Speaker by Various Artists

On Treaty and Race

by Jon Johansson

“Playing the race card may help us win – then come Monday how do we run the country?” - Jim Bolger (1990)


In a few days New Zealanders will go to the polls with our eclectic mix of motivations. Some of us will vote according to the party we identify most strongly with, or against, some of us will vote in self-interest, some will vote with their hearts, some will choose in anger, some in impatience, and others with ambivalence, perhaps even profoundly so given the nature of this desperate campaign.

In other words Kiwis, for a whole host of reasons, will tick some box or another. It’s a great day and one we should all rejoice in, enjoy, and certainly have a few, and then a few more, because it reminds us of our freedom to choose, and it reminds us that for one day at least we are truly in charge, we the people are sovereign.

Of the many policies and issues raised in this campaign there is only one that has any significant long-term consequences for the direction we take as a nation, and that is treaty and race policy. I have argued, since the very first day of this campaign, that National’s treaty and race policy is a radical departure from the generally progressive direction that race relations has travelled during the past twenty years. We are facing a crucial forking point.

National’s commitment to remove the Maori seats with white votes is only one aspect of its policy that could herald in a reaction from Maori that tears at the very fabric of our social cohesiveness. A colleague of mine calls it ‘path dependency’. That is, when one reaches a forking point and decides to embark on a new path, try as one might, one can never return to the original point of intersection again if things turn pear-shaped because the new landscape is forever changed. There’s no going back.

And that has been my primary concern throughout this campaign. What is the impact on the social cohesion of our country if National’s policy is fully implemented? Dr Brash has never addressed this crucial question other than to say that some Maori have e-mailed him with their support. That, from a potential Prime Minister, is simply not good enough. If National’s wider policy is implemented, might not some moderate Maori be radicalised? What about the radical element that already exists? How might they react? We must know the answers to these questions otherwise we are taking a giant leap into the unknown with no ability to return to a path that is, if not perfect, at least one underpinned by a basic decency.

Another curious response from National was its admission that it had simply never thought about the economic consequences of its policy to dismantle the entire political and institutional framework for Maori. Brand New Zealand – our international image as a ‘clean and green,’ beautiful country – will surely be damaged if greater civil unrest, damning UN reports and wider scrutiny of our race relations from the international community becomes part of our new national narrative.

And given the fact that tourism now matches primary production as a significant driver of our economy, what impact would deteriorating race relations have on tourists’ decisions to travel down here? Especially when the choices are manifold. We might still be green, but how clean, how beautiful?

If there is a pernicious element to the policy it must surely be to expunge from our minds (and our children’s) any notion of partnership between our first people and the rest of us. If one party enters an agreement with another to start something new, whatever the motivations, we all have the common sense to see that this is a partnership. Our treaty is no different and if we still have much work to do, much of the work has already been done.

This campaign has reinforced to me that the real problem with race discourse is at the elite level, not below. Those who call themselves leaders can, still, easily exploit the public's frustration and impatience with some of the more exotic or maladaptive aspects of the Maori renaissance. I suspect, however, that after the last twenty months of inflamed rhetoric on race Maori have got the point. The vast majority of us, including Maori themselves, want to move forward. But we need to be patient, not in a paternalistic sense, but a patience born of mutual respect.

One of the great glues underpinning our race relations is that ever since colonisation we have fancied each other and we are so much the richer for a mutual attraction that has transcended politics. Second, the finest strands of our national character, features of ourselves that the late Michael King saw as the basis for his optimism about our future together – our good-heartedness, our commonsensical approach, and our tolerance – should serve us well as we make our way together, alongside the many other vibrant cultures that enrich our land and our culture.

So, come September 17, whatever your impulse is when you’re deciding your choice, don’t let impatience cloud your choice. Voting with the hope that your children will have a less complicated, less uncertain future will prove more satisfying than voting with either your frustration or your fears.