Stretching the bonds of goodwill

KARL DU FRESNE
Last updated 13:12 26/09/2012

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Karl du Fresne

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During Maori Language Week in July, my wife and I attended a kapa haka concert followed by a hangi at our grandson's school. It was a charming event in which the whole school performed. We were impressed with the way even the younger classes had memorised the words and actions of the songs.

The kids obviously enjoyed themselves, yet I came away with a nagging feeling of unease. It is not a Maori school; in fact there are relatively few Maori pupils. It serves a suburb with an ethnically diverse population.

To have mastered all those songs and actions must have taken a lot of classroom time, and I had to wonder whether there were other things the children might more usefully have been learning.

It's good that they are exposed to Maori culture, because that's part of what it means to be a New Zealander. The kids obviously love it and I'm sure the teachers find it much more enjoyable - easier, too - than dreary stuff like writing and spelling.

But it's all a question of degree and proportion. Knowing a lot of Maori songs isn't going to help those children get ahead in a world that's likely to be a lot more challenging than the one I grew up in.

That kapa haka concert was just one tiny example of a cultural sea change that has taken place over the past three decades or so.

Humanity has a wonderful propensity for lurching from one extreme to another, and so it is with New Zealand's embrace of Maori culture.

We were exposed to very little of it when I was a child. Although there was a substantial Maori population in the town I grew up in, there was only one Maori family at the convent school I attended. A member of that family told me a couple of years ago that it hadn't even occurred to her and her siblings that they were Maori.

As far as members of that family were concerned, they were the same as everyone else. (And of course they were, in every respect but their skin colour.)

That couldn't happen now, because a massive shift has taken place in which Maori are encouraged to focus on their Maori heritage, often to the complete exclusion of the European ancestry which virtually all of them share. They profess to treasure their whakapapa, but strangely overlook that part of it which has left so many of them with European surnames such as Morgan, Durie, Sykes, Jackson, Paul and Rankin.

At the same time, Maori have moved from being almost invisible, at least politically, to the point where they now exert a great deal of political and economic power.

This has come about largely because politicians decided the Treaty of Waitangi had been ignored for too long. Historical grievances had to be corrected and Maori granted their proper place. Their intentions were good, but I wonder whether they even began to understand the genie they were letting out of the bottle.

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At first the shift was low-key and gradual. We were puzzled by demands that nursing students undergo courses in something called cultural safety. People scratched their heads when they attended events not remotely connected with Maoridom and had to sit through long Maori orations that no- one understood.

We tolerated feel-good tokenism such as the display of Maori signage in public places and the coining of new Maori words for things like cellphones. We watched as government departments, hospitals, schools and universities rushed to embrace Maoriness, employing Maori consultants, incorporating Maori tikanga into their practices, adopting highly prescriptive policies for engaging with Maori - as if their needs were fundamentally different from those of their fellow citizens - and sending bemused staff on overnight marae visits.

We thought it ridiculous when public works projects were held up by Maori concerns that a taniwha might be disturbed, but we didn't raise too much of a fuss. And we were persuaded that Treaty settlements of up to $170 million were just and fair compensation for the wrongs of the past, even when a few lonely voices protested that compensation had already been paid.

Many people were even convinced that New Zealand had a shameful race relations record, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. (Yes, shameful things were done, but they were more than balanced by efforts to treat Maori fairly and honourably.)

We went along with all this because New Zealanders are essentially tolerant, liberal people who respect Maori and appreciate Maoridom's unique contribution to our sense of national identity. We are easily persuaded to do the right thing.

But I detect a distinct change of mood in recent weeks: a stiffening resistance to the rising clamour from Maori voices seeking to embed a two-tier system in which they would control crucial assets and resources.

New Zealanders are passive people (a friend reckons lazy is a better description) who will put up with a lot before deciding: no, this has gone too far. They have now reached that point because of greedy, opportunistic and divisive claims from Maori leaders who have been humoured for so long - by courts, politicians and tribunals - that they think their waka is unstoppable.

The goodwill that exists between Maori and Pakeha is being stretched to breaking point. People are not impressed by the posturing of the Maori King, who has none of his late mother's mana or dignity, or of his right-hand man Tuku Morgan.

We are entitled to be sceptical about their motives. While privileged tribes accumulate riches and pull political strings, we continue to be reminded every day of an entrenched Maori underclass that shows no sign of having enjoyed economic trickle-down from the well-heeled iwi elite.

It's true that the Government has managed its asset sales programme ineptly. Yet I have no doubt that if John Key were to call a snap election over the Maori attempt to derail asset sales, he would win overwhelming support - not because people are in favour of asset sales (they're not), but because of the bigger principles at stake.

Will it happen? I can't see it. It would simply be too divisive. The Government would worry, quite rightly, that the fracture between Maori and Pakeha would take years to heal.

But something has to happen. The ultimatums emanating from some figures in Maoridom are a direct challenge to the national interest at a time when the country is in its most vulnerable state since World War II. Sabotage is not too strong a word.

- Nelson

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