Island Life by David Slack

But They Did Get The Name Right

Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a good book a few years ago - Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Although it was a big success, it would be an exaggeration to say it was universally well-received. She tells a nice story on her website about some of the flak she encountered. You can read all about what she calls her Carolina controversy here. The part I quite like as far as my present purpose is concerned is this:

On July 10, [a group of students and right-wing legislators held a press conference] to denounce Nickel and Dimed as a "classic Marxist rant" and a work of "intellectual pornography with no redeeming characteristics." Fine, at least I could cling to the adjectives "classic" and "intellectual."

If I were to borrow the technique she suggests for paraphrasing reviews, I'd be able to tell you, chest swelling with pride, that Mr Chris Trotter says of my book that "Slack is to be congratulated" and Philip Temple has declared that "Dr Brash and his supporters are confused but when they have read this guide they will be better equipped to take part in the treaty debate."

If you click here and here to read their respective reviews, you'll quickly see that this would not be an accurate assessment of their position. They'd be quite justified in protesting that it wasn't what they were saying. Putting the old size tens on the other foot for a moment, then, I'll say this by way of response to the reviews: Actually, that's really not what I was saying.

Before we get to the weightier issues, let's look at the pictures, because both Temple and Trotter mention the photo of Don Brash which graces the cover.

Authors, so far as I've noticed, don't often offer you a lot of insight into the design aspect of their books, so let me take you inside the building at Penguin to tell you how the cover of Bullshit Backlash and Bleeding Hearts was conceived. (Actually by doing this I'm repeating one of the sins of hauteur that Trotter upbraids me for: dwelling on the insider's point of view. If you find this condescending, by all means skip ahead and rejoin us a few paragraphs on).

If you turn to the back cover of your copy, you'll see that it was designed by the estimable Jenny Nicholls, who is the Art Director for Metro. We spent half an hour or so one morning talking about the way you might present a book with the working title of The Confused Person's Guide To The Great Race Row. The book was intended to be a topical, accessible read for people who weren't necessarily sure what to make of the whole debate, and who might appreciate knowing some more about the background to it.

We all agreed that there could be at least 1001 ways to turn people off with a topic like this: too boring, too preachy, too inaccessible, too worthy, too confusing, too much of something you've already heard too much about. The cover alone stood to have that effect, before they even got to the content.

We talked about all kinds of images you might put on the cover - something symbolic? Something abstract? Something humorous? Jenny was quite sure it should be topical, and we agreed she was right. The whole reason we were talking about this book was because the response to Don Brash's Orewa speech had been enormous. It seemed only logical that his image should be there. Thus: a book about this almighty debate for people who are confused by it, and a picture on the cover of the man at the centre of the row.

Philip Temple saw it a little differently:

Slack's own case is clear from the outset. His sub-title, "A confused person's guide to The Great Race Row", lies beside a picture of Don Brash. Ergo, Dr Brash and his supporters are confused but when they have read this guide they will be better equipped to take part in the treaty debate.

There's no question that the book takes Dr Brash to task for many of the arguments he makes, but the notion that he actually represented the eponymous Confused Person is, I must report, entirely fallacious.

The more substantive question, of course, is the implied condescension that Temple sees in this. Trotter seems to share that opinion, and takes it a little further.

The reader is assumed to be unsure of the issues, uncertain of the history, unfamiliar with the arguments - and in urgent need of a "guide" to "the Great Race Row". No worries, Slack is here to share with us the insights of the insiders.

As he puts it: "Although I'm no expert, I'm familiar with, if you like, the scene of the crime. I've worked with a number of the people who have had important roles in the story. You'll hear from them - as well as a number of other authorities and important players - throughout this book. My role here really is to be your guide, and ask the questions on your behalf."

