The politics of race

SUNDAY SERVE: Sunday Star-Times columnist Colin Espiner.
SUNDAY SERVE: Sunday Star-Times columnist Colin Espiner.

'I'm not racist, but . . ." Stop me if you've heard that one before.

Every few years, the ugly underbelly of New Zealand's uneasy political truce on race relations is exposed, and pleads to be itched.

The last time was 2004, when former Reserve Bank governor Don Brash went from political nobody to within a hair's breadth of power on the back of a particularly divisive speech on race relations at the Orewa Rotary Club on Auckland's North Shore.

Then Labour prime minister Helen Clark ignored Brash's dog whistle to prejudice, fear and ignorance ("one law for all", halt the "Treaty gravy train", "Kiwi not iwi") until it was almost too late, believing most voters would see through the slogans for the appeal to baser instincts that they were.

Yet Brash almost won the 2005 election for National, dragging Labour to the Right as he went. Indeed, if he hadn't overstepped the mark and involved the secretive religious sect the Exclusive Brethren he probably would have got over the line.

Much has changed since then - and much has stayed the same. National may have a more moderate leader in John Key and an (albeit shaky) alliance with the Maori Party, but the prejudice, ignorance and misplaced sense of entitlement hasn't gone away, it's just been waiting for the next political vehicle to articulate its fears. And last week it found it, in the form of the Pakeha Party.

The Pakeha Party began life as a Facebook page set up by its founder David Ruck, and was catapulted into the national consciousness on the back of a single, excruciatingly unprepared appearance on TVNZ's Seven Sharp. Within days the Pakeha Party - motto "Whatever Maori get we want it to" (sic) went from 4000 likes on Facebook to, at the time of writing, 56,000 and counting. To put this in perspective, that is more than every other party in Parliament combined has managed in four years.

The Pakeha Party's list of grievances - sorry, policies - is depressingly familiar. End "special treatment" for Maori, "equal rights" for non-Maori, no more "Maori only privilege", etc. And it's not the only New Right kid on the block. Another party that goes by the bumper sticker name 1law4all is also espousing the same divisive drivel. 1law4all wants to end biculturalism, abolish the Waitangi Tribunal, dump the Maori seats, repeal the Foreshore and Seabed Act and even remove Maori as the official language of New Zealand.

Those behind 1law4all aren't game enough to put their names to it - its website has no list of members and no leader - although it does list a post office box number in Orewa, surely too much of a coincidence.

A retired Napier businessman, Tom Johnson, has become its unofficial spokesman, recently telling regional media that he "didn't want to become a second-class citizen in my own country". Johnson was campaign chairman for National MP Chris Tremain during the Brash years and 1law4all's links to Brash don't end there. One of its advisers has been creative genius John Ansell, the man behind National's most controversial advertising campaign since Muldoon's Dancing Cossacks - the infamous Iwi/Kiwi billboards used in the 2005 campaign.

Ansell again become involved with Brash during his ill-fated stint as Act Party leader in 2011 but the pair parted ways, apparently because Ansell's views were too extreme, even for Brash.

Johnson claims he's one of many disaffected former Nats who are upset with the Government's move to embrace biculturalism, and yet while 1law4all has more funding and organisation behind it than the Pakeha Party it has only a handful of Facebook likes and almost no public profile. Why?

The answer may lie in the Pakeha Party's anti-intellectualism - its appeal to voters who, like its leader, admit they don't know the history of colonialism and don't care either. "I don't know the entire history," Ruck said last week. "I do know my ancestors didn't do any stealing, raping or pillaging."

Ruck can't say the same, given he has admitted convictions for theft and driving without a licence, which led him to serve time in Paparoa Prison. But judging by the thousands of comments on the Pakeha Party's Facebook page, that doesn't bother its supporters.

"F... yea, I haven't been so excited by politics in all my life," wrote one. Another posted a photo of himself in shorts, work boots and a rugby jersey, holding a Pakeha Party sign and giving a thumbs up to the camera.

This bourbon-and-cola constituency - white New Zealanders who feel Maori are somehow getting a better deal than them despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary - has rarely taken any interest in the political process. Ruck has admitted he is no politician and doesn't want to be. But he claims he is in discussions with someone who is.

Are we, then, witnessing a "Pakeha Spring", to use the inappropriate and somewhat offensive claim of the Pakeha Party?

If the Pakeha Party or 1law4all can find a powerful personality - preferably one who can spell - either is capable of capturing a bigger slice of the electorate than liberal Kiwis may believe possible. Key's decision to turn his party's back on the politics of racial division is a laudable one. But it may yet come back to haunt him at the ballot box.

Colin Espiner is a Sunday Star-Times columnist

Sunday Star Times