Saturday, 24 October 2009

Without Prejudice

Staunch: What the players who high-tackled Maori Television’s bid for Rugby World Cup broadcasting rights failed to factor-in, was John Key’s determination to keep his promises to Pita Sharples.

"WHAT’S LEFT?" Having dismissed every one of the Government’s excuses for stymieing the Maori Television Service’s (MTS) bid to broadcast the Rugby World Cup, that was the question Derek Fox threw back at Nine-to-Noon host, Kathryn Ryan, on the morning of Wednesday, 14 October.

"What are we left with?"

It was the very best kind of public broadcasting: immediate, critical and crackling with powerful emotion.

As a veteran broadcaster, Fox must have known – even as he put the question – that Ryan couldn’t answer. That she could not speak the word that hung in the air between them. The only word equal to the extraordinary spectacle of two state-owned broadcasters frantically out-bidding one another with the taxpayers’ money.


Finally, the godfather of Maori broadcasting ended the silence by answering his own question. "What are we left with?" he repeated softly. "We’re left with prejudice."

A FEW HOURS BEFORE he spoke to Ryan, Fox was the Maori Party’s chief media spokesman.
Not any more.

It’s easy to join the dots. A man of passionate conviction, Fox wasn’t the sort to take what was happening to the Maori Party and the MTS lying down. Every instinct would have told him to take the offensive. But to do that he had to resign.

Fox’s departure, and Pita Sharples’ tight-lipped assurances that he and his colleagues were not about to "throw the toys out of the cot" told a grim story. It revealed just how strained the relationship between National and the Maori Party had become.

After all, if the Maori party co-leaders, Tariana Turia and Sharples, were willing to put up with racism on this scale, it’s difficult to conceive of the insult they couldn’t put up with.

And the insults which the Minister for the Rugby World Cup, Murray McCully, and the Broadcasting Minister, Jonathan Coleman (in collusion with TVNZ and TV3) were already delivering to the Maori Party – and Maoridom – went way beyond a simple breach of "etiquette".

On full display in the ministers’ attempts to sabotage the MTS bid for the World Cup free-to-air broadcasting rights was National’s ugly underbelly: social attitudes more usually associated with McCully’s and Coleman’s ex-pat South African constituents.

The words "patronising" and "condescending" don’t do justice to such attitudes. A better description might be "sly".

Think of the expression people wear when they’re participating in a practical joke. When everyone else in the room, except the victim, knows what’s afoot. It’s never pleasant.

In this case "the joke" was that dear, silly old Pita really did believe that the National Party had abandoned the ruthless racial stereotyping that fueled Orewa I, and that Key would keep his promises.

How had National’s right wing been able to conceal their bad faith from the Maori Party? The answer lies in the strong affinities between Maori political culture and the noblesse oblige traditions of Western conservatism.

Both are founded on a careful recognition of hierarchy and prestige. Both are governed by an elaborate and highly nuanced code of etiquette. And both rely upon the other side’s ability to read between the lines of the obligatory courtesies.

Essentially, it’s an aristocratic style. When John Key, as Leader of the Opposition, ran into Maori Party MPs in the Koru Club, he always greeted them warmly, sat down, and had a friendly chat.

Labour’s style, reflecting its trade union origins, is very different. Relationships are based squarely on what the parties bring to the table. If Labour doesn’t like, or can’t use, what’s on offer, then the deficient party is automatically relegated to "last cab off the rank" – and its members will seldom merit a friendly nod in the Koru Club.

WHEN NATIONAL negotiated its agreement with the Maori Party following the 2008 election, it is clear that a number of its senior figures fully expected Turia and Sharples to "read between the lines" that Key’s promises ought to be taken with a very large grain of salt.

In return for the lustre of political preferment, and a handful of largely symbolic policy concessions (a mea culpa from the Crown over the foreshore and seabed, recognition of the tino rangatiratanga flag) National’s new-found friends were supposed to keep their mouths shut and stay out of the Government’s way.

Sharples refused. Though the number of obfuscations, deferrals and outright rejections of Maori party initiatives steadily mounted, Sharples’ faith National’s leader never faltered. Hadn’t Key acknowledged the mana of the Maori people? And hadn’t he given the Maori Affairs Minister the power and resources to act independently on their behalf?

Yes, he had. So, when Sharples saw an opportunity to introduce Maori culture to the Rugby World Cup’s vast international audience he acted - independently.

INSTANTLY, the genial masks of the National Party’s conservative political grandees were cast aside, and their true faces revealed. Harmless ethnic tokenism was one thing, assertive ethnic commerce was something else altogether.

Not only was the Minister of Maori Affairs threatening to put a Maori face to the Pakeha nation’s pre-eminent cultural icon – Rugby – but the MTS bid was turning an unwelcome spotlight on the full extent of TVNZ’s political sycophancy and cultural bankruptcy.

Twenty years of relentless commercialisation have produced a public broadcaster perfectly adapted to National’s needs; an institution uniquely positioned to transform the Rugby World Cup into a cultural support-vehicle for the Governments in an election year. Rather than see TVNZ’s "national town hall" functions usurped by the MTS, McCully and Coleman were willing to let National’s new relationship with Maori fall apart.

As documentary film-maker, and Chair of the Screen Directors Guild, George Andrews, archly observed to Kathryn Ryan a few minutes after her interview with Fox: "When the chips are down the rules [forbidding political interference] go out the window."

BUT, BY TWO O’CLOCK on 14 October, Key had shut McCully and Coleman down. In a remarkable display of moral leadership, the Prime Minister over-ruled his over-mighty colleagues and restored the initiative to the MTS. In negotiations with the IRB, TVNZ and TV3 would work with Maori Television – and follow their lead.

Just as he had over the anti-smacking legislation, Key refused to shift his party to the Right. National’s outreach to Maoridom will continue.

Fox had correctly diagnosed the nature of National’s disease – racial prejudice. What he’d failed to identify was the cure – Key’s decency.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 22 October 2009. 


Go figure said...

Key's decency indeed. He salvaged things only just enough to make it look decent on the surface, but what Sharples was trying to achieve was left to die just as surely. The Maori Party are being subject to some realpolitik here, perhaps the Foreshore repeal is not a done deal yet even. The other question is what are they getting that we don't know about yet? Not much for caving entirely to the Nats ETS by all accounts, but Turia is very busy building her programme in Social Development. I pick they think its going to be big enough to be forgiven by their supporters for all other crimes. But the impact on Maori won't start to be felt until election year, so there are still bumps ahead. Who else will jump ship? Where is Hone? 2010 will be interesting.

gary said...

Chris, I don't know if it's possible to say either way that it was Key's decency that led to the outcome, or what I think is equally compelling, that Key acknowledged he didn't want to be perceived as the leader of a racist party.

Unknown said...

It was not Key's "decency". It was his recognition that the coalition agreement with the Maori Party hung by a thread.

The compromise agreement is strage, to put it mildly. Maori Television does not get its support for Te Reo, instead of having 90% of public broadcasting recipients listening to commentary with a te reo twist it now gets 90% mainstream commentary and 10% with a te reo twist for a greater amount.

In financial and philosophical terms the decision sucks. The only possible explanation is the prejudice that Nats like McCully and Coleman have for anything that is not European.

They are both North Shore MPs. What is the chance of their replacement by MPs that reflect the true multi cultural nature of New Zealand?