Hard News by Russell Brown

Rushes of blood

Clearly, things got emotional at Waitangi this year, but we'd do well to remember that we have seen far more dramatic events in Waitangi Day's brief history as a national celebration.

In 1984, the last commemoration before Treaty claims were seriously addressed, 3000 people marched on the marae amid a police operation (which some still maintain was personally directed by the then Prime Minister Robert Muldoon) that dwarfed those of today. An historic meeting between Maori and the Crown (in the person of governor general Sir David Beattie) was sunk by a combination of tribal politics and remarkable duplicity on the part of the Muldoon government. Now that was dramatic. By the following year, things were different.

Nonetheless, there was enough in this year's encounters to suggest where we might be heading. Even those who normally possess some reserve became over-excited. Act MP Stephen Franks found what appeared to be somewhat of a rant leading the following day's New Zealand Herald.

Given the number of, um, colourful characters in his party, Franks ability to expound Act's core ideas in a considered and accurate way is valuable. But there he was, telling the Herald that the governor general's speech considering the meaning of the Treaty and the phrase "he iwi tahi tatou"- one which, as the representative of one signatory, the Crown, you would think she was entitled to make - marked her as a captive of "the separatist agenda". I hope he has calmed down on his return to Wellington, and might in future treat the Queen's representative with a little more respect.

Franks' ire was also directed at "disgraceful" and "preposterous" speeches by local Maori on the marae, many of which, he complained, where historically fanciful. Yes, as a follow-up story indicates, in some cases they were. But Franks ought to look a little closer to home before he goes to the papers to complain about the mangling of history.

Act MP Muriel Newman's latest weekly column (wittily named 'The Column') contains the following astonishing paragraph:

Leaders and academics that hark back to the pre-European days of Maori domination of New Zealand have driven this opportunism. They appear to conveniently forget that Maori violently conquered the Moriori, the original settlers, and their claims of tangata whenua status and demands for compensation for historical grievances appear to many to be ill informed.

It is difficult to understand how someone who knows so little can muster so much arrogance. So let us be clear: there was never any such thing as the Moriori as a pre-existing settler race. The idea never had any foundation in historical evidence and was finally debunked by ethnologists in the 1920s, although it hung on in some settings (notably school curricula) until the early 1970s. It is now limited to crackpot histories, usually in its evolved form as the Waitaha myth (distinguishable from the Moriori myth in that its lost tribe is pale-skinned, rather than Melanesian).

The Moriori story is discussed by Michael King in his Penguin History of New Zealand as a constituent of "the Great New Zealand Myth" and "a consequence of social Darwinist ideas current at the time of its invention":

This saga with its lurid allegations of Moriori physical and mental 'inferiority' was assembled from contaminated and unrelated fragments of so-called Maori tradition. It had no basis in history or ethnology …

Further, the very notion that Maori had displaced and colonised a more primitive people was both evidence of their superiority and an implicit justification for what Europeans, representatives of a still higher order or civilisation, had done to Maori in turn ('in colonising you and your country we did no more than that which you had already done to Moriori').

Unnervingly, this is precisely the context in which it is evoked by Newman. So history is being abused on all sides. But a rush of blood from the paepae is one thing: the publication of a racist myth by an elected representative - with the veneer of credibility that entails - is another. My vote did not elect Muriel Newman, but my taxes maintain her in her position and my children are growing up into a nation that she is in a position to shape. It simply isn't good enough.

Unfortunately, the rest of The Column bears the increasingly hysterical tone of Newman's recent speeches and statements:

Yet in a move that smacks of extreme racism, Labour has increased its relentless appeasement to Maori by drafting legislative proposals to transfer the control of New Zealand’s future commercial marine development to Maori.

"Relentless appeasement"? Is she talking about her fellow New Zealanders or the Third Reich here? Apart from the obligatory nod to tame culture ("The recent renaissance in Maori culture has spawned a widespread fascination in things Maori and many progressive Maori are enjoying this renaissance") Newman seems happy to depict Maori as the enemy. There are little bits of pure talkback:

Meanwhile struggling taxpayers question why they should be compensating Maori descendants for land disputes that are 150 years old.

