Bryce Edwards: NZ’s changing race relations

Bryce Edwards: NZ’s changing race relations

There has been a striking mood of positivity and optimism in the commentary about Waitangi Day, and race relations in general, this year. It’s as if we have turned a corner as a nation. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern epitomised this in her prayer yesterday in which she said God “made us of one blood, now make us of one people”. Of course, the question is whether the feel-good mood at Waitangi translates into meaningful change for Māori, who remain severely disadvantaged compared to Pākehā in almost every indicator of well-being.

The new mood in race relations, so clearly enunciated by politicians and commentators over the last few days, was thrown into stark relief by broadcaster Mike Hosking’s column today which seemed entirely out-of-sync with other readings of race relations at the moment – see: Waitangi isn’t our national day, it’s our grievance day.

Hosking made this observation: “It’s not really our national day, it’s our grievance day. And not even a national grievance day, because the vast, vast majority of us don’t actually have a grievance. The vast, vast majority of us love our lives, love our country, feel blessed to be here, and understand just how lucky we are.”

Similarly, Lizzie Marvelly’s column at the weekend portrayed race relations around Waitangi Day as deeply negative, and she seemed pessimistic about the debates and discussions – see: For many, Waitangi Day is just a day off work.

Marvelly says her negative view is based on personal experience: “being Māori, Waitangi Day is always inevitably charged for me. It looms in my mind. Early in January, I subconsciously wait for controversy to erupt. Whatever happens, inevitably Māori bear the brunt of the negative publicity. We’re often cast as bloody Mowries with our hands out. We can’t even stop the grievance machine for one day of national significance. We’re an embarrassment. A joke.”

In fact, what was most striking about the public debate and discussions this week is they were not about grievance nor about “Māori bashing”, but about celebration of race relations progress. Two newspaper editorials were particularly interesting in this regard.

The Otago Daily Times declared yesterday that something new was happening: “For much of the past few decades, Waitangi Day has served as a pulpit from which differences have been shouted. This has been healthy, necessary and, at times, effective. But there is a feeling times are changing” – see: Waitangi Day about us all.

This editorial makes a controversial point reminiscent of Don Brash: “the most effective and lasting way each of us can celebrate is to see ourselves as one people, as simply ‘us’, without a ‘them’.” But the declaration of New Zealand being “one people” is made in the context of what the newspaper sees as a history of disadvantage for Maori, albeit one that is now being taken seriously and remedied.

The editorial applauds the widespread embrace of Māori culture: “We should celebrate Maori education, health and social services for the unique and effective role they play in New Zealand. We should celebrate Maori business, cultural and sporting successes, and the shifting role of Maori culture as a reverently respected bedrock of our national identity. Maori success is New Zealand success, after all.”

The New Zealand Herald also has a very interesting editorial drawing attention to the increasing entrenchment of bi-culturalism, improved political representation of Māori, increased usage of te reo Māori, and the fact that iwi have been strengthened by Treaty settlements – see: Celebration in order on our special day.

Unlike in the past, the newspaper declares, “New Zealand is in good heart, politically stable, economically prospering and capable of doing even better. This is a day to celebrate.”

Journalist Karl du Fresne is in sync with this new outlook of celebration and positivity about race relations and Waitangi Day – see his column, Waitangi Day: We’ve come a long way, with further to go.

Du Fresne looks at the wrongs and the continued ill-effects of colonisation for Māori, complains that we “still don’t know nearly enough about our incredibly rich and colourful history”, but also says we need to acknowledge that the “British were relatively humane, enlightened colonisers” and “colonisation brought benefits too”, helping make New Zealand “one of the world’s most civilised liberal democracies.”

Māori commentators have also been offering accounts of progress and positivity about race relations in 2019. Treaty educator Te Huia Bill Hamilton says “I have noticed over time that public reactions to announcements of claims being settled are not as negative as they were. People are learning more about our history and seeing the fairness of the settlement programme” – see: NZ moving into positive territory with Tiriti.

Hamilton is now 70 years old, but says “I resisted being Māori until I was 32” because his Māori mother discouraged him. But given his observations of the nation embracing Māori culture and identity, he says that if his mother was alive today she would say “This is great. I was wrong”.

