Poll Dancer by Keith Ng

Some of my best friends are lawyers...

At the Auckland University symposium on Asians and the Treaty, it was noted that Asians have a great reverence for the written word, and therefore for laws and treaties.

I started out my presentation by saying that, well, I don't.

It sums up my beef about the current Treaty discourse - that a discussion about people has descended into a debate about law, that the creation of a nationhood has descended into the dissection of an old treaty.

It's not that laws are useless; they have their place, but their place is as a last resort, especially when it comes to human interaction. When one person calls upon the law in their interaction with another, that's generally a sign that all normal avenues - communication, persuasion, negotiation - have failed, and failed spectacularly.

When the lawyers arrive, it's already custard.

Law is coercion. It's a mechanism to wield the force of the state to make someone do something they don't want to (or the other way around). This holds true even for contracts willingly signed. If things go according to plan, then both parties want to be there, want to go through with it, and the powers of the contract never have to be invoked. It's when things go wrong - or if the original deal was bad - that the contract gets waved around.

You can use laws to get what you want, but they rarely improve the relationship afterwards.

Maori have genuine needs, real grievances, but what the current discourse does is say that addressing those needs and grievances is the price the Crown has to pay to be in this country, and that they're contractually obligated to pay this price because it's their signature on the Treaty.

It's a nasty way of doing things because it looks at what each side can force the other side to do rather than recognise there is really a whole lot of common ground. An entire country's worth of common ground, in fact.

We want to ensure the empowerment of minorities. Whether it's out of a sense of social justice or out of a fear of social unrest, we recognise that we want everyone to feel empowered. If particular minorities are unable to effectively participate, then we need to provide them the avenues to do so.

Poverty bad. Sick people bad. We want to help those who are not doing well. It's the outcome that matters, however we get there.

Both the Courts and the Waitangi Tribunal have determined that "the principle of partnership includes the obligation on both parties to act reasonably, honourably and in good faith". How about we just agree that it's not in anyone's interest to be a big fat asshole?

We are living together. We will be living together. It's like a marriage from which you can't get divorced - now that's an incentive to talk.

My point is that a partnership is forged out of common interests. Those common interests are there. Using the Treaty as a legal basis for partnership takes us further away from it.

I appreciate that many of the leaders in the Maori community grew up in a hostile era when they were only able to make gains through the power that came with the Treaty. But this power is unsustainable, and now is the time to use the momentum to drive the process to safer ground - one built on people *wanting* to work together.


Towards the end of the symposium, an old Maori woman told us we (Asians) needn't worry about our rights, because we were guests in this country, and as guests, Maori would treat us well, though we need to respect their place as tangata whenua.

I replied that we weren't guests - we were citizens.

She was taking the approach of saying that Maori only signed over governorship, not sovereignty, and Maori were still the sovereign of Aotearoa. I could see the appeal of her rhetoric - it empowered her by speaking of Maori as the ultimate holders of power in this country.

And this rhetoric - which I've heard many times from this generation of Maori leaders - has been useful for building Maori solidarity. But surely, they can see how Pakeha is offended by the idea that they are guests in what they consider to be their own house? And that alienating Pakeha only serves to alienate Maori, which serves nobody?


After hearing Sharples' Durkheimian exposition of tapu (umm... the stuff about the sacred and mundane), I've realised that I'm not really as much of a secularist as I thought I was. Or rather, that none of us are.

We still hold certain things to be sacred, or taboo. For instance, we still attached spiritual or cultural significance to cemeteries, even though many of us would recognise that the people are dead, and there's no rational significance to a particular plot of land. But I can't go building a racetrack there.

I don't believe in the existence taniwha. I imagine that most people don't. But I imagine that we would have a lot of sympathy for people who protested against the construction of a road through a cemetery. By saying one is okay and the other isn't, it's saying that burial grounds can be sacred, but no other grounds can be. That's a distinction that doesn't really have a rational basis.

It doesn't mean, of course, that we should consider all blood to be tapu, and stop all the blood screening and blood banks, because the cost of that (in human terms) would be too great. But if respecting spiritual and cultural sensitivities is something simple, like not having a giant roast pig outside a synagogue, then why not?

Is re-routing a road too much? Possibly. But really, is having civil servants spend a bit of time at Maori ceremonies (assuming they're properly done) too much? That's much harder a case to make, especially considering that they don't do any real work anyway...