Wednesday 16 December 2009

Banners in the Bush

This article, originally published in The Independent of 7 May 2003, anticipates the intense debate which John Key’s recognition of the Tino Rangatiratanga flag has set off. Written before the Court of Appeal’s decision on the foreshore and seabed; before Orewa; before the Hikoi; before the Maori Party (and the emergence of the latter’s fundamentally right-wing political identity) the article reveals both my own, and I believe the rest of progressive New Zealand’s, willingness to at least engage with the Maori sovereignty project. I read the article today with a great sense of sadness. What had seemed plausible in 2003 comes across as much less so in 2009. And, how very glad I am that it is National, rather than Labour, which has ended up aligning itself with neo-tribal capitalism – and all it entails.

TRAVELLING east on Highway 25A a few weeks ago, I was momentarily distracted by a tall flagstaff rising out of the dense Coromandel bush. Fluttering proudly in the late afternoon sunlight was an enormous Maori sovereignty flag. Curious as to why this emblem was flying in the middle of nowhere, I slowed the car and peered up a long gravel driveway into what appeared to be some sort of compound. A roughly painted sign at the gate proclaimed "Tino Rangatiratanga" and declared the owners’ solidarity with tangata whenua in a local land dispute. As I drove away, I pondered the significance of what I had just seen, recalling as I did so a very similar compound – complete with sovereignty flag - that I had passed while on holiday in Northland.

In the weeks since, I seem to have seen that same "Tino Rangatiratanga" emblem everywhere. On the T-shirts of a Maori youth group featured on the Marae programme, at the top of Internet websites, on bumper stickers, and fluttering above peace marchers in Queen Street and Lambton Quay.

Its apparent ubiquity speaks to me of a slow, but irreversible, process of political metamorphosis which is working its way through New Zealand. Beneath the institutional husk of the colonial state, a new political order is taking shape; an order based on the triple pillars of Maori economic self-sufficiency, Maori demography and Pakeha electoral dependency on Maori votes. Young Maori fly the Tino Rangatiratanga flag not simply as a gesture of ethnic pride, but in the confident expectation that within fifty years it will have replaced the New Zealand ensign as this country’s national flag.

The political sophistication with which this process of metamorphosis is being managed puts to shame the clumsy manoeuvrings of Pakeha interest groups. Whether it be in the fields of economic development, education, health, social welfare or media communications, the steady advance of Maori "self-management" speaks volumes about the extraordinary dexterity of Maori politicians – both in and out of Parliament.

Take, for example, the Ngai Tahu corporate empire. The original $170 million settlement with the Crown has grown in the space of just a few years to a capital base of nearly half-a-billion dollars. The Iwi has a controlling interest in firms specialising in fishing, forestry, farming and tourism. It also possesses pre-emptive rights on any Crown lands which come up for sale – a legal privilege of enormous financial value. Through the astute use of tertiary scholarships the Iwi is rapidly equipping itself with a cadre of highly educated professionals – skilled men and women who can advance Ngai Tahu’s interests in every field, from the law and medicine to media and publishing. Expanding at their present rate the Iwi’s corporate interests will soon pass the billion-dollar mark and by the middle of the 21st Century this one Maori tribe will rival the largest of New Zealand’s Pakeha-owned businesses.

As more and more settlements with the Crown are negotiated and the Ngai Tahu model of economic development is embraced by an increasing number of Maori tribes, the commercial power of Maori corporations will expand commensurately. Barring a major shift in official policies, it can only be a matter of decades before both the fisheries and the forests guaranteed to iwi and hapu in Article II of the Treaty of Waitangi are once again safe in Maori hands. As Fletcher Forests CEO, Ian Boyd, noted in a speech last week, "Maori interests are our natural partners".

The steady growth of Maori economic – and hence political - power arising out of the Treaty settlement process must surely give rise to some to wry amusement among Maori politicians. For a great many Pakeha the idea of making restitution for past wrongs has long possessed a comfortingly distant quality. The Treaty, with all its unsettling implications for the present relationships of power and status among New Zealand’s ethnic communities, could, according to this principle, be safely quarantined in the realms of historical time - where its contagious political fevers could do little harm.

