NATIONAL’S PAUL GOLDSMITH has become the target of considerable criticism for his stance on the impact of colonisation on Maori. Most particularly, he has been attacked for expressing the view that “on balance” the legacy of colonisation must be adjudged positive. Goldsmith’s explicitly historical perspective is, necessarily, a broad one. Politically-speaking, however, his opinions are downright incendiary. If he didn’t anticipate the fierce reaction his words were bound to provoke, then much of the National Party’s tone-deafness on Maori-Pakeha relations is explained.
Certainly, it is hard to fathom how National could have been part of the general political discourse in Aotearoa-New Zealand without grasping the centrality of colonisation to the current debate about the future shape of this country’s institutions. How could the party have missed the way in which the colonisation of Aotearoa-New Zealand has come to play the same role here as slavery plays in the race-driven ideological conflicts currently convulsing the United States?
Is National genuinely unaware of just how many of the ills currently afflicting Maori are attributed to the impact of colonisation? Every set of negative statistics: from consistently low levels of educational attainment, to the grossly disproportionate number of Maori in Aotearoa-New Zealand’s prisons; the whole sad saga of a people’s on-going under-performance has been laid unhesitatingly – and with undeniable justification – at the door of colonisation. How can the country’s largest political party not know this?
Part of the answer, perhaps, lies in the common misconception that “colonisation” is a word to be conjugated exclusively in the past tense. That it relates only to long-dead statesmen wearing wing-collars and staring out at us stiffly from the black-and-white plates reproduced in history books. Something that happened long ago. Something done and dusted. Something about which it is possible (and permissible) for Opposition National MPs to offer considered historical judgements.
Well, it’s not – and it really is astonishing that Paul Goldsmith and his colleagues could possibly believe that it is. The clearing of Bastion Point didn’t happen in the Nineteenth Century, it happened just 43 years ago, in 1978. That’s well within the lifetime of the Baby Boomers – and even of some Generation Xers. Paul Goldsmith, for example, would have been a 7-year-old the last time a pugnacious National Party prime minister staged a full-scale demonstration of the political, legal and military power of the New Zealand colonial state – for the benefit of tangata whenua.
It was that same prime minister, Rob Muldoon, who, just three years later, communicated an equally unmistakeable message to his core supporters – i.e. that the rights of people of colour counted for much less than the rights of White Rugby supporters living in Aotearoa-New Zealand and Apartheid-era South Africa. Unsurprisingly, in the aftermath of the 1981 Springbok Tour, Maori asked their Pakeha friends and comrades to explain why they were willing to get their heads broken for the rights of indigenous Africans, but had yet to put their bodies on the line for the rights of indigenous New Zealanders?
Could it be, they wondered, that fighting for South African Blacks cost them nothing, except a few bruises and a few nights in jail (for which they could claim bragging rights for the next 40 years!) while fighting for the lost lands, language and dignity of the original Maori inhabitants of Aotearoa could end up costing them everything that 140 years of colonisation had bequeathed Pakeha?
That was a hard question – and only a few of the Springbok Tour protesters were willing to give Maori an honest answer.
Forty years later, exactly the same question is being put to all Pakeha – with even greater force. More importantly, it is not just Maori doing the asking. Two generations after the Tour, the same challenges that were once laid at the feet of a relatively small group of left-wing activists are being laid down for the whole nation of Aotearoa-New Zealand to pick up. The children and grandchildren of those Springbok Tour protesters are looking at their elders with a steadfast gaze. As if to say: “It’s time.”
And still, apparently, Paul Goldsmith and his National Party colleagues, do not get it.
Perhaps Abraham Lincoln, who ended slavery in North America, can help them. These words are from his second inaugural address, delivered on 4 March 1865:
Fondly do we hope ─ fervently do we pray ─ that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether’.
Paul Goldsmith appears to believe Maori are in some way indebted to Pakeha. In truth, it’s the other way ‘round.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 11 June 2021.