“INSULATION from the ravages of extreme opinion has been achieved. The settlements have become mainstream.” The words are those of former Labour Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer. The “settlements” he refers to are the Treaty settlements negotiated between the Crown and Iwi.
It is to Iwi, New Zealand’s officially recognised tribal entities, that the responsibility for reinvigorating Māori society has been entrusted. Palmer’s confidence that the process has been walled-off from the “ravages” of democratic interference is important. The critical political choice made by leading Pakeha politicians, jurists and bureaucrats in the 1980s and 90s was to halt the momentum of left-wing Māori nationalism from below, by inserting a layer of elite Māori business-people between the Crown and the economically and culturally impoverished Māori working-class.
Only by fostering the rapid growth of a Māori middle-class could the Pakeha state avoid being compelled to negotiate with social, cultural and political forces with precious little to lose. Forces, moreover, whose lack of a meaningful stake in the capitalist system might encourage their leaders to contemplate sponsoring an entirely different set of economic arrangements.
Fostering a Māori middle-class would not only create social, economic, cultural and political forces with a great deal to lose, but, by frustrating kotahitanga – unity – it would protect the Pakeha state from a popular movement it could not defeat – except by the application of overwhelming military force.
Forty years ago, the vital moral truth that Geoffrey Palmer and, following him, Jim Bolger and Doug Graham, grasped was that a New Zealand state strong enough to, once again, frustrate Māori aspirations by force, would not be worth living in.
That historical choice: to forswear force; made by the more enlightened leaders of Pakeha society back in the 1980s and 90s, was crucial. The settlement process – led and controlled by the Crown – would empower and enrich only a fraction of Maoridom. But, this small, highly privileged group would, in their turn, guarantee the integrity of the core institutions of the New Zealand state.
The Iwi institutions constructed out of the capital transfers at the heart of the Treaty settlement process were modelled on the corporate structures of the Pakeha economy. The name given to this phenomenon by Professor Elizabeth Rata is “Neo-Tribal Capitalism”. Like the Pakeha system which inspired it, iwi-based capitalism elevates a very small minority to great wealth and power, while consigning the majority of Māori to a life of exploitation, deprivation and desperation.
Like capitalism everywhere, it isn’t fair – but it works.
Ironically, the man who came closest to destroying this mutually beneficial system, in which the elites of both ethnic communities gave away a little to get a lot, was one of New Zealand capitalism’s staunchest defenders, Don Brash. Perhaps he intuited that, having indicated their unwillingness to contemplate the force majeure deployed at Bastion Point, the Pakeha elites would inevitably find themselves prevailed upon to transfer more and more power and resources to the iwi-based corporations and the Māori middle-class which serviced them. Perhaps he simply refused to contemplate the evolution of a “bi-cultural” state. Whatever the explanation, Brash’s controversial Iwi/Kiwi election campaign of 2005 brought him within a whisker of discovering exactly how much force it would take to trash the principles of the Treaty and restore the colonial state to its former glory.
Brash’s successor, John Key, moved decisively to restore the relationship between the Pakeha and Māori elites. His reaching out to the Māori Party, and the latter’s positive response, confirmed beyond dispute the truth of Geoffrey Palmer’s assertion that the settlement process had moved beyond the sanction of “extreme opinion” and become part of the mainstream.
Over the course of Key’s nine-year (nearly) reign, the rapidly expanding Māori middle-class grew progressively more nationalistic. That they would promote their language and culture with ever-increasing fervour was entirely predictable. Historically, it has been the practice of all colonised peoples to not only claim full equality with their former masters’, but also to elevate the achievements of their own culture well above those of their brutal conquerors. The strong symbiotic relationship in which erstwhile oppressors and oppressed typically become enmeshed is simply edited out of the ethno-nationalist discourse.
The New Zealand state thus finds itself in a position roughly analogous to that of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the turn of the nineteenth century. The dominant group is no longer confident of exerting its formal (but waning) imperial authority without causing the entire ramshackle edifice to disintegrate. So strident and uncompromising have the nationalist claims of its subject peoples become that meeting them would instantly dissolve the constitutional glue holding the state together. To resist their claims means war. Ultimately, there is no winning move – except surrender.
Certainly, it is difficult to read in John Key’s decision to sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and Jacinda Ardern’s decision to allow Nanaia Mahuta to commission a report on its implementation, as anything other than a capitulation to the political logic of Māori nationalism.
He Puapua is an imaginative and honest presentation of the steps necessary to establish a te Tiriti-based constitution based on the principle of co-governance. The fact that its recommendations, which included the elimination of majority rule, failed to elicit any significant protest from Ardern and her cabinet colleagues, indicates just how completely Labour has been persuaded that the future of Aotearoa will be driven by Māori.
The Māori nationalists ideological victory will not, however, be costless. Just as the leaders of Pakeha New Zealand were required to make a choice about the use of force, so, too, will the new rulers of Aotearoa.
It is difficult to see how a system of government permitting 15 percent of the population to determine the fate of the remaining 85 percent can end anything other than badly. Pretty early on in the piece, the Māori nationalists, like the Pakeha liberals of the 1980s and 90s, will also be forced to choose:
Do we preserve our ideological victory and defend our hard won political supremacy by force – or not?
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 18 January 2022.