Bryce Edwards: Parliament’s increasingly toxic ethnic identity wars

Bryce Edwards: Parliament’s increasingly toxic ethnic identity wars

Toxicity and disinformation are becoming a big part of New Zealand politics. And much of this relates to debates about ethnicity, race, and racism.

We should all be concerned about this trend. Personal abuse, dishonesty, and contempt in the public sphere are bad for democracy, social cohesion, and the integrity of the political system.

The worst offenders, especially in terms of ethnicity, are often elected politicians, political parties, and even government agencies. This dimension is too frequently brushed aside. Instead, attention is directed to a cliché that the problem is about anonymous keyboard warriors in darkened bedrooms.

Perhaps it’s therefore time to shed some light on any political figures when they degenerate into hurling toxic political weapons. Currently, the worst offenders are Te Pati Māori and others aligned with them. Not only are they using ethnic-based slurs and attacks on people’s identities, but they are also using all sorts of evidence-free claims to foster outrage.

The Case Study of Abuse of the Minister for Children Karen Chhour

Race-based tensions continue to soar at the moment. The latest touch point is the Government’s reforms of Oranga Tamariki, in which the Minister for Children Karen Chhour is seeking to repeal section 7AA from legislation controlling how the government agency deals with the whakapapa of Māori children needing care and protection.

Section 7AA is controversial because it was introduced by the last government to direct Oranga Tamariki to uphold the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi in matters concerning Māori children. In Chhour’s view, this has led to unintended consequences in which children’s welfare is second place, and “reverse uplifts” occur in which children are removed from the care of their pakeha families because of their ethnicity.

The opposition parties have been vigorously debating this in Parliament in the last week, with some heightened focus on Chhour’s identity as Māori. For example, on Tuesday, Labour’s Willow-Jean Prime yelled out, “You’re a sell-out”. This relates not only to Chhour’s ethnicity but to the fact that she was in state care as a child.

Te Pati Māori’s focus on Chhour’s identity was even more vicious. The party published their critique of her on social media last week: If Section 7AA were around in Karen Chhour’s time, she would have been raised Maori, she would have been raised connected to her whakapapa and having a knowingness of her Maoritanga, instead she was raised Pakeha with a disconnection and disdain for her own people.”

Chhour has been measured in response, and says she’s reluctant to answer personal abuse, but wrote this in the Herald: “It is true that my own experience informs my politics. I grew up dealing with Child, Youth and Family, and I learned that what matters most in a home is stability, love, and safety – not race” – see: I know what state care is and I don’t want that for our children

Chhour also told Newstalk ZB last week that the personal attacks have been painful for her, explaining, “I don’t like the fact I have to worry about my 12-year-old daughter picking up a cellphone, reading social media and coming to me and asking: Mum, are you racist?”

She also told Newstalk how surprising it was to receive such strong insults from politicians, saying, “This is not coming from keyboard warriors; this is coming from a political party sitting in Parliament right now” and “This is from a party who goes out constantly talking about how hard it is for Wāhine Māori in this place.”

Newstalk’s political editor Jason Walls comment on this on Saturday, labelling the Te Pati Māori criticisms of Chhour a “staggering, highly personal, vicious attack”. He has brought attention to the fact that Chhour has been a constant target of such abuse, and in the past has been close to tears, telling reporters she did not have to “justify my Māori. I can own it” – see: Opposition plays man, not the ball in section 7AA debate (paywalled)

Walls says: “As has become somewhat of a theme with Te Pati Māori, its MPs did not waver from the comments; they did not back down, and they certainly did not apologize. As far as attacks on Ministers go, few have had to weather the horrific abuse Chhour’s been forced to deal with.”

It’s not just abuse about her identity from Te Pati Māori – Labour’s Kelvin Davis famously told Parliament that Chhour did not understand te ao Māori and viewed the world through a “vanilla lens”.

There hasn’t been much coverage of the recent abuse of Chhour – which is something that Newstalk broadcaster Heather du Plessis-Allan lamented in her Herald column yesterday, saying that “the media have to drop the double standards and start holding TPM accountable” – see: Te Pāti Māori behaviour towards Karen Chhour ridiculous (paywalled)

According to du Plessis-Allan, the double standard is that other parties, especially on the political right, are constantly critiqued and condemned in the media for their alleged shortcomings and “dog-whistling” on race and ethnicity, but the media “repeatedly” give Te Pati Māori a free pass. She argues that Winston Peters and David Seymour are given a much harder time for much less questionable statements.

Te Pati Māori’s orientation to genetics and ethnicity is disturbing and “racist” according to du Plessis-Allan. She reminds readers that the party believes “Chhour is not the right kind of Māori”, and that co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer called Seymour “a Pākehā who happens to be Māori” i.e. also “not the right kind of Māori”. And du Plessis-Allan suggests that there should be more media critique of Te Pati Māori’s sports policy that says: “It is a known fact that Māori genetic make-up is stronger than others.”

Te Pati Maori claims of “extermination” and “systematic genocide”

The Maori Party of Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples used to talk frequently about “discrimination” and “racism”. Perhaps like “the boy who cried wolf”, these accusations lost some of their salience. This is unfortunate because New Zealand democracy desperately needs to be able to discuss and debate ethnicity and race issues, especially regarding finding fixes for some very real problems.

