Pulling the plug on Tuhoe

Just what was going through John Key’s head when he pulled the plug on Tuhoe?

His government had spent 18 months negotiating a settlement which would have vested ownership of Urewera National Park with the tribe without any indication from his ministers this would not be possible. On the contrary it seems the paper going to cabinet last Monday would have rubber stamped an “agreement in principle” for this land to return to Tuhoe from whom it was seized.

To bail out just a few hours ahead of the cabinet meeting was a heartless display of power politics. It continues the long history of injustice suffered by Tuhoe at the hands of successive governments.

It seems National had gone as far from its comfort zone as its core supporters could stand. The redneck rumblings at a National Party regional conference appear to have been the trigger for Key to collapse the deal. Apparently National’s core support perceived there were too many concessions to Maori recently after the signing of the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Rights and the step towards tino rangatiratanga in welfare provision through the launch of the Whanau Ora initiative.

Key figured a third significant move within a month was a step too far for the nervous Remuera blue-rinse brigade. It seems there was a danger some might choke on their cucumber sandwiches at a bridge afternoon or even succumb to a fit of the vapours at the sight of a celebration involving Maori activist Tame Iti with his full-face tattoo.

I’ve never been a particular fan of the treaty negotiation process because the Maori structures created for the exercise mimic the European corporate world and many if not most Maori are disengaged from the process. However it’s the only avenue available for some redress and so one would expect the government to act in good faith. It hasn’t.

Chief Tuhoe negotiator Tamati Kruger summed it up politely saying “the announcement by the prime minister, I think, indicates a loss of courage and nerve by the Government with negotiations with Tuhoe.”

It’s interesting to speculate how different the decision would have been had the announcement on Whanau Ora been delayed till after cabinet decided the Tuhoe claim.

There are plenty of others who will quietly cheer the Prime Minister. New Zealand has never had a shortage of racial intolerance and bigotry which is one reason Maori players were so effortlessly excluded from All Black teams to South Africa from 1928 to 1970. The New Zealand Rugby Union and much of their support base thought more of the racist sensitivities of white South Africans than the rights of Maori New Zealanders to represent their country in our national team.

The apology from the rugby union when it finally came last week was issued via an overnight media release and was made only after serious prodding from South Africa’s Minister of Sport and Recreation Makenkesi Stofile a week earlier.

Stofile said the time was right for an apology from the South African and New Zealand rugby unions to black South Africans for their banning from Springbok teams and to Maori players for their exclusion from All Black teams to tour South Africa.

It’s 50 years since the last all-white All Black team toured South Africa so the apology was a long time coming.

The initial reason for the delay was the Maori Rugby Board saying they wanted to focus on the celebration of 100 years of Maori rugby and look to the future rather than the past. However it became clear later that they didn’t want to be seen to criticize those who made wrong decisions in the past. Rugby union CEO Steve Tew said those decisions wouldn’t be made today with the benefit of hindsight. This doesn’t stack up. The decision to ban George Nepia from the All Black tour to South Africa in 1928 was wrong then just as it would be now.

The apology was welcome but the circumstances in which it was given undermine the generousness which should have been its hallmark. The decision of the union to issue it via a midnight media release rather than “kanohi ki te kanohi” (face to face) as suggested by many within Maori rugby reflects the same prejudices as are evident in John Key’s decision to deny Tuhoe ownership of the land stolen from them.

In each case the rugby union and the government have allowed themselves to be hostages to bigotry rather than principled defenders of the rights of others.