Hard News by Russell Brown

Pink Frost

It takes about 55 minutes to travel by train from Wellington station to Paraparaumu, and I passed the time on Saturday by dipping again into Michael King's Tread Softly For You Tread On My Life. I'm an essayist by inclination and by aptitude, so King's 2001 book of "new and collected writings" strikes a particular chord with me, more so than some longer works.

It may also be, of course, that my attention has been fatally fractured by a decade of Internet use. But the joy of a book of essays and speeches is that you can dip again into it and have as many small, complete literary experiences as time allows.

So I opened the book at page 101, to 'A Vision for the New Millennium', a thinkpiece on nationhood originally written for the Sunday Star Times' millennium supplement. On its second page, King quotes the sonorous, richly optimistic concluding lines of Allen Curnow's 1943 poem, The Skeleton of the Great Moa in the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch:

Not I, some child born in a marvellous year,
Will learn the trick of standing upright here

Those lines still move me. They look forward to a sense of ease and belonging that could not be claimed by Pakeha back then, when Curnow and his fellow poets were, as a matter of intent, trying to spawn us a culture beyond "the spirit of exile". King quotes them on his way to the joyous declaration that we got there, that we have achieved "a second indigenous culture", one that does not diminish, and is not diminished by, Maori identity. He concludes with a "millennium invocation" he says he first heard from "my father's Ngati Maniapoto friend, Bill Herewini":

May the calm be widespread
May the sea glisten like greenstone
And may the warmth of summer fall upon us all

The train scooted across the Porirua estuary, through the land where King grew up.

The essay, and those the follow it in the book, including 'A Fraction Too Much Friction?', a 1999 speech that might be taken as a stand against political correctness, whatever that actually means, turned out to be a timely read. I hadn't got round to reading the full text of Trevor Mallard's much-ballyhooed speech, 'We are all New Zealanders now', but it proves to have more than a little Michael King in it.

The speeches by Mallard and John Tamihere last week are, certainly, positioning exercises by the government. Among other things, they seek to fend off the more damaging perceptions of its philosophy in government; to engender the government "personality transplant" that someone in the NBR declared was necessary. But it's a real shame if they are to be greeted as only that, because they both do have actual content. They ought to be taken to mean something.

Mallard and his speechwriter refer specifically to King's ideas on national identity without actually using the phrase "a second indigenous culture" (it's tempting to suppose that some spin doctor nixed the word "second" lest it be taken to mean something less than "first"). It is safer to declare that "we are all indigenous now", and to incur the wrath of Titewhai Harawira, than to be seen to declare any distinction - which jibes a little with his criticism of National's "assimilationist" philosophy.

Mallard's speech quite specifically refers to and rebuts National's stance from Orewa and since. He rightly takes aim at the cheap and inaccurate cracks about tangi leave and the fitness of Maori who become doctors after gaining entry to their course of study through affirmative action.

His comparison of National's philosophy to that of North Korea is over the top and unfair, but there was plenty that was over the top and unfair in the Orewa speech (the "non-Maori radicals, having climbed high into our social hierarchy" to procure their "dangerous drift towards racial separatism", for example).

He defines, with the aid of the 1989 Principles for Crown Action on the Treaty of Waitangi, the Treaty principles that Brash said "were never defined" (David Slack might wish to feel a little satisfaction at having helped push that one to the top of the rhetorical pile).

On the other hand, there is a degree of sophistry in Mallard's phrase: "Maori have no extra rights or privileges under the Treaty or in the policy of the New Zealand government," when it would be truer to say that whatever rights Maori organisations do enjoy, they enjoy them under the same system of law that serves us all.

But I can't see that this is Orewa-in-drag as some commentators have claimed. Read the two side-by-side. Brash is trying to declare an impending race war (…racially divided nation, with two sets of laws … divisive trend to embody racial distinctions … that separatist path …").

Mallard talks of "the spirit of the Treaty in terms of New Zealand in 2004" as "open-ended, not a straitjacket. It was a preliminary agreement to an on-going relationship under the same law and government." Brash casts it as an artefact from which we must move on and intones against projecting "current values onto 19th century New Zealand."

At a personal level, there's an undercurrent of the politics of resentment in the Orewa speech that I could never relate to. I just don't think I was angry enough, or will ever be. As an injection of ginger, Brash's speech did us all a favour - there would not have been the obligation to reflect that resulted in the (re)positioning behind Mallard's speech. But as a vision, it seems as mired in grievance as any of the malcontents on whom it trains its sights.

Among my bookshop hauls on this trip was another essay: A.R.D. Fairburn's spiritedly indignant We New Zealanders, published in 1944 as a stand-alone volume by the Progressive Publishing Society. Fairburn was at the time in transit from Marxism to Social Credit and is consequently hopeless on economics, but much of the rest of it, such as his railing against "wowsers" and "some unusually virulent outbreaks of 'morality'" at the time, seems to resonate quite well in 2004. I'll leave comment on that book for now, because I have some plans to return to it more comprehensively.

And, finally, by way of flippant conclusion, who else saw Shortland Street last night? Evil psycho Dom turns up The Chills' 'Pink Frost', a pretty little thing about murder in the night, murmurs "I love this song," and drowns the too-clever-for-her-own-good Avril in the bath. Now there was a cultural moment …