Because those "property disputes" - most of which are rather less than 150 years old - have been exposed to due process and compensation has been found to be due, and to be a politically more acceptable option than, say, the simple re-confiscation of raupatu land from its current private owners. Is Newman saying here that historical settlements should not have been made? And if not, what exactly is she saying?

She then goes out to outline an alarming characterisation of the government's much-delayed new regulation of marine farming ("Essentially, local Maori could propose marine farming ventures – in partnership with any other investor – in the middle of a popular tourist area and there will be virtually no way of stopping such a development") for which I can find no support in written material from Local Government New Zealand (whose November 2003 paper, while flagging concerns about regulatory burden, seems to say quite the opposite as regards the creation of aquaculture management areas), the Resource Management Law Association or Forest and Bird.

Ironically, her depiction of the foreshores proposal ("Labour intends to transfer billions of dollars of Crown-owned assets from the control of the New Zealand public to that of a racial minority") quite neatly meets the utterances of those in Maoridom who have lately been proclaiming their ownership of the entire coastline, when the Appeal Court said nothing of the kind. Thus, those on the extremes of the debate perpetuate each others' arguments. It's handy for them, but dangerous for the rest of us.

I do fear for the quality of the debate everyone keeps saying we need to have, both because it is falling to the extremes and because the facts appear to be receding into the distance. In yesterday's Sunday Star Times, Ruth Laugesen and Anthony Hubbard sought to determine the reality of the "racial" allocation of social services condemned in Don Brash's speech.

They discovered that Maori, who constitute 15.4% of the population, receive only 14.7% of the mainstream health budget (a function of the Maori population being relatively young). On top of that, about 2% of the total health budget, $158 million, goes on programmes specifically targeted at improving Maori health (and presumably saving the taxpayer money in the long run). All but $22 million of this money goes to Maori service providers, to which Brash professes no objection. In education, programmes aimed "primarily or solely at Maori" amounted to around $118m - or 1.5% of the total budget - in 2002. Brash's appeal to the politics of resentment might not have had quite the same resonance had he quoted those figures.

Anyway, I can see I'll have to have one more dart at this in earnest, but not today. It's too nice outside for one thing. And I have a little catching up to do after an entirely agreeable trip to Christchurch last week. I went down to record an episode of the comedy news quiz Off the Wire as part of the promotion for the launch of National Radio's 101FM frequency in Christchurch.

It was a chance to spend some time in the boisterous and delightful company of Joe Bennett, and to meet some people, including the mayor, Gary Moore, who, as it transpires, is a Hard News fan.

Christchurch - where I went to school but have rarely visited since - seems to be a place where as many buildings are removed as put up. It feels roomy, even with its crowds of tourists. Those tourists of course make the city's contemporary boutiquery viable, and they were certainly the bulk of the trade where we ate after the show, a place called The Viaduct (the irony!).

Sir Gil Simpson once told me that Christchurch's "cultural infrastructure" was a key element of his ability to hire good people from overseas. The mayor refers to a "cultural spine" running from the Cathedral to the museum. (It was nice to meet a mayor with a genuine passion for his city, rather than, as is the case with Auckland's incumbent, a passion for the sound of his own voice.) The spine includes, of course, the city's new art gallery, which is magnificent, and, happily, holds two of my favourite New Zealand paintings, Rita Angus's Cass and As there is a flow of light, we are born into the pure land by Colin McCahon. We have the McCahon in reproduction in our lounge, but the original is far, far more striking. Elements of the McCahon heritage - the manic Catholicism, the letters and numbers - pass me by, but some of his paintings have such an impact on me that they literally make me cry. I don't quite understand it.

Another highly agreeable element of the boutiquery is Whisky Galore, on Colombo St, just by the corner with Kilmore. I think this is the best whisky shop I have ever seen, and certainly one of the more reasonable in terms of price. I departed for the airport on Thursday with a bottle of the Finlaggan ($55) and the glow of a wee dram and a most pleasant conversation with the owner, Michael Fraser Milne. There are ways for me to be happy, and that is one of them.