Hard News by Russell Brown


Should we just burn all our history books then? The new Treaty of Waitangi website, launched yesterday, is wordy, serious and determinedly equivocal. The political response to it was predictable and a bit embarrassing.

We saw the way Treaty language has slipped in Trevor Mallard's presentation of the launch: the word "education" is now forbidden in connection with the Treaty - even though most use of this site will surely be in an educational context. It is part, rather, of an "information" campaign.

Nothing about this site seems likely to fan any kind of flame. Alternative views of key historical points are mostly dutifully canvassed, and the potentially controversial sponsorship scheme, which will offer modest sums for projects to develop and co-ordinate Treaty resources, "does not," it says " aim to change public attitudes to the Treaty, nor to promote a particular view of the Treaty’s significance. The intention is to provide information and/or resources to facilitate improved understanding."

The project has even, for now, left alone the more contentious years after 1840 when the major Treaty breaches occurred. And occur they did. We can't afford to run away from history because it doesn't suit our wishes in the 21st century.

And yet, there was Don Brash wittering away about "taxpayer funded propaganda", describing the site as a waste of money (actually, given the resources involved - including six senior historians - its $80,000 development budget seems fairly modest), and laying in to "politically correct phrases" in its text (citing the somewhat unconvincing example of the intention to "facilitate improved understanding and greater public knowledge").

Yes, as he says, there is quite a bit of other information available on the Treaty, but there hasn't been anything like this: a central place for (and I don't think this characterisation is in debate) New Zealand's founding document.

Later in the day, Murray McCully muttered something about Mallard "causing offence" by forcing the Treaty down people's throats, but admitted he could not see "much in the way of political correctness [on the site] thus far".

Is this really where our nationhood debate is at? People going sniffing around everything for alleged "political correctness"? Can we not do a bit better than this? Could the National Party perhaps have had someone actually read the site over 24 hours and come up with a genuine criticism?

After all, Gordy managed it, and makes some interesting comments on its tone and approach, which he notes is "utterly orthodox". I quite like his idea of a "critical essay" section on the site, "where the few historians outside the orthodoxy could respectfully dissent."

But if you're going to do that, shouldn't you also admit the further reaches of Maori opinion on the Treaty? And if you do that, won't you be shot down in flames on account of your "political correctness"? This is the stupid impasse we've currently reached in this discussion. As I've said before, National has driven itself up an intellectual blind alley on this, and to some extent taken the rest of us with it. Bah.

Anyway, Mallard's speech is here and the Stuff story is here.

On the other hand, I do have some sympathy with Brash in his indignation over the Guardian column that likened his Orewa speech to Enoch Powell's "rivers of blood" address. British commentators can sometimes draw their depictions of the colonies with blunt crayons. Readers will doubtless be familiar with my distaste for many elements of National's race campaign, but I do think it has become part of our fitful modern progress towards a national understanding, something the Guardian's Richard Adams seems to miss.

Michael Appleton pointed me to a diverting little discussion about blog culture in the Guardian's G2 section, whose guest editors for the week were Scots band Franz Ferdinand (a kind of Brit art-school Strokes). Nice idea - and they've commissioned some interesting stuff. Any chance of it happening here? Dimmer edits the Star-Times magazine section for a week? Sorry, I'm being silly aren't I?