But, as Maori understand only too well, past and present cannot be so easily separated. At the time of the Treaty’s signing Maori held the upper hand in New Zealand – militarily, economically and culturally. Logically, therefore, all compensation for the colonial state’s illegal appropriation of Maori resources in the past – especially when it takes the form of large capital grants or the wholesale cession of valuable natural resources to Maori tribes – can only lead, as we have seen with Ngai Tahu, to the enhancement of Maori influence in the present. Paradoxically, those who try to evade the contemporary ramifications of Tino Rangatiratanga, by limiting the Treaty’s role to the settling of past grievances, are only bringing the reality of Maori sovereignty closer.

The truly radical response to this political paradox lies in the "single standard of citizenship" policy of the National Party. Bill English has recognised, in a way that NZ First and ACT have not, that attempting to put the genie of Tino Rangatiratanga back into the bottle - by settling all the outstanding Waitangi Tribunal claims in double-quick time - will only speed-up the developing crisis in New Zealand race relations.

Anyone who doubts this need only cast their mind back to early 1995 and the response of Maoridom to the then National Government’s "fiscal envelope" proposal. The symbolic aggression at Waitangi and the occupation of Moutoa Gardens – both of which were fuelled by the Crown’s unilateral assertion of political sovereignty - showed how quickly the relationship between Maori and Pakeha can descend into angry confrontation and violence.

The crucial issue facing the politicians of 21st Century New Zealand is the nature of relationship between Maori and Pakeha. Are we to be competitors or collaborators? The idea of sovereignty will only cease to be a "zero-sum game" when both communities are encouraged to view the future as a place where ethnic identity is no longer a key determinant of one’s life chances.

Sadly, Labour’s approach to the Treaty is very different from that of Bill English. Just how different was spelled out by Dr Michael Cullen in his controversial speech to the Central North Island Labour Party Conference on 27 April. The key problem with the speech was not with its author’s interpretation of the Treaty’s meaning – which accords pretty closely with that of most New Zealand historians – but with his implied characterisation of the document as a de facto New Zealand constitution.

According to Dr Cullen, the open-ended nature of the guarantee offered to Maori by the inclusion of the word "taonga" – or "treasures" – in the definitive Maori text "genuinely makes the Treaty a living document where new applications or implications may arise as circumstances change".

Instead of developing a constitution which recognises the fact of 200 years of Maori and Pakeha cohabitation in New Zealand, Labour clearly prefers to spend the 21st Century defining and re-defining the present meaning of an 1840 agreement originally intended to do no more than ameliorate the worst immediate side-effects of two mutually incomprehensible cultures in collision.

Labour’s motives for so elevating the Treaty are relatively straight-forward: it locks in the electoral support of voters who identify themselves as Maori first and New Zealanders second. The political benefits are mutual. On their long march toward Tino Rangatiratanga, Maori politicians have worked tirelessly to secure a plentiful supply of sympathetic allies at the highest levels of the state. Labour, both as a political party, and as the driver of bureaucratic reform in the 1980s, has been crucial to the radical re-orientation of official policy in the direction of Maori self-management.

It is an arrangement which both sides are determined to preserve. Both Labour and Maori politicians know that New Zealanders claiming Maori descent represent an expanding electoral bloc whose votes will one day be crucial to deciding who will govern New Zealand. But that bloc can only function effectively if issues of ethnicity and identity retain their political salience. Bill English’s dream of subsuming racial distinctions in "a single standard of citizenship" is, therefore, anathema to both Labour and Maori. Labour needs Maori as its political clients; Maori need Labour as their political accomplices.