The new version of the Māori Party, which regards its predecessors as too moderate, has decided to escalate the claims, obviously in the hope of getting more attention. Now, there are claims of “extermination”, “systematic genocide”, and “white supremacy” levelled at opponents.

Of particular note, Te Tai Tokerau MP Mariameno Kapa-Kingi said in Parliament earlier this month that “this government will not waver in its mission to exterminate Māori”. She added that Karen Chhour was guilty of “white supremacy”.

When challenged about the accuracy of such claims – or whether such statements amount to “disinformation” – Kapa-Kingi explained that regardless of facts, she was talking about “feelings”, which she suggested were equally important.

Kapa-Kingi also explained why she chose the word exterminate: “I was very deliberate… that’s the word that has people sit up and take notice of what it feels like for our mokopuna and our whānau… If that’s the word that has people have feelings, and it seems people are having feelings, then so be it.”

Co-leader Rawiri Waititi backed her up, saying, “This is how we feel, and we will not be told how to feel”. He said Kapa-Kingi’s speech was “brilliant” and explained: “Many of the policy changes that this Government absolutely makes us feel like there [are] huge extermination processes and policies [aimed at] the very existence of tangata whenua in this country, so it was absolutely the right wording” – see Adam Pearse’s Herald article, Te Pāti Māori co-leaders back MP’s claim Govt is intent on exterminating Māori

Similarly, Co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer concurred. She had also critiqued the Government’s policy on tobacco, saying: “There is absolute deliberate intention of this government, as I said, to create systemic genocide.”

Writing in defence of Te Pati Māori’s use of such allegations, former Green Party co-leader, now a lecturer in law at the University of Otago, Metiria Stanton Turei explained recently that Kapa-Kingi’s “extermination” statement was an “insightful remark” and useful, because it “sends chills down the spine” and gets attention – see: Use of strong language needed when no-one is listening (paywalled)

Stanton Turei argues that words have hidden meanings, arguing that politicians too often talk about “equality, democracy and colour-blind policies” when “what those words really mean is the suppression of Māori identity, Māori experience and Māori rights.”

In contrast, leftwing activist James Robb has attempted to put a socialist analysis of what Te Pati Māori are doing, arguing that the “histrionics and attention-seeking” of the Māori MPs reflects how powerless and ineffective they are. He takes strong issue with their use of the term “genocide”, saying that such politicians misuse the term, debasing it and showing their ignorance of New Zealand’s history. He argues that it makes the cause of liberating dispossessed Māori more difficult – see: Te Pati Māori, child welfare, and the politics of middle class hysteria

In illustrating Te Pati Maori’s relative powerlessness, Robb points to when they called for a National Day of Action in December last year, but hardly anyone showed up. Despite much publicity for the protest, especially in the media, the event didn’t live up to the promise that it would be larger than the foreshore and seabed march. Instead, it was relatively insignificant: “A few hundred marched in Wellington, and groups of a few dozen rallied in various other towns and cities.”

The need for a more nuanced and good-faith debate on ethnicity

Debates on ethnicity, race, and the Treaty of Waitangi aren’t going away any time soon. In fact, with the coming introduction of the Treaty Principles Bill to Parliament, New Zealand society will have much more difficult issues to navigate.

At this stage, the Treaty Principles Bill can’t be dismissed as the mere coalition demand of the tiny Act Party. One recent survey has shown that it has a lot of public support. Polling by the Curia Research company, run by National-aligned David Farrar, showed that 60 per cent of New Zealanders support the bill to clarify what the principles of the Treaty are. Even Labour voters support the bill by six to one – see: 3:1 voters support the Treaty Principles Bill

Curia has also polled voters on people’s perceptions of which political party “Has views on the Treaty of Waitangi and its role in NZ that are closest to your own”, and found the following surprising results:

  • National 22%
  • Labour 21%
  • Te Pāti Māori 13%
  • NZ First 11%
  • Act 10%
  • Greens 7%

The proportion of the public choosing minor parties over National and Labour is extraordinarily high in the survey. David Farrar’s interpretation of this indicates a very polarised issue: “This reflects both major parties are trying to take a more centrist approach on Treaty issues, but in doing so are allowing parties to the right and left to be seen as better by their own supporters. This to me suggests that debate on these issues will become more polarised, not less, as voters are rejecting the centre parties for the more hardline parties on Treaty issues” – see: The major parties are seen as out of touch on Treaty issues (paywalled)

This level of polarisation might therefore become particularly inflamed when the Treaty Principles Bill is finally properly debated in Parliament and society. As Heather du Plessis-Allan rightly says, “That needs to be done with calm and measured language. If TPM carries on with racist, personal attacks, it will inflame an already tense debate… Here’s hoping it isn’t tolerated like it was this week.”

Finally, for the most interesting and provocative read on the issue of Te Pati Māori attacks on Karen Chhour and what should be done about Oranga Tamariki, see Haimona Gray’s very personal essay: It’ll end in tears, just not theirs

Gray says he’s spent his life being hated for being what others call “a half-caste” and gives a passionate explanation of the intentional denigration that some Māori leaders make. He says “that when it comes to this important debate around how Maori children being abused should be handled, hate and personal animosity are overpowering adults from acting in these children’s best interests.”

Dr Bryce Edwards

Political Analyst in Residence, Director of the Democracy Project, School of Government, Victoria University of Wellington

This article can be republished for free under a Creative Commons copyright-free license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project (https://democracyproject.nz)