Playing the race card

Ean Higgins

FOR New Zealand National Party leader Don Brash, the announcement of a new Maori land rights settlement this week has been manna from heaven. Treaty Negotiations Minister Mark Burton signed off on a contentious deal in which the Te Roroa people in the far north will get $NZ9.5 million ($8.7million), 2000ha of prime land and first rights to acquire some grazing properties taken over by the Crown. The agreement is the latest settlement stemming from what the iwi, or tribes, are calling ratification of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi.

Local farmer Alan Titford provided the political wedge for Brash in what has been a divisive campaign. Titford fought a losing battle to hang on to his property in the face of the claim. As Radio New Zealand reported, he spent years tracking down historical information, saying an old sketch map on which the tribe relied did not show the triangulation and other procedures usually undertaken by government surveyors of the time. Ross Baker, president of the One New Zealand Foundation, which advocates one law for all New Zealanders, says Titford eventually went broke. "He had his property houses burned, he had his bulldozer driven into the lake twice, he lost a lot of stock," Baker says. "This wasn't something that just happened."

Local National Party MP John Carter says it is outrageous that such a dubious claim, which relies heavily on Maori oral history, should be approved by the Labour Government and has called for a review. Carter says there are also suggestions that the Waitangi Tribunal, which adjudicates on such issues, was misled. "The question is whether the claimants really had any ownership and whether officials knew they probably didn't but suppressed it," he says.

  • AT the 2002 election, Labour won 52 seats, the National Party 27, New Zealand First 13, ACT 9, Greens 9, United Future 8, Progressive Coalition 2. Helen Clark, who took Labour to government at the previous election, in 1999, continued as Prime Minister with support from the Greens and the Progressives. The Nationals? Don Brash is Opposition Leader.
  • Of the 120 seats in NZ?s parliament, seven, covering seven special constituencies across the country, are elected only by Maori, who can choose to go on the general electoral roll or the Maori roll.
  • For the first time, a NZ party based on indigenous rights, the Maori Party, is contesting the election. Labour won all seven Maori seats at the last election. But in April last year Associate Maori Affairs Minister Tariana Turia defected from Labour and formed the Maori Party with Pita Sharples. Turia relinquished, then won back, her Maori seat of Te Tai Hauauru in the subsequent by-election.
  • Maori account for about 15 per cent of NZ?s population of 4.1 million. The Maori Party claims a party membership of 21,000 and says 600,000 of NZ?s eligible voters are Maori by birth or marriage.
  • Maori lag behind the rest of the population on economic and social indicators. Maori unemployment is 8.8 per cent compared with 3.1 per cent for the rest of the population. The figures, however, have improved hugely under Labour. In March 1992, Maori unemployment was three times as high as it is now, at 27 per cent.
  • More than half of prison inmates are Maori and the Maori Party is working the jails to get their votes.
  • Despite a fierce campaign by Labour, polls have the Maori Party leading in most of the seven Maori seats.
The Te Roroa people have rejected Carter's allegations. A source tells The Australian there is another side to the story, alleging that Titford knew the land was subject to a claim when he bought it.

To the NZ voting public, which has swung behind Brash and his policy to crack down on Maori rights, the Te Roroa settlement has solidified their views.

The land rights claim fits perfectly into the Nationals' election policy, which has attacked the "treaty industry" and has called for removing references to "treaty principles" from legislation.

If it wins power in tomorrow's election, the National Party will not vest ownership of some land, such as lakes, to iwi, although Labour will. It will "return the foreshore and seabed to Crown ownership", although there is some confusion here because the Labour Government has enacted legislation that is supposed to have done that already.

Most contentiously, Brash will abolish the seven seats in parliament elected only by Maori, ending an entitlement that dates back to 1867. He also will scrap special health and education programs for Maori, who account for 15 per cent of the population and suffer from much higher rates of unemployment, sickness, and imprisonment.

One stark National billboard is headed "Beaches?" On the left of the billboard is a picture of Prime Minister Helen Clark with the word Iwi, while on the right is Brash with the word Kiwi.

In a speech this week attacking public funding for pro-Maori tertiary education institutions, or wananga, Brash has berated what he calls "treaty separatism" and says many of the courses are "soft, meaningless". "Helen Clark and her colleagues in the Labour Party hold the separatist view that this institution should exist to focus on Maori students and so-called 'Maori needs'," he says. "Under a National government, funding will be delivered on the basis of merit, not race or political correctness."

By playing what his political opponents have labelled a race card, Brash has presented New Zealanders with the most fundamental choice on the sort of society they wish to be since European settlement. Clark, whose government will get rid of the Maori seats only with the approval of the Maori, has presented Brash as divisive and opportunistic, saying he will create a country where "we scratch each other's eyes out".

The polls show the country split down the middle on the Maori issue. One has found 45.2 per cent of New Zealanders in favour of abolishing the Maori seats, while 45.9 per cent want them kept.

Clark is caught in a pincer movement between the Nationals and the recently created Maori Party. While the National Party is winning votes by saying Clark has gone too far on Maori rights, the Maori Party says she has not gone far enough and has wound them back. The Maori Party criticises her for enacting the foreshore and seabed legislation, which restricts indigenous claims.

Polls also show a huge surge to the Maori Party within the Maori electorate and it may seize up to five of the seven Maori seats, which at the last election were held by Labour. If Clark loses office, it may well be because of the haemorrhage of votes to the National and Maori parties on the Maori issue, and also to New Zealand First, which has yet another approach to Maori affairs.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, a former deputy prime minister who is Maori, has advocated a policy of practical development and opportunity. He says Maori seats are no longer necessary. But whereas Brash will simply abolish the seats unilaterally, Peters has proposed a process of discussion between government and Maori leaders to reach agreement on abolishing the seats.

Maori Party president Whatarangi Winiata says Clark's foreshore and seabed legislation, which prompted widespread protests, has been a turning point among Maori against Labour. "We see that as yet another confiscation," Winiata says. He warns that the abolition of the Maori seats will be another confiscation and could prompt dangerous divisions in the country. "It would be very serious. It could well trigger civil unrest that could be ongoing." he says.

Winiata, who is the chief executive of a wananga at Otaki where 99 per cent of the 2000 students are Maori, says Brash has deliberately and maliciously presented the Maori question as one of race. Rather, he says, the issue is that of two peoples, Maori and descendants of the British, who agreed in the Treaty of Waitangi to form a partnership. The point of the wananga, which promotes the Maori language, is to ensure the survival of the Maori culture, which is an integral part of that partnership.

"When we started, we adopted the goals of most universities, to strive for excellence in teaching and research," Winiata says. "But these are not ends in themselves. As we have developed, we have seen that excellence in teaching and research is an opportunity to express the kaupapa, or Maori values."

At another wananga in Porirua, near Wellington, where the student population is almost evenly divided between Maori and non-Maori, assistant manager Matthew Maynard says his campus is giving a second chance to thousands of New Zealanders, both Maori and non-Maori, who otherwise would not have undertaken tertiary training. Part of the approach is to create a more relaxed, communal and personal form of learning than in the typical modern university. Classes start with a whakamoemita, or a gathering in which students and teachers make a joint expression analogous to a school prayer. "It's not the Maori-ness that's the thing," Maynard says. "It's the chance to share a good story in the morning, just feel part of a whole. You won't get that at a regular university."

If Brash wins, the days of NZ tertiary students starting the day with a whakamoemita will be numbered.