And there you have it, the problem at the heart of the furore over race relations in New Zealand: "authorities" and "important players". Until very recently, the entire race debate has been dominated by a cosy circle of bureaucratic, academic, ethnic and political elites. Having arrived at a consensus regarding the Treaty of Waitangi and its role in New Zealand society, these elites were - prior to Brash's Orewa speech - all but unchallengeable by persons or groups operating outside their hallowed precincts. Slack's book is little more than a description of, and justification for, elite consensus formation - a process that he, as a former prime-ministerial speechwriter, had a hand in fashioning. As such, it offers nothing to the reader in search of a broader, more open-ended discussion of New Zealand race relations.

I don't think so. Let's take a look at this. Forgive me if I'm being unduly sensitive, but I sense some sarcasm in this: The reader is assumed to be unsure of the issues, uncertain of the history, unfamiliar with the arguments - and in urgent need of a "guide" to "the Great Race Row". Well pardon me for misunderstanding what people were telling me as I wrote the book (and continue to tell me since it was published). Many of them professed to feeling confused, and many of them told me they appreciated having an accessible book to put a somewhat bewildering argument into some kind of perspective.

I do regret that I didn't leave in a passage about the way governments had developed Treaty policies without necessarily going to any great length to explain or justify what they were doing. Leave people out of the loop, I wrote, and you create a kind of political bungy cord that will only stretch so far before it snaps back. It's a theme I've repeated often enough in interviews about the book, and with a little more time, I would probably have found a place for it, but it didn't fit well in the narrative of the chapter I initially wrote it for, and then the deadline came rushing up.

But would Trotter or Temple necessarily lament its omission? Perhaps not, given that they seem to see it as condescending to suggest that because people are not well-informed about an issue, the quality of the debate may be compromised. Or as I wrote in the introduction: You can't argue productively about something if you're not clear what it is you're arguing about.

I think there's no question that policymakers let the process move forward without necessarily taking people with them. Trotter implies as much in complaining about the debate's capture by a cosy circle of bureaucratic, academic, ethnic and political elites and their unchallengeable consensus.

I also think it's fair to argue that a great many of us came through our education with little knowledge of the history that has since been told at all those Waitangi Tribunal hearings.

But Trotter and Temple seem to think it's condescending to say so. I can't agree. You know a fact or you don't. The value judgement is theirs.

They also seem to think that in making this suggestion I'm implying that people will see the light and the true way if they acquaint themselves with the facts. Well, actually no, that's not what I'm saying. Again: You can't argue productively about something if you're not clear what it is you're arguing about. I'm just arguing, as I have been since I wrote the blog and put up the quiz, for the debate to be conducted on the basis of actual facts and not unsubstantiated assertions.

I'm talking about fundamental bedrock facts - the basic ones that explore what position Maori were in and how they were living at the time of the Treaty; the way in which the deal was struck and then welshed on; and contemporary facts such as: just how much money is allocated preferentially to Maori? What specifically, are the preferential democratic rights that are accorded to Maori?

Perhaps I just don't mix with the right crowd, but I seem to have encountered a great many people who aren't too sure about a lot of these things. Of course Chris Trotter and Philip Temple will be acquainted, as I am, with people who are, indeed, very knowledgeable about it, and who have come to conclusions quite at variance with the ones on offer in my the book.

There is undeniably more than one way to look at this. But I don't think my book is such a triumph of polemic that it would be impossible to read it, become better informed about the issues, and yet still come to conclusions at variance with the ones I suggest.

When Temple frames my argument as: Dr Brash and his supporters are confused but when they have read this guide they will be better equipped to take part in the treaty debate, he misrepresents it. I say that I've encountered people who support Brash's stand (or what they perceive it to be) who argue in his favour on the basis of assertions which they can't substantiate. Such people, I argue could benefit from acquainting themselves with some solid facts and history. But "some" as they'll teach you in primary school maths, is not equivalent to "all". I freely acknowledge that there are, among Brash's supporters, people who have reached their opinions on the basis of considered and thoughtful assessment of the arguments, but I challenge anyone to demonstrate that the converse of that proposition is not also true.

