Waitangi 2006 – looking for maturity in the debate on race

Growing up in Dunedin in the 1960’s was a monocultural experience.   Maori were remote from everyday life and all but invisible in the real world.   I recall only one Maori student in any of my primary school classes.   Instead they were in the social studies book.   I remember line drawings of a Maori man digging a garden with a traditional digging tool and a Maori Pa complete with palisades.

Moving to Napier as a teenager was a shock in many ways and none greater than the large number of Maori students at school and in the city at large.   Maori were real people finally who lived in the present world rather than the past.

On TV the Howard Morrison look-alike, smiling bulldozer driver from the Wrigley’s chewing gum advertisement seemed to be the archetypal representative of Maoridom to me and probably to most of the European population at the time.

The stereotype Maori was good at manual work such as driving trucks, digging ditches and mending roads; not good with their brains; lazy; ate a lot; good guitar players and singers but perhaps most arrogant of all was the assumption that they were happy in their subservient role.  

This was a time when New Zealand was proud of its race relations – or rather pakeha New Zealanders were proud of our race relations.   Nga Tamatoa and the Polynesian Panthers were slowly emerging from the wings but Pakeha New Zealand was blissfully cocooned in what we saw as our multicultural paradise.   So confident were we in our race relations that we were quick to make comparisons with South Africa or the Southern US States where race riots appeared regularly on our black and white TV screens.

And so the Maori nationalist movement as it emerged in the 1970’s was a very uncomfortable challenge to Pakeha and remains so today.   

Suffice to say New Zealand was never a multicultural paradise and the Pakeha middle class in particular – of which I am a card-carrying member – have been quick to take the opportunity to repeatedly prove this on issues such as the foreshore and seabed.   

To move on from where we are will take a much more mature public debate. 

Waitangi is often the focus for New Zealanders asking unhelpful questions on race. “Why are Maori so much worse off than Pakeha New Zealanders?” is not as useful as it sounds.   The answer is largely because Maori are disproportionately represented in lower income communities.   Two critically important questions then emerge –  “Why are Maori disproportionately represented in low income communities?” and “Why is it that we have whole communities of people in New Zealand (Maori, Pakeha, Pacific Island and Asian etc) living below the poverty line?”

These are the hard questions with uncomfortable answers.

But it’s not just pakeha who must shift their thinking but Maori as well.   The last year has seen the emergence of the Maori Party and while this has been a good vehicle to spur the debate around issues directly affecting Maori there has been a distinct shallowness in the thinking of the party’s leadership.

At one level the party was set up to punish Labour over the government’s decision to unilaterally remove the Maori right to argue their foreshore and seabed case in the Maori Land Court.   

Fair enough but this is no end in itself.   Two incidents from last year stand out as particularly galling.  

Firstly the refusal of the Maori Party leaders to condemn the human rights violations perpetrated by Mugabe in Zimbabwe against the Zimbabwean people.   Instead Pita Sharples claimed not to have enough information and wanted to be consistent in responding to foreign affairs issues.   One was left with the distinct feeling that the refusal to criticise reflected more the fact that Mugabe was black and being condemned by the white western world and the Maori Party therefore did not want to join the “white” side in the argument.

Secondly the public support for Donna Awatere-Huata after her conviction for fraud perpetrated against Maori youngsters.   This was a knee-jerk reaction to support a fellow Maori – because she was Maori – irrespective of what she had done.   Race was seen as the critical issue.   But it’s not and never was.

Donna Awatere-Huata is surely the Imelda Marcos of New Zealand politics.  She shares the same colour skin and cultural background as young Maori growing up in our poor communities but that’s where the comparison ends.

Our racial landscape has changed since the 1960’s but assumptions and stereotypical race based ideas on both sides are still crippling the debate.