(First published in The Dominion Post, February 28.)
EVEN IN a supposedly liberal democracy, there’s a price to be paid for speaking your mind. Broadcaster and columnist Paul Holmes demonstrated that when he was subjected to a barrage of vitriol for expressing his disgust over the latest unpleasantness on Waitangi Day.
Writing in his New Zealand Herald column, Holmes described Waitangi Day protests as repugnant and said he dreaded the inevitable TV coverage of “irrational Maori ghastliness with spitting, smugness, self-righteousness and the usual neurotic Maori politics, in which some bizarre new wrong we’ve never thought about will be lying on the table”.
Hone Harawira, Maori academic Rawiri Taonui and former broadcaster Brian Edwards were among the many who went on the attack. Holmes was even the subject of a savage editorial in the Herald on Sunday, sister paper of the one he writes for.
Edwards described Holmes’ column as a racist diatribe and suggested he must have been drunk to write what he did. The implication here is that when someone as intelligent as Holmes expresses an opinion that doesn’t conform to Edwards’ own world view, the only possible explanation is that he must have been intoxicated. If Edwards was serious, this elevates intellectual conceit to a new level.
The fury unleashed at Holmes exemplified a now-familiar technique in what passes for public debate in New Zealand. When someone in a position of prominence makes a statement that’s deemed politically threatening, the response is to subject the offender to such overwhelming vilification that anyone tempted to speak out in agreement will be intimidated into silence.
It’s a crude and brutal tactic, but very effective. The message couldn’t be clearer: raise your head above the parapet and the guardians of political orthodoxy will blow it off. We last saw it with the hapless Auckland employers’ chief Alasdair Thompson, whose unguarded, off-the-cuff remark about women’s sick leave saw him carted off to the guillotine to the gratification of a howling mob.
But here’s the thing: Holmes’ column attracted 390 online responses that were overwhelmingly supportive.
The kneejerk reaction, of course, is to dismiss all those who agree with Holmes as racists who want to keep Maori subjugated. But no one in their right mind wants to see Maori fail; every New Zealander has a vital stake in Maori succeeding, not only economically but educationally and socially. Everyone benefits from a Maori population that is employed, healthy and fulfilling its considerable potential.
The real debate is about how to achieve that, and in writing his column, Holmes gave voice to a large swathe of New Zealanders who are increasingly exasperated: exasperated that the more Maori demands are met, the more strident and divisive they become; and exasperated that despite decades of Treaty settlements and power-sharing arrangements, Maori social problems such as welfare dependency, crime, poor health and child abuse – which are a shocking blight on us all – seem if anything to be growing worse. Inevitably people start to wonder whether Treaty settlements and other provisions for empowering Maori simply end up enhancing the influence, wealth and status of a tribal elite.
While corporate Maori interests exert pressure on a compliant government to give them preferential treatment in the partial sale of state assets, Maori children continue to suffer from rheumatic fever, endure sometimes fatal abuse from their whanau and go to school without shoes or lunches. I’m reminded of rich Arab oil states that moralise indignantly about the plight of Palestinian refugees yet seem extraordinarily reluctant to part with any of their wealth so that their fellow Arabs in the refugee camps might have a better future.
I believe most Pakeha New Zealanders are anxious to do the right thing. They have been willing to be persuaded – albeit with some scepticism at times – that historical wrongs must be righted by settling Treaty claims and, more recently, by discarding democratic principles through the creation of non-elected and largely non-accountable Maori bodies that wield significant political and economic power.
But an environment has now been created in which each settlement becomes a platform for others. Far from satisfying Maori demands, each payout seems to reinforce the sense of entitlement. So we now have perversions such as special Maori seats on local authorities, even in areas where Maori represent only a small proportion of the population, and demands for $295 million in ratepayers’ money to be spent by a non-elected board on Auckland Maori.
Captain Hobson famously said at Waitangi: “Now we are one people”. Paradoxically, we are now accelerating headlong into a future where New Zealand is at risk of becoming two countries, to the detriment of Maori and Pakeha alike.
If Holmes’ column lifted the veil of polite silence on these issues (and obviously it did, or I wouldn’t be writing about it), then he did us all a favour. It’s a vital debate and it must not be stifled.