HOW QUICKLY THINGS CHANGE. Three years ago Chile was racked by massive protest demonstrations. Hundreds of thousands of mostly young, mostly poor, Chileans served notice on their government that the moment had arrived for their country to execute a decisive break with its recent past. Politically, economically, and culturally, they said, Chile was ready to ditch the debilitating legacy of General Augusto Pinochet’s 17-year-long dictatorship. Most particularly, “Pinochet’s Straightjacket” – the 1980 constitution he imposed upon Chile as the price it must pay for even a limited restoration of democracy – must go.
For a while, it looked as though the youth of Chile, the poor of Chile, the women of Chile, and the indigenous peoples of Chile, would get their wish. A Constitutional Convention was convened. Delegates were elected from every part of Chile who engaged in passionate debates over the nature and purpose of the new rights to be enshrined in their nation’s fundamental law. When they were finished, the delegates submitted what they proudly described as the world’s most progressive constitution to the Chilean people for ratification.
According to The Guardian: “The proposed constitution: included a long list of social rights and guarantees that had appeared to respond to the demands of [the vast social movement that had called it into existence]. It enshrined gender parity across government and other organs of the state – for the first time anywhere in the world – prioritised environmental protection and recognised Chile’s Indigenous peoples for the first time in the country’s history.”
The new constitution also enshrined the social and economic rights which Pinochet’s dictatorship had swept away in the coup d’état that toppled Salvador Allende’s socialist government in September 1973. The Convention’s delegates had attempted to forbid forever the neoliberal economic policies which Pinochet’s military government had road-tested for the free-market ideologues who would go on to guide Great Britain and the USA – and New Zealand – away from the social-democratic policies of the post-war years.
It was too much. Earlier this week, the Chilean people decisively voted down the new constitution which the Convention’s delegates had delivered to them. Like Allende’s Popular Unity Government before them, the delegates had pressed ahead with the radical vision of the future they were so certain would heal the harms of the past. Like the young socialists of 50 years ago, they would not be held back by the reservations of the conservative Chileans they derided as “Momios” (mummies of the Egyptian kind) and, once again, they have paid the price.
One of Allende’s advisers, Prof. Ariel Dorfman, looking back on those days, recalled:
It would take years to understand that what was so exhilarating to us was menacing to those who felt excluded from our vision of paradise. We evaporated them from meaning, we imagined them away in the future, we offered them no alternative but to join us in our pilgrimage or disappear forever, and that vision fuelled, I believe, the primal fear of the men and women who opposed us.
One of the most striking features of the controversial He Puapua Report is its authors’ assumption that constitutional changes every bit as radical and all-embracing as those just rejected in Chile can be introduced to New Zealand without a Constitutional Convention, and without being voted up, or down, in a binding referendum.
Undoubtedly, some of those who favour the dramatic changes proposed in He Puapua will look at what has just occurred in Chile and say: “See? That’s what happens when you give white supremacists the chance to strike down the just and necessary changes required to heal the harms of 200 years of colonisation!” The fate of the world’s most progressive constitution will be seen as vindication of the He Puapua authors’ horror of “the tyranny of the majority”.
But this would be an entirely mistaken conclusion for radical Māori nationalists to draw from the Chilean experience. The fundamental error of the Constitutional Convention was to allow the best to become the enemy of the good.
The harms of the past cannot be healed by legislating them out of existence from on high. Healing will only come kanohi ki te kanohi – face to face – through hard but honest conversations, over many frustrating years, until, unforced, and almost unaware, the overwhelming majority of Māori and Pakeha arrive at their long anticipated destination – together.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 9 September 2022.