In the end, it may simply come down to a question of patience and resolve. Maori have inhabited these islands for more than a thousand years, Pakeha for barely two hundred. Michael Cullen is wrong when he asserts that the British Crown’s sovereignty has been exercised, "unbroken and largely unchallenged" since 1840. What does he think the Land Wars were all about? What does he think Te Whiti O Rongomai was trying to do? From the moment they understood that the Europeans were too strong to defeat militarily, the political leadership of Maoridom wisely adopted a long-term view of how "whenua" should be reunited with "tangata". They may have given in, but they have never given up.

Like the slowly regenerating bush on the Coromandel hillsides, iwi and hapu are steadily reclaiming both the ground – and the sovereignty – that was taken from them. And that puts the onus upon the rest of us to determine how best we should come to terms with the undeniable fact of expanding Maori power. In the not too distant future, it may prove necessary for Pakeha New Zealanders to remove the old colonial symbols from their national emblems and embrace a new definition of citizenship in Aotearoa.

A change of flag will not seem so disconcerting if it is preceded by a change of heart.


Sara said...

I am curious as to what you believe will happen ultimately to New Zealand. To express any concern about the issues you have outlined above is to be dismissed as a redneck.

I lived until fairly recently in an area that was majority Maori. Over about 15 years I watched the rise of the Maori middle/upper class. The effort put into educating young Maori and the streamlining of the university system for these young people was impressive.

However- what I found disturbing was the attitude of these children who were coming through the system. I have witnessed utter contempt for people who are not Maori. This generation of young Maori coming through will have money, land, power and numbers and coupled with this attitude I can't see things going well for non-Maori New Zealanders.

New Zealanders as a group are much too trusting and realise much too late that they have been done (giving in to the far-right politicians of the 1980s without a fight a prime example of this). I get frustrated with the "sickly white liberals" out there who just don't seem to realised how much the game has changed.

Chris Trotter said...

I wish I could tell you, Sara.

We are, as you say, much too trusting of our political class.

The big mistake we made, as a people, was to walk away from the major political parties (and thus all serious politics) in the 1980s and 90s.

Had the scores of thousands of New Zealanders belonging to these parties stayed and fought, instead of voting with their feet, New Zealand might well have followed the less destructive Australian path of neoliberal reform instead of the shock therapy of Douglas and Richardson.

Had a more humane adjustment programme been followed in this country the enormously destructive impact of neoliberalism on Maori communities and the corresponding need for a massive placatory effort on the part of the state - especially the need to "buy off" Maoridom's best and brightest - would have been far less urgent.

But even this would not have entirely negated the pernicious effects of the racially exclusive Maori educational system which Pakeha taxpayers have so generously subsidised for the past 20 years.

Any group - black or white - raised on an over-rich pedagogical diet of ethnic chauvinism is bound to evince the racist attitudes you describe.

I have real fears for New Zealand's future if the vast majority of Pakeha New Zealanders continue to stand aloof from the political process.

In a recent commentary piece, the Canterbury law lecturer, David Round, felt strongly enough about this issue to follow the example of the British politician (and classicist) Enoch Powell, who, in his infamous speech on the future of race relations in the UK, quoted the words of the Sybil (prophetess) in Virgil's "Aeneid":

"Bella, horrida bella et Thybrim multo spumantem sanguine cerno."

(War, frightful war, I see, and the river Tiber foaming with much blood.)

I hope he's wrong.

Peter Wilson said...

I think Enoch Powell's worst thoughts are wrong when it comes to New Zealand. I am about as Pakeha as it comes, yet I have spent many years working with Ngai Tahu, primarily on natural resources. Not once have I detected any racial bias or us-and-them mentality within the iwi, or the people I have worked with. In fact, many of the professionals within the organisation are Pakeha, both in culture and in ethnicity.

Instead, what I see as far more apparent is a new definition of Maori, one expressed to me by a young Maori friend from Rotorua. Basically, the values are if you care (and can demonstrate that care beyond mere sentiment) about the land/sea and its resources, then, you are Maori. Radical, very radical for some, but I have experienced it when working for Ngai Tahu.

So, extrapolating that forward I think we have very little to fear, provided we all stop jumping at shadows.