Amongst a long list of progress for race relations, Hamilton makes the following point, worth quoting at length: “There are more attempts to respect tikanga Māori (cultural practices) and for organisations to engage effectively with tangata whenua. It is becoming normal for buildings to be opened and events to begin with karakia. Many institutions have their favourite waiata which they use to support their manager or CEO who begins his or her address with a mihi. The haka is now not only the entrée to an All Blacks game, but also an expression of success by other victorious sports teams. When asked to do something ‘Kiwi’ on our overseas trips, we say ‘Kia ora’ and as a group we sing Pokarekare Ana. The Crown has created post settlement governance entities which corporate Māori can work with to receive and administer funds and assets. Treaty settlement payments have made iwi significant commercial players in their communities. Most have invested carefully and their assets have increased. Everyone wants to do business with iwi.”

Auckland mayoral candidate John Tamihere is also full of optimism about the state of race relations, and says New Zealand should rejoice at the progress made and where New Zealand is today – see: The Treaty as a roadmap .

Tamihere argues that Treaty promises are being properly realised, that Maori culture is recognised and embraced by wider society, and he points to all politicians supporting the Treaty process and the settlements achieved.

However, he says that it’s time for Maori leaders to move on from a focus on past injustices towards action on economic inequality: “Maori leadership is also going to have to invest in lifting the performance of our people across the board. If this does not happen, we simply copy the levels of inequality now evident in non-Maori communities”.

It’s not just commentators who are suggesting the arrival of a new era. The events at Waitangi yesterday provides some evidence – especially in terms of the official ceremonies – that there may be a move towards greater political harmony instead of protest and conflict.

Simon Wilson’s coverage is particularly useful. In his article, All together now: The main parties walk the walk at Waitangi, Wilson explains that the two separate marae at Waitangi served two different purposes: “A spirit of unified purpose on the upper grounds; the conflict of old on the lower.” And it was on the upper marae that history was being made: “It was the first time that all the political parties had been formally welcomed to the upper marae on the treaty grounds together.”

In a second account, When the kotuku appears: Waitangi unity on show, Wilson coveys the immense civility and unity that was on show at a place where “it’s easier to obsess about the conflict”. Wilson explains that the “theme of the pōwhiri, officially, was political unity of purpose, as symbolised by the joint walk-on of the parties.”

Much of the focus is on the leader of the Opposition, Simon Bridges, who Wilson observes “made an excellent speech”. He says “Bridges is Ngāti Maniapoto and his mihi was delivered with enormous pride. The first Māori leader of a major political party, his first time as leader at Waitangi.”

But Jacinda Ardern was still the star of the show. Wilson explains that a waiata sung about her in the ceremony has the following translation: “Oh beautiful woman with a full heart and a peaceful soul, the matriarch of the world”. However, in this article, Wilson challenges Ardern on her suggestion that progress can be made in a non-partisan fashion, and finds her elaboration on this goal disappointing.

For another useful account of the peacefulness of the ceremonies, see Henry Cooke and Amanda Saxton’s Waitangi Day commemorations begin under the starlight. This article quotes Māori warden Rebecca Heti: “I’ve been coming to Waitangi Day here for 20 solid years… These days it’s so much better. More peaceful. There’s no one down at the flagpole, protesting… I don’t feel that’s befitting”.

But are the Waitangi events in danger of losing the colour and substance of the past? RNZ’s Jo Moir reports Whanau Ora Minister Peeni Henare having some concerns: “I’d hate for it to become rather bland and I’d like to see a little bit more intermingling between the forum tent down there and what goes on up here” – see: ‘I’d hate for it to become rather bland’ – Labour minister on Waitangi day.

Henare also responds to questions about the Prime Minister’s grasp of the Treaty principles and her use of te reo Maori: “It’s bloody impressive to see her understanding of those concepts and her ability to interplay between English and Māori is important. She always apologises for her Pakeha tongue but she does well.”

Of course a more culturally progressive world is one thing, but for many Māori who  continue to suffer severe economic and social deprivation it will take more than a harmonious and polite Waitangi Day events to justify feeling good about race relations in this country. It could be argued that even Maori political leaders are taking the easier option through concentrating on culture instead of economics. I’ve written about this in previous years, see for example, Is the new Government already failing Māori?

Finally, there’s been some interesting cartoons published this year about the week’s events – see my blogpost, Cartoons about Waitangi 2019. And for a discussion of the history of such cartoons, together with some more historic examples, see Colin Peacock’s How cartoonists framed Waitangi Day.