Hard News by Russell Brown


The crybaby philosopher

Earlier this week, Act Party leader Jamie Whyte notified the world that he had delivered a speech entitled Race has no place in the law and, it seemed, sat back in anticipation of plaudits for his tremendous argument.

Sadly, the next day he posted a screed almost as long complaining of the "vitriolic hostility" with which his speech had been greeted, slating his critics as "pathetic" and characterising journalists who had reported on it as "the thought police".

Whyte raged. He told Morning Report's interview Guyon Espiner that he just didn't understand basic political principles, and accused Radio Live's Lloyd Burr of being unable to "read or think" when Burr attempted to press him on errors in his speech.

The irony, of course, is that Whyte's argument has been met with plenty of reasoned debate; it simply hasn't been to his liking. One of the more obvious flaws in the speech is that Whyte contrived himself a definition of "legal privilege" (such privilege accruing to Māori being his chief grievance) encompassing things that largely do not concern the law -- most notably, this:

Some state run or state directed organisations openly practice race-based favouritism. I know a woman who has raised children by two fathers, one Pakeha and the other Maori. If her Pakeha son wants to attend law school at Auckland University, he will have to get much higher grades than her Maori son.

I will not go on. There is no question that the law in New Zealand is not racially impartial. 

The question is why race-based laws are tolerated, not just by the Maori and Internet-Mana Parties, but by National, Labour and the Greens.

Whyte is referring to the University of Auckland's Targeted Admission Schemes, which are designed to improve access to higher education for under-represented groups: Māori, Pasifika, people living with a disability. The scheme, as Whyte must surely understand is, is not the consequence of a "race-based law". Indeed, it is not what Whyte says it is in quite a number of ways. As Matthew Dentith points out:

The Māori quota for some university courses is a very real thing, but people like Whyte either haven’t looked into how the quota operates, or he has deliberately chosen to ignore said processes in order to make an inflammatory point. The quota provides extraseats aimed at getting more Māori into certain subjects (like Medicine and Law), so Pākehā do not miss out: if, for some reason, there were no Māori applicants for places in Law or Medicine one year, those spaces simply would not be filled. It’s not, then, as if Māori are taking places away from Pākehā. The quota is a top up, rather than a reserve system. As for the lower grades allocated to these quota seats; this is simply a recognition that most Māori come from lower socio-economic areas and we know, from the statistics, that grades on average are lower across the board in lower socio-economic areas. As such, the quota recognises this disparity as being yet another barrier to entry. That being said, it’s not as if universities let morons into these courses, and people who get in under the quota have to perform to the same standard as other students once they are in.

Lawyer and business consultant Joshua Hitchcock also makes this point in response to Whyte -- and further describes as "nonsense" this unsubstantiated claim from Whyte:

Of course, many Maori are better off, better educated and in better health than many Pakeha. And these are often the Maori who take most advantage of their legal privileges, especially those offered by universities and by political bodies.

From the real world, Hitchcock responds:

The large majority of my peers at law school were upper-middle class paheka kids from suburban Auckland.  They came from the Grammars, or private school.  Us Maori were almost all provincial kids, many on scholarships because our parents could not afford to send us away, and working several jobs to pay the rent.  Most had grown up poor, brown, and considered unlikely to succeed by almost every teacher they met along the way.  Most have gone on to working low paid law jobs as advocates for Maori – and the most disadvantaged Maori at that – before the Waitangi Tribunal, Maori Land Court, Family Court, and in the public sector.  Law school was not a path to riches, it was a path to service.

Whyte has taken the privilege we can actually detect in evidence -- that Pakeha with the benefit of growing up in higher socio-economic groups overall do better at all levels of the education system and are thus over-represented in higher education -- and flipped it, sans evidence, to assert the opposite.

There are more subtle flaws in Whyte's argument. The UTAS is, as already noted, also there for people with disability. Let's take Sacha Dylan's definition in the debut post for this site's Access blog, that:

Disability is what happens when your needs don’t match the world as it is right now ... Disability combines personal experience and social process. It is the interaction between how the world functions and how people function.

It's not difficult to apply this perspective on disability -- a fundamental mismatch between what a person needs and what the world actually offers -- to the other groups served by the UTAS. This does not mean being Māori is a disability, but it is clearly, on the evidence, an impairment in being able to tap the power of education. Would Whyte kill off the additional places offered to the disabled? Does he claim, as he does in the case of Māori, that disabled people would do better if they received no help? (I did in fact query Whyte about this, via Twitter, but received no reply.)

Whyte carefully exempts the work of the Waitangi Tribunal from his criticism: 

The reparations made to iwi by the Waitangi Tribunal are NOT an example of this. The Treaty of Waitangi gave Maori property rights over the land they occupied. Many violations of these rights followed. The remedies provided by the Waitangi Tribunal are not a case of race-based favouritism. They are recognition of property rights and, therefore, something that we in ACT wholeheartedly support.

But he seems unable to grasp the fairly basic idea that "remedies" for the theft of property on the part of government should also extend beyond the (partial) return of the property and address the material harm suffered by the owner of the property. As Tim Watkin says on Pundit:

That's why affirmative action, such as places for Maori at universties, is right and fair. And it works. Whyte suggests that the legal privileges haven't meant material gain, but he's wrong in that. Since the Maori renaissance of the early 1970s and the arrival of affirmative action, many Maori social statistics (while still behind Pakeha) have improved. Life expectancy is catching up, education rates have improved, and so on. 

I doubt Whyte would pretend that Lady Justice has always been blind. He may even be honest enough to accept that he and perhaps his forebears have (directly or indirectly) benefited from that historic lack of blindness.

Although he basically conjures facts to suit himself, the real problem in Whyte's speech is that it is the work of a man who seems incapable of any sense of proportion. The presence of, say, a fairly powerless Māori advisory board to the Auckland Council is rolled up towards this amazing assertion:

Maori are legally privileged in New Zealand today, just as the Aristocracy were legally privileged in pre-revolutionary France.

"Just as"? Really? Dentith notes in response to this point:

Let’s just let that sink in. He first compares the status of Māori in Aotearoa (New Zealand) to the aristocrats of the Ancien Régime, which as analogies go is pretty weird. In the Ancien Régime the nobles were gluttons whilst the people of France starved. Yet, in Aotearoa (New Zealand), it is Māori who play the role of the French populace and Pākehā who are predominately living the high life off of the back of the unfortunate, indigenous people of this place. 

The Race Relations Conciliator Dame Susan Devoy also responded to this argument, describing it as "grotesque and inflammatory" and "incredibly naïve". Whyte duly responded -- you can see this coming, can't you? -- by declaring that Devoy "can't think straight".

What we're really seeing here is the time-honoured libertarian fallback that it's not their argument that's wrong, but reality. As someone noted to me yesterday, Whyte's three-day tantrum is the response of every libertarian in every comment thread ever.

But Whyte isn't just the put-upon libertarian on the the internet, he's the leader of a political party -- albeit a profoundly unpopular one -- likely to form part of an agreement to govern the country.

A man as intelligent as Whyte endlessly claims to be would have anticipated, even embraced, all this criticism, rather than expressing hurt and astonishment at it. What we have seen instead instead is a crybaby philosopher, a manchild who seems almost pitiably innocent of the job he's supposed to be doing. We can only speculate what absurdity Whyte would generate in the unlikely event he enters Parliament.

For the time being we can only note that for all the Prime Minister likes to list the alarming oddballs who would line up in a coalition of the Left, the really strange people would seem to be on his side of the line.

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