Hard News by Russell Brown

Silly season

Since Don Brash's Orewa speech, there has been a lot of huffing and puffing from his supporters about name-calling and playing the man, not the ball, and, y'know, having the debate. They would seem to have hurtled down from the high ground with Gerry Brownlee's latest outburst.

A group of Catholic and Anglican bishops has released what appears to be a sincere and concerned open letter calling for a Treaty debate, rather than a race debate, and expressing the view that special programmes for Maori were needs-based, not race-based. For their trouble they got this:

Mr Brownlee, a Catholic, accused the group of Anglican and Catholic bishops of "weak thinking" and said they were like something out of the television satire Blackadder.

He also accused the bishops of failing as the "moral leaders" of society.

"Where were they on the prostitution bill? Not a whisper. Where were they on the lowering of the drinking age? Not a whisper. Where are they on the civil union bill?

"Their silence is the reason there are child prostitutes on the streets of Christchurch," he said.

Apart from being insulting - and quite irrelevant to the "debate" we're supposed to be having - this is ludicrous. For a start, six National MPs voted for the Prostitution Law Reform Bill. Had they not done so, the bill would have failed. Even if you accept Brownlee's highly dubious assertion that the bill (which has barely taken effect) is responsible for there being child prostitution in Christchurch, aren't they rather more to blame than people who had no vote at all?

It's sillier still when you consider that the