left, the neo-liberals on the Right made little attempt to win over the "masses", concentrating instead on the commanding heights of the business community, the news media, and the state bureaucracy. In New Zealand, the New Right also zeroed in on the political party of the working class, transforming Labour into the unlikely vehicle of a top-down "revolution".

In some cases – Fran Wilde’s, for example – the Social Liberal and New Right agendas came together in the same politician. Wilde - the champion of that other great liberal cause – gay liberation – is now a powerful advocate of the National Government’s free-trade agenda. Even the Prime Minister, Jenny Shipley, a woman of impeccable New Right credentials, does not feel out of place at the Hero Parade, or walking hand-in-hand with the Maori nationalist leader, Titewhai Harawira.

For those at the bottom of the social heap – including many Maori - all this judicial activism and political correctness has been particularly confusing. For generations inculcated with the social democratic values of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, expectations of the state have predominantly centred on the quest for social and economic "justice". Fundamental to that quest was the principle of equality – that regardless of race, colour or creed, all New Zealanders possessed the same rights. This was the principle which kept hundreds of New Zealand soldiers on their troopships in Capetown harbour during the Second World War. When the South African authorities denied Maori soldiers leave to disembark, their Pakeha comrades declared that if all of them could not go ashore, then none of them would go ashore. Back then the differences between the races were held to be far less significant than the similarities. Today it’s the other way ‘round.

Working class New Zealanders also resent the moral condescension of Social Liberalism; its confident assumption of intellectual, cultural and ethical superiority over "rednecks", "boguns", "Westies", and other troglodyte entities. Separated by geography, education, and social status from the often brutal realities of multi-racial New Zealand, the Treaty’s advocates are unwilling to concede any validity to the arguments of their opponents. At street level, however, the accentuation of difference – especially on racial lines – frequently leads to the formation of gangs and other mutual defence organisations. Between the theory and the practice of racial autonomy there is room for an alarming amount of social pathology. Working class New Zealand clings to Governor Hobson’s "one people" ideal for some very practical reasons.

Which is not to say that the righting of past wrongs is not a worthy and necessary objective of public policy, merely that legal triumphs in the courtroom, the Select Committee, and the Waitangi Tribunal may not cut much ice in Otara or West Auckland. To the Maori worker on the dole, possessing only a rudimentary grasp of his genealogy, and lacking any facility for the Maori language, the multi-million dollar Treaty settlements have so far brought little in the way of tangible benefits. They may yet come, but while we wait for the Tainui and Ngai Tahu Corporations to "deliver", the statistics on Maori health, education, incarceration, and employment get worse – not better.

It is to be hoped that Richard Prebble’s speech from One Tree Hill will engender some much needed debate on the future of Maori/Pakeha relations, and that the ensuing discussion ranges well beyond the narrow parameters set by National and Labour. If that occurs, then ACT’s policy release from beneath Auckland’s wounded tree may end up having an even greater impact than Mike Smith’s all-too-eloquent chainsaw.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of 13 October 1999.

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