I SURE HOPE Kelvin Davis wasn’t a history teacher before he became a principal and then Te Tai Tokerau’s MP. Why? Because his grasp of what happened in this country between the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi and today isn’t just wrong, it also has the potential to create great mischief.
The speech he delivered to the House of Representatives on Wednesday (11/5/22) is a particularly grim example of the Minister for Māori-Crown Relations historical ignorance. In it he appeared to equate the Opposition parties with the entire Pakeha population – past and present. This was more than just racially inflammatory, it represents a dangerous distortion of reality.
Addressing the Opposition Benches, Davis declared: “They conveniently overlook the fact that their wealth, their privilege and their authority was built off the backs of other people’s misery and entrenched inequality across generations.”
This is interesting. National’s leader, Christopher Luxon, was born in 1970, and the Act leader, David Seymour, in 1983. At the ages of 52 and 39 respectively, that doesn’t leave them many generations across which to have inflicted misery and entrenched inequality! He would have been on slightly firmer ground if he had been addressing his remarks to Labour’s Roger Douglas – whose policies did indeed inflict misery and inequality. Perhaps not across generations, but certainly since 1984. Except, of course, Labour MPs don’t like to draw attention to those policies – mostly on account of the fact that their party has done so little over nearly 40 years to reverse them.
Davis did considerably better, historically, when he described to the House the fate of his ancestors at the hands of Nineteenth Century colonial authorities. The gradual consolidation of the colonial state, its laws and regulations, effectively dispossessed Davis’s forebears, leaving them destitute and demoralised.
What Davis failed to mention, however, is that the Nineteenth Century dispossession of the Māori was Crown policy. More importantly, it was a process cheered to the echo by the overwhelming majority of the burgeoning Pakeha population. Rich and poor alike understood that their future prosperity was contingent upon the immiseration of the “native” population. Meaning that it wasn’t just the ancestors of the present Opposition MPs who built their wealth and privilege off the backs of his tupuna, but also the present crop of Pakeha Labour MPs seated alongside him.
While it is certainly understandable that Davis was not anxious to castigate every Pakeha member of the House of Representatives for the crimes committed against his people by their ancestors; crimes from which they continue, as a people, to draw enormous benefits; the direction of his prosecutorial rhetoric at National and Act MPs exclusively was historically indefensible and morally obnoxious.
If Davis is unaware that the single most devastating economic and social assault upon Māori of the last 50 years occurred on the Fourth Labour Government’s watch, then he has no business being an MP – let alone the Minister of Māori-Crown Relations. Certainly he cannot have forgotten that it was the Fifth Labour Government which oversaw the passage of the Seabed and Foreshore legislation. Or, that it was a Labour Prime Minister, Helen Clark, who described the leading opponents of that legislation as “haters and wreckers” – preferring to meet with an excessively woolly ram than with the tangata whenua her proposed law had so enraged.
Maybe the reckless willingness of the Sixth Labour Government to embrace the co-governance agenda of its Māori caucus is a delayed reaction to the actions of the Fourth and the Fifth. If so, then it is a very foolish reaction. Had Helen Clark and her Attorney-General not moved with speed to reverse the Court of Appeal’s overturning of what had been considered settled law, then Don Brash would, almost certainly, have won the 2005 General Election. Given that a National victory in 2005 would have meant the effective re-nullification of the Treaty and the abolition of the Māori Seats – thereby provoking civil war – Māori and Pakeha both owe her a tremendous debt of gratitude.
The depressing thing about the politics of the moment is the apparent historical amnesia of just about all its practitioners. The Settler Nation responsible for extinguishing the Treaty in the 1860s is simply not prepared to see it reinstated as New Zealand’s de facto constitution in the 2020s. The way Davis chose to deliver his thoughts to the House of Representatives: in the form of an attack on the Opposition; shows just how impossible it is to construct an argument about our history that does not inevitably boil down to the equivalent of Sir Michael Cullen’s memorable taunt: “We won. You lost. Eat that!”
The most frightening aspect of Davis’s performance is that it showed no signs that the Minister of Māori-Crown relations has the slightest idea of what will happen to that relationship if co-governance is forced upon an unwilling Pakeha nation.
Davis’s colleague, Willie Jackson, has labelled the Act leader a “useless Māori” and “a dangerous man”. But David Seymour is no more or less “useless” than those Māori iwi and hapu that saw which way the wind was blowing in the 1850s and 60s and ended up fighting alongside General Cameron’s imperial troops. As for being a dangerous man. Well, Jackson’s description can only be proven if Seymour and his party attract sufficient support to enforce the implementation of Act’s radical policies. He will be a dangerous man only because his fellow New Zealanders have made him one – by voting for him.
It’s not Seymour that poses a danger to you and your people, Willie, it’s democracy. But, then, you already knew that, didn’t you?
By the same token, it’s not the Opposition that has somehow cornered all the privilege, Kelvin, nor is it the exclusive property of the 63 percent of the New Zealand population known as Pakeha. These fair-skinned Polynesians are not – and never will be – “Europeans”. Just as contemporary Māori are not – and never will be again – the Māori who inhabited these islands before colonisation. Both peoples are the victims of historical forces too vast for blame, too permanent for guilt.
It is high time we stopped using History as a weapon, and started relying upon it as a guide.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 13 May 2022.