Fronting For Dysfunction: The finger of blame has been pointed at Hekia Parata for her mishandling of the investigation into the Te Kohanga Reo National Trust Board. But is the blame hers alone? According to the young Maori blogger, Morgan Godfery: "The behaviour of the board and its subsidiary has been dreadful. Perhaps it’s the predictable effect of lifetime appointments. But I think it goes deeper. There’s a rot in Maori governance. From poor governance at Maori TV to the Kohanga Reo board, Maori aren’t being served."
THERE IS A STRONG TEMPTATION to dismiss the Te Kohanga Reo Trust scandal as something for Maori to sort out. Strong because there is currently a real reluctance on the part of Pakeha journalists to intrude upon Maori disputes. Charges of colonialist insensitivity, even outright racism, are easily levelled, and not so easily refuted.
The person who has paid the highest price for this reticence, over the past week, is the Minister of Education, Hekia Parata. Digging deeper into the Kohanga story; attempting to tease-out its broader political ramifications, entails cross-cultural risk. A Cabinet Minister’s political fumblings, on the other hand, is a much more familiar and, therefore, safer story.
What is it that underlies both the scandal itself and the news media’s less-than-thorough presentation of it?
The answer, I believe, lies in the series of critical changes in the generational, cultural, economic and political propellants of Maori development.
Forty years ago the future of the Maori language was in doubt. A generation of Maori had thought it wiser for their offspring to immerse themselves in and acquire the skills of the dominant Pakeha culture. Mastering English and learning how to operate and succeed in Pakeha institutions (especially its education system) was central to the survival strategy of those Maori who migrated from rural Aotearoa to urban New Zealand in the two decades following World War II.
It was this, the “Assimilation Generation”, that laid the foundations for what was to become the Maori middle-class. And it was their offspring – the first generation of Maori to enter tertiary education in any numbers – who constituted the political core of the “Maori Renaissance” – a movement of uncompromising cultural assertion which would, between 1975 and 2005, radically alter the expectations and aspirations of tangata whenua.
Te Kohanga Reo, the pre-school Maori language “nests”, and Kura Kaupapa, the Maori immersion schools, are both products of those three decades of Maori revitalisation and rebirth. And those who were instrumental in their creation have grown old alongside the institutions they brought into existence.
Pressure from this new, young, well-educated and politically assertive generation of Maori activists was also responsible for transforming the Waitangi Tribunal into an historically responsive instrument for the redress of Maori grievances. Between 1990 and the present, the Tribunal was to supply not only the moral and legal rationale for the establishment of Maori broadcasting, but would also set in motion the Crown’s ambitious Treaty-settlement process. These settlements, in their turn, provided the financial base for the rise of neo-tribal capitalist corporations.
The Maori cultural renaissance was thus transformed into a political and economic revolution. Institutional opportunities have been created which offer Maori (or, at least their middle-class leaders) a secure position in the future governance and development of New Zealand society and economy.
Like all revolutions, however, its consolidation phase has required a series of compromises and accommodations to be made between the old and the new way of doing things. The hierarchical, deferential and familial aspects of traditional Maori governance structures have, therefore, been grandfathered into the new. The results have become a source of both anger and embarrassment to the sons and daughters of both the renaissance and the revolution.
In the words of the young Maori blogger, Morgan Godfery:
“The behaviour of the [Te Kohanga Reo Trust] board and its subsidiary has been dreadful. Perhaps it’s the predictable effect of lifetime appointments. But I think it goes deeper. There’s a rot in Maori governance. From poor governance at Maori TV to the Kohanga Reo board, Maori aren’t being served.
“Would a rational and skilled [Maori Television] board re-attempt to appoint Paora Maxwell after the staff revolt? Clearly the board didn’t consider rudimentary factors like workplace culture and staff satisfaction. Would a rational and skilled board sanction a $50,000 koha to a board member? That’s more than triple the median income for Maori. I’ll tell you what kind of board would – one that isn’t fit for the job.”
Godfery’s harsh judgement of the governance compromises agreed to by his parents’ generation in order to consolidate the gains made in the 1980s and 90s identifies the nature of the next big challenge facing Maori. Either the gains of renaissance and revolution will be captured by an increasingly authoritarian and self-protective Maori middle-class, or they will be extended to all Maori people – especially those young Maori trapped in the poverty-racked and crime-ridden ghettoes of New Zealand’s major cities.
The Kohanga Reo scandal (itself the result of young Maori journalists from Maori Television’s Native Affairs refusing to be intimidated by the trust board’s networks of patronage and protection) is, therefore, much more than an issue for Maori to sort out on their own.
The fruits of renaissance and revolution in Aotearoa-New Zealand cannot be secured for Maori in the face of Pakeha indifference.
This essay was originally published by The Press of Tuesday, 25 March 2014.