Condescension, though, is just one of the book's flaws, it seems. I also commit the intellectually indefensible sin of failing to talk to the right people. Trotter claims I effectively exclude dissenting voices. It's as if someone writing a book about the Iraq war confined their questioning to Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Perle, he protests.

And the basis for this proposition? He has carefully counted up the words in every indented quotation and divided these voices into three groups (and here I'm playing fast and loose with his words, but I think the interpretation is sustainable): acceptable, tolerable and hard to stomach.

The results, he says, speak for themselves. But just in case they don't, he takes the rest of a page of the Listener to do it for them, pronouncing BB&BH to suffer from an extraordinary lack of balance: far too much space for the hard-to-stomach views and bugger-all of his favourites. Nowhere, he complains, do I interview, or quote extensively from the writings of such scholarly Treaty critics as Jock Brookfield, Andrew Sharpe. He finds to his horror that Stephen Franks gets 267 words and Don Brash just 475.

Well, let's start with Dr Brash, shall we? I recommend a rather less myopic appraisal of the text. Let's take Chapter One, where I summarise the objections marshalled by Brash in his Orewa speech. We then proceed to a history lesson over the following nine chapters and then all but three of the remaining eight chapters are given over to a checking off, one chapter at a time, of each of those objections raised by Brash. I believe this is known as analysis. He may characterise this as little more than a description of, and justification for, elite consensus formation, but to reach that impression, I'd argue that an attentive reader would have to close their eyes at pretty regular intervals to avoid all encounters with contending points of view.

Trotter pronounces the book to be inexcusably lacking in even-handedness, but if a book which succinctly marshals the criticisms propounded by the year's most celebrated and visible critic of Treaty policies and then adduces - issue by issue - responses to those points is lacking in balance, well, you know, mea culpa and all that.

Trotter complains that I don't interview, or quote extensively from his prescribed list of academics. I think we need to consider the nature of the publication to get a better perspective on this. In the publishing vernacular your Confused Person's or Dummy's guide signifies a particular style - in my experience: an accessible, easily-digested primer. To be sure, I wasn't adhering strictly to that design, but the meaning, I'd have thought, was clear enough: the approach of the book would be to offer readers a way in to a subject that may have hitherto seemed too dull, too daunting, too forbidding or in some other way, not worth the bother. See the book in those terms and I think you have to accept that an extended intellectual discourse was not likely to have been a productive approach to take. There is, as even the bibliography of my own publication indicates, no shortage of writing of that character already available.

In terms of priorities for the book, they were: firstly to get the history set out and secondly to explore the Brash arguments. The third priority would be to explore the interpretations, analysis and opinions that have swirled around the topic. Accommodating the first two in an accessible 60,000-word book is challenge enough, but making room for the third is the point at which you really start to debate just how much ground can be realistically covered.

Given that much of the trouble has arisen because a cosy elite has, according to Trotter, foist these policies upon us and brooked no challenge, would it not be a good idea to devote a reasonable amount of space to ask those people to account for themselves? You will also, as it happens, find mention of dissenting voices and contending arguments, but, no, I didn't give over page upon page to them, and I don't believe it would have been wise to try.

I must confess, though, I'm having a little difficulty squaring Trotter's argument here with the one he makes elsewhere that it's okay for people to support the Brash objections to the whole Treaty process without being able to substantiate their reason for taking such a position. If I recall correctly, he's argued that it's sufficient for people to feel intuitively that something is wrong without being able to explain why. As a foundation for constructive debates goes, that approach seems to me far more likely to incite the kind of civil war he has been brooding darkly about than any stylish apologia for the government's Treaty policies.

Let's move on to the substantive issues of the debate itself, which Trotter eschews, but Temple is willing to raise. He writes:

The underlying presumption is that the Government has it more or less right and the rest don't have much to offer. Slack seems unaware that he is part of a long political tradition in New Zealand of missionaries who have always been certain how the settlers should behave towards Maori.

