I’m a recovering Kim Hill listener. That is to say, I used to listen to her show regularly but haven’t done so for years (for reasons which I won’t bother elaborating on, but which many readers of this blog will understand and possibly sympathise with).
Last Saturday, however, I was heading to Wellington in the car and turned on the radio to hear the 9 o’clock news, and when Hill came back on the air and told us who her next guest was, I was curious enough to stay tuned.
Back in May, when her pending appointment as Governor-General was announced, I heard Dame Cindy Kiro being interviewed by Kathryn Ryan and was cautiously impressed. I wrote then that Kiro came across as intelligent, personable, thoughtful, warm, grounded and articulate.
I felt even more positive after hearing her on Hill’s show last Saturday and see no reason to revise any of those adjectives. In fact I can add a new one: humble. Kiro obviously didn’t get any head starts in life and wears her lofty status lightly and unpretentiously.
Now here’s the thing. At one stage Hill questioned her about the exquisite korowai (cloak) that she wore for her swearing-in ceremony. Kiro spoke reverently about its history and the honour of wearing it, but then segued very neatly to the vice-regal chain of office and other British traditions and symbols associated with the job of Governor-General.
Whether intentional or not (and I suspect it was), it was a useful reminder to Hill and her listeners that New Zealand’s British heritage is central to our constitutional arrangements - indeed, to the way our society is organised - and therefore equally worthy of being honoured. “All of these things have a history that connects us,” Kiro said.
She then went further. Talking about her whakapapa, she declared: “I’m proud to be Maori and I’m proud to be British. I’ve spent a lifetime occupying both spaces.”
This struck me as a quietly radical statement, given the febrile mood of the times and all the polarising rhetoric about the supposedly baneful effects of colonisation.
We’re accustomed to people of part-Maori ancestry reciting their tribal affiliations in detail but not mentioning the presumably inconvenient fact – often obvious from their surnames and facial features – that they also have European antecedents.
Kiro, on the other hand, not only acknowledges her British father, who came from a mining town in the north of England, but is unapologetically proud of that side of her lineage. In fact she made a point during the interview with Hill, who didn’t strike me as being terribly interested in exploring Kiro’s paternal ancestry, of stressing the traditions that connect us – not just Maori, but British too. “I’m comfortable in both worlds and that’s what I want for the country.”
Heading down the Remutaka Hill (now quite properly given its correct spelling after decades of bastardisation as “Rimutaka”), I gave a little whoop of approval. Kiro’s embrace of both sides of her heritage stands in stark, refreshing contrast to the ruling elite’s relentless emphasis on the things that supposedly divide us.
She could have gone a step further and said that the relationship between the two main races in New Zealand is possibly unique in the way that each has absorbed some of the best qualities of the other. We stand to lose something of inestimable value if this is undermined by the politics of division.
Kiro's reminder of our shared heritage couldn’t come at a more urgent moment, because race relations are currently under greater strain than at any time since the 19th century. The proponents of the poisonous ideology known as identity politics, who hold that Maori interests can never be compatible with those of Pakeha, are doing their best to drive a wedge between two races that have historically enjoyed a harmonious and respectful relationship that the rest of the world looks at with admiration and not a little envy.
The Covid-19 pandemic has come at an ideal point in history for these agitators. At a time when social anxiety is already stretched to breaking point, they have exacerbated the tension by promoting the inflammatory falsehood that Maori have been disadvantaged – the implication being through wilful discrimination – by the vaccination rollout.
In fact Maori, except for a very few in remote places, have had the same opportunities as everyone else to line up for their shots, and have been criticised by some of their own MPs for their reluctance to come forward.
Significantly, vaccination rates are lowest in areas with a high Maori population, such as Northland, Tairawhiti and Rotorua. While there are remote areas in some of those regions (the far North and the East Cape, for example) where a special effort is needed to reach everyone, in most locations it’s no more difficult for Maori to find a vaccination clinic than it is for the rest of the population.
In my own town of Masterton, whose population is 21 per cent Maori, the latest figures show that 61 per cent of local Pasifika people have had two jabs compared with only 44 per cent of Maori. The figures for first jabs are 79 percent for Pasifika and 64 percent for Maori. The question has to be asked: if Pasifika people can find their way to a clinic, why not Maori?
They can hardly claim ignorance of the risks from the pandemic. There can be no one alive and sentient in New Zealand who doesn’t know that Covid-19 has the potential to kill, or that vaccination greatly reduces the risk of illness and death.
Yet despite enormous outlays of public money and all manner of incentives – free food, entertainment, prizes and specially equipped buses with names created to appeal to the hard-to-reach (e.g. "Shot Bro") – the Maori vaccination rate remains stubbornly low. Even the Super Saturday Vaxathon, which was specially targeted at young Maori, produced an underwhelming result.
Maori activists (or more correctly, part-Maori activists who acknowledge only one part of their whakapapa – the part that gives them political leverage) continue to claim, contrary to all the evidence, that this is the result of a racist system that marginalises Maori. But it’s not unreasonable to ask whether, after decades of being told that their needs are different from the rest of the community, some Maori now have such a heightened sense of entitlement that they expect a mobile clinic to pull up at their front door.
The risk now is that the slow Maori uptake will delay the achievement of the government’s national vaccination target, and thus prolong the profound economic hardship and social disruption caused by lockdowns.
In that case, there’s potential for a backlash against Maori, which is in no one’s interests. Perhaps it was in recognition of this unpalatable prospect that the government a few days ago committed another $120 million of taxpayers’ money to boost Maori vaccination rates – a handout which in itself can only reinforce resentment that the rest of the country is having to pick up the tab for Maori who are not pulling their weight as part of Jacinda Ardern’s much-vaunted team of 5 million.
A backlash, of course, might be exactly what the promoters of identity politics want. Open hostility and competition between Maori and Pakeha would further their separatist agenda and place at risk New Zealand’s now-fragile status as a country of generally (some might say overwhelmingly) harmonious race relations.
Which brings me back to Cindy Kiro. The new Governor-General could do the country no greater favour than by using the influence of her office to refocus attention on the values and interests that all New Zealanders – Maori, Pakeha, Pasifika and the multiple other ethnic groups that have made their home here – have in common.