Hard News by Russell Brown

Reaching for the logic

Gordy doesn't know why I'm "so obsessed with Act" and is taking extreme exception to the phrase "the big fella", which he regards as equally as "thuggish" as "black fella". I'm not sure if he'd agree with the big people's rights advocate who declared on TV last night that "there should be a law against it": "it" being, presumably, the use of the phrase "big fella". Far be it from me to start declaring "political correctness gone mad," but don't you think we're going a tiny bit far here?

(I'd point out that at times I have been less-than-svelte myself, but I can't escape the thought that I'd sound like one of those people who insist they can say anything they want because they're one-sixteenth Maori.)

PA reader Andrew Llewellyn said this in an email yesterday:

I reckon, if I went down to the six foot something PI guy I work with and asked him "How're you going big fella", I'd get a polite response. However, if I tried the other line, I might not get such enthusiastic cooperation in future, when I need his help.

Which is pretty much how I saw it. The fact that I needed to slip an asterisk into "bl*ck fella" (but not "big fella") to avoid this morning's mail-out being caught by over-excited corporate mail filters is as good an indication as any of the wholly different social impact of the words.

But I didn't hear Tamihere's earlier crack (about Brownlee casting a big shadow) and in that context I agree, he was, er, labouring the point. But none of the people currently in such dudgeon over alleged fattism rushed to the aid of Tariana Turia when Winston Peters was much nastier to her. On the other hand, Turia had a devastatingly dry comeback, and Brownlee didn't. I don't think Brownlee's a bad guy, or a racist (I'm very careful about applying the "r" word to people) and I'm sure he's sorry. But it's hard to deny that it was an astonishingly stupid thing to say for a brand-new Maori Affairs spokesman. And then the O'Regan woman appeared to make a ludicrous comparison between Don Brash and Hitler on Linda Clark's show yesterday. I think I'm entitled to the view that the "debate" has already become stupid and debased to an alarming degree.

And the Act thing? Well, I wouldn't say "obsessed". By my count, I've mentioned the party in four posts this year - in three cases in response to statements and releases that were inaccurate or misrepresentative of the truth. Part of me would rather not, but parties on the margin have more clearly defined principles and are more interesting to write about - readers will recall that I like to nag the Green Party sometimes too.

And it needs to be said that for a party that brands itself on intellectual rigour, Act has released some very shabby stuff this year. Franks makes arguments I don't necessarily agree with, but makes them well. But Muriel Newman's last missive was garbage whose production and distribution I object to funding. If she had recycled a racist myth about Jewish or Chinese New Zealanders, rather than Maori, might there have been more indignation?

BTW, Andrew also had this to pass on:

I sent feedback to the Muriel line mentioning the Moriori thing. I got a really bright reply back from a minion, thanking me for the feedback and links (to an NZ history site), and assuring me that (paraphrased because I can't be bothered opening it again) the tide is turning, the government is a disgrace, the racial divide is widening (is this a good thing do they think?) and Arthur will again be king. Or something like that. You should try it.

Nah. Too scary for me. I've had some sensible feedback on this, most notably from a self-described Labour-voting lawyer, who, in part, said this:

Brash is enunciating the classic liberal position on equality: people should be treated equally regardless of their race. If you believe, as I do, that race should not determine your rights to participate in your community or its politics, it is a difficult proposition to argue with. In the abstractly philosophical sense, it's the moral high ground. It's in the United Nations' Declaration of Human Rights. It's what we fight for in South Africa and it's what we fight for in Zimbabwe. I just don't see a way around it.

In NZ, this proposition is met by the modern Treaty of Waitangi jurisprudence. Here is the great difficulty - because our situation is more complicated. We don't face a choice between right and wrong, we have a clash between two ideals:

1. That justice is achieved by treating all people equally; or

2. That justice is achieved by observing agreements justly made (ie: observing the treaty).

Both are true to some extent. But when upholding (2) means violating (1), which should prevail?

Sound points. And if Brash had acknowledged the dilemma in his speech, I would have been more favourably disposed towards it. But he didn't. And it's useful to recall that the foreshore issue would exist even if the Treaty didn't - as the Privy Council would tell you, it's dug deep in the common law. I think public access to the beaches is sacrosanct, and I'm tired of hearing from some Maori suddenly claiming they own all the beaches as of right. But I'm open to dialogue around it. If you asked New Zealanders whether there should be constraints on commercial development of some historically significant stretches of coastline - one valid way of looking at the government's foreshore proposal - you'd probably get an interesting answer.

Sometimes Brash appears to suggest that Maori should be denied property rights and recourse to the courts because they are Maori. The so-called "unlimited tangi leave" in the new employment laws referred to by Brash is (a) limited, and (b) available to all New Zealanders with cultural or ceremonial responsibilities, including kaumatua and lay church officials. Is Brash saying it should be available to no one? Or not to Maori? And anyway, his logic's poked: people who can show responsibility as kaumatua are a tiny, tiny fraction of the active Maori workforce. It is completely irrational to say that employers should avoid hiring Maori on account of it. Should they steer clear of Christians too?

Once unpicked, his attack on "racial" health and education programmes doesn't make much sense either. Those programmes amount to a tiny fraction of their respective budgets and - by his own account - Brash would actually maintain most of them, changing only the rationale. And if a "racial" health scheme targets an ethnic group because of a particular genetic vulnerability - sound public health policy, one would think - is it still bad?

Too much of what's being said isn't logic, it's dodgy populism. I'm seeing the other end of it in emails that make a similar angry noise when they land in my inbox to the ones I got last year from some anti-GE people (I wonder if Maori issues is the centre-right's GE?). There has been an emotional constituency available on this issue for years, but I believe that politicians who choose to tap it need to be wary about what happens next, and about what they can really deliver in response.

Anyway, I've just done an interesting interview with Jack Vowles on polls and public opinion in the wake of the Brash speech, which will air on Mediawatch, National Radio, 9.06am Sunday. Worth a listen, I hope. Toodle-pip.