Depends how you interpret it, I guess. What one historian sees as certitude, another speechwriter regards as merely strong phrasing. I wouldn't say this text was particularly prescriptive. You review the history, you explore the arguments for and against the policies that have developed, you come to some conclusions. For the record, I don't regard the conclusions this book offers as the last word on the subject, but I see little wrong in arguing, as I do, for reasoned and inclusive solutions to problems that might otherwise become intractable if we should see more of the intolerance that Brash's speeches have, wittingly or not, encouraged.

Temple also takes issue with a number of matters left unaddressed in the book.

Slack produces figures that show Maori households receive $2.3 billion in benefits and welfare payments, but the Maori economy pays out more than that in tax: $2.4 billion. A confused Don Brash supporter might ask: "So who pays for all the other services Maori enjoy?"

Fair enough. The implicit point, I'd argue, is that the turning tide of Maori economic performance has thus far yielded an encouraging outcome. There is every reason to suppose that the growing participation of Maori in tertiary training and new economic activities the chapter describes will yield further improvements and meet yet more of those costs.

He notes that I fail to observe that:

The treaty has come to be seen by many as a one-way street, a document that enables Maori to claim and receive apologies and compensation from a largely Pakeha Government without reciprocation, let alone thanks.

Since the expansion of the Waitangi Tribunal's brief 20 years ago, there has been a claim and settlement process which inevitably casts the ancestors of today's Pakeha as villains and of Maori as victims.

It does not matter whether the claims are justified - as most of them are. Pakeha are required to carry a moral burden. The moral climate for Pakeha is worsened by some Maori leaders saying they do not belong here, their culture is elsewhere and describing up to eighth-generation non-Maori as settlers or strangers.

Slack quotes a treaty expert, lawyer Alex Frame, as saying that "co-operation" should be the buzzword to replace "partnership". Good idea: but co-operation involves two parties. If Maori want continuing support and sympathy for their needs and aspirations, they need to bring Pakeha into the waka by acknowledging they are not settlers or strangers anymore but, vide Michael King, indigenous people, too.

I'm not saying that bringing Pakeha into the waka is not desirable. On the contrary, I'd have thought it was implicit in precisely those passages on cooperation, and that the casting of a moral burden of the kind he describes cannot surely endure in a functional cooperative relationship.

But I wonder if he doesn't assume his own prescriptive missionary position in making so much of an obligation on the part of Maori to express their gratitude. Has such gratitude been entirely absent so far? If so, what should we make of the manner in which Ngati Whatua received and gifted back property to the city which had taken so much from them? Moreover, just how many are behaving in this unacceptable way? Are they numerous or would they be better characterised as the squeaky wheel the media will always go running to film?

The implication that the text somehow sanctifies Maori is, I would suggest at odds with the inclusion of remarks by Cullen and Tamihere about rorts. There are Maori, they point out, who have been at fault also and have done the process no favours.

Temple then asks if I've really addressed the questions that matter.

Dame Anne Salmond is quoted as saying: "This idea of pure culture is mythological, and possibly quite dangerous. Like pure race, pure culture - this idea that you have a pure essence which remains intact over time and has to be protected at all costs. Well, we know what happened in the history of Europe with that kind of idea."

While stating that the Crown must honour the promises in the treaty, she also says that "it allows for whakapapa to join. People get married and end up with a foot in both camps - that should be a basis on which we go forward together, rather than seeing the treaty as an instrument which cuts us in half as a nation".

Slack spends no time at all on Article 3 of the treaty. He examines Articles 1 and 2 at length but he sees Article 3 as simply giving Maori the rights and privileges of British (New Zealand) citizenship. End of story.

In fact, as Anne Salmond's words suggest, it is the beginning of the story. If you sign up to being a citizen, you sign up to defending the rights and privileges of being a citizen. These are not created and handed down from on high. They are created and improved by all citizens working together, making a better future by the people for the people in the name of the people, not just for the benefit and improvement of one group.

