Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Is this the end of the Waitangi Day cringe?

(Published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, February 18.)

For many years I cringed, as I suspect many of my fellow New Zealanders did, at the approach of Waitangi Day.

Every year the politicians went to Waitangi to indulge in ritual acts of self-abasement and humiliation at the hands of Maori protesters while most of us tried to look the other way and pretend it wasn’t happening.

Over the past couple of years, however, the mood at Waitangi seems to have changed. This year, despite an isolated outburst of unpleasantness, we got a sense of what it might be: a day of celebration.

Maybe I’m being Pollyanna-ish, but there seems to have been a significant shift in the Maori mood. A lot of the heat has gone out of Treaty and race relations issues.

This view is reinforced by a Human Rights Commission report which showed that race relations, a pressing issue for New Zealanders in past years (it topped their list of concerns in 2002 and 2003), didn’t even make the top 10 last year. On the contrary, it topped the list of issues New Zealanders were most optimistic about.

Commentator Chris Trotter, who can make sense when he isn’t busy romanticising Marxism, recently put his finger on one possible explanation for this easing of racial tensions. He pointed out that iwi-based corporate entities, enriched by Treaty settlements, were now wielding real economic power.

Trotter’s theory is that the political Right – for which read the National government of the 1990s – saw the benefit to be gained by co-opting the Maori tribal elite as partners in capitalism. (It’s apparently inconceivable to him that the Bolger government might have been motivated by a sense of fairness and obligation.)

The flaw in his argument, as far as I can see, is that the economic benefits of the Treaty settlements have yet to trickle down to “ordinary” Maoridom. In fact the tribal elite fought tooth and nail in the courts to ensure that so-called “urban” Maori – those without strong tribal affiliations – remained dispossessed. That large body of urban Maori has no reason to feel part of any economic renaissance – not yet, anyway.

However, all Maoridom will have grasped that Maori now exert greater political power than at any previous time in living memory. For this they can thank the Maori Party, which by breaking Labour’s grip on the Maori vote gave Maori a truly effective voice in Parliament; and they can also thank John Key, who cleverly drew the party into his centre-right coalition government.

Maori now sense, after decades of being taken for granted by Labour, that they have a real opportunity to influence political decisions. I believe that has quelled a great deal of the anger that made previous Waitangi Days such a joyless ordeal.

But even setting that aside, we have plenty of reason to celebrate on February 6.

New Zealand has the rare distinction of having been colonised not by conquest, but by agreement with the occupiers. It had the good fortune to be settled by a colonial power that, by the standards of its time, was enlightened, humane and bent on dealing honourably with those who were here first.

Things would have turned out very differently had New Zealand been colonised by the French, the Portuguese or the Belgians.

Of course the good intentions of 1840 weren’t always fulfilled, which is why, for the past couple of decades, we have been working through a sometimes painful and expensive settlement process.

But Treaty grievances aside, we shouldn’t allow the toxic lies of revisionist, left-wing historians to blind us to the truth that there was, and remains, an enormous amount of goodwill and mutual respect between Maori and European.

Most Pakeha take pride in Maori culture. It has become part of their own heritage – witness the enthusiasm with which white New Zealanders take part in the haka.

There is a closeness between the two cultures that is not replicated in any other country I know of. We work together, we play sport together and we marry and have children together to the extent that Maori and Pakeha blood are inextricably intermingled. This is the common experience of all New Zealanders.

A few months ago I clipped from my local paper one of those “From the Archives” photographs showing the rugby team that won a local championship in 1953. There are three Maori faces in the side and they happen to include the captain and vice-captain.

This, in a predominantly white rural area during the conservative 50s. That says something powerful to me about the reality of relations between Maori and European.

But it goes further than that. Most New Zealanders are not aware that as long ago as 1894 a Maori politician, Sir James Carroll, was elected to represent a general (in other words, Pakeha) electorate in Parliament, a seat he held for 25 years; or that he was twice acting prime minister.

This historical fact doesn’t gel with the view propagated by the revisionists that New Zealand has always been a racist society that marginalised and oppressed Maori.

It’s worth noting that Australia didn’t get its first Aboriginal parliamentarian till 1971. Even then he wasn’t elected by popular vote (he was selected by the Liberal Party to fill a casual vacancy in the Senate), although he was subsequently returned to Parliament via the ballot box.

It wouldn’t surprise me if school pupils learn a lot more about Treaty abuses and the shame of Parihaka than they do about people like Carroll and other influential Maori politicians who enjoyed as much respect from Pakeha as they did among their own people.

They probably don’t learn that Parliament created Maori seats in 1867, to ensure Maori had a voice, or that Maori men were given universal suffrage 12 years ahead of Europeans.

Of course Parihaka and Treaty abuses are part of our history, and we have to face up to them. But there’s also a lot to be proud of in our race relations, and we shouldn’t focus on the bad to the exclusion of everything else.

Neither should we need to be reminded that there’s more to New Zealand than the relationship between Maori and Pakeha, and more to be proud of.

Waitangi Day should also be an occasion for celebrating the fact that we live in one of the world’s freest, most liberal societies – a country that honours human rights and the rule of law, that is almost entirely corruption-free, where people have the right to elect and sack their governments and speak their minds without fear of a visit from the secret police in the middle of the night.

Heck, even as I write this, I find myself almost looking forward to Waitangi Day 2010. Now that’s a new sensation.

1 comment:

Bearhunter said...

"Parliament created Maori seats in 1867, to ensure Maori had a voice"

I was under the impression that the seats were created to limit Maori participation in Parliament, along with the requirement that land ownership was necessary for a vote.