In the treaty debate, Pakeha must acknowledge and right past wrongs. And also acknowledge how enormously vital Maori culture and vision are to New Zealand's future. On their part, Maori must acknowledge the Pakeha's place and the value of Pakeha culture and institutions. Then the co-operation that Alex Frame hopes for will be wholehearted.

In the context of the treaty, perhaps it is time to stop the endless wrangling over Articles 1 and 2 and employ Article 3 as the footprint to a future in which all our whakapapa will be joined.

This proposition that I examine Articles 1 and 2 at length but see Article 3 as simply giving Maori the rights and privileges of British (New Zealand) citizenship. End of story is simply not so. I didn't, for instance, include the reference to the Principle of Equality enunciated in the Principles for Crown Action just to pad out the page. Perhaps Temple sees less meaning than I do in the phrase on page 103: the third article made all New Zealand citizens equal before the law.

When he argues that on their part, Maori must acknowledge the Pakeha's place and the value of Pakeha culture and institutions. Then the co-operation that Alex Frame hopes for will be wholehearted, he gets no objection from me. I'd have thought that was implicit in the text, and I'd suggest there is no reason to suppose a fair person might not come to that conclusion after reading this book. Where does it argue that Maori are entitled to a free ride?

Temple enthusiastically adopts Anne Salmond's proposition that People get married and end up with a foot in both camps - that should be a basis on which we go forward together, rather than seeing the treaty as an instrument which cuts us in half as a nation.

He might, perhaps, have mentioned my response to that, namely that I thought the solution suggested by Professor Matthew Palmer might offer a workable link between our present position and the direction in which Anne Salmond and, one takes it, Temple would like to see us going. I don't disagree that a purist approach may ultimately become counterproductive and perhaps divisive, but I think it's premature to suggest we're already at that point.

I would argue that there are some initial steps that need to be taken to achieve broad acceptance and recognition of the historical issues which have brought us to the state we're in, and - equally importantly - a recognition of the nature and place of the indigenous culture.

We may be blending, but this is a process in transition. It's not realistic or viable, I would suggest, to cast cheerfully aside the processes that developed under the bicultural model. It's still too soon to be thinking about that. By all means, reappraise the model, but undermine the recovery of the indigenous culture, and the beneficial effect that it has having on the lives of so many young people, and you create a whole new bundle of problems.

Good legislation, I believe, can play an important part in developing - dare I say it - consensus on the many issues that will have to be tackled.

A historian may not necessarily welcome this suggestion. Anne Salmond gently chided me at the end of our interview for the unduly mechanistic and legalistic approach I and my fellow lawyers like to take to these issues. Perhaps Temple feels the same way. Nonetheless, I have faith in the capacity of the law to help us arbitrate our way through.

I like the Palmer solution because it proposes that rather than drafting laws with general references to treaty principles which you leave to the courts to interpret, you address the specific issues and give effect to relevant treaty principles with specific pragmatic arrangements, expressed clearly and specifically. You debate the issue there and then, and reach your agreement over power sharing and the role of the indigenous culture and the like. Thus we have our debates at a level of greater specificity and particularity. That in turn ensures that we have a better chance of getting our legislation right and acknowledging what the respective obligations are. It also has the value of expressing, at any given moment, our assessment of the contemporary role and nature of the indigenous culture - potentially avoiding some of the problems that might flow from taking a fixed, purist bicultural approach.

There is, admittedly, a lot to grapple with and this technique certainly isn't the only tool we'll require. In terms of method and attitude, though, I think it's a model from which we can take a great deal.

I'm wary of any approach that seems unduly eager to diminish the role of the indigenous culture, whether by interpreting a cross-pollination of cultures and genes as an indication that the issue is being blended away or by brandishing this one standard of citizenship for all slogan. I detect a sentiment in those approaches that seems to say: Can't we just forget about the faults and move on? I suspect we would all like to move on, but I really don't see us doing that successfully without adequately addressing outstanding issues. That job's not finished, in my opinion, and I say as much in the book's closing line: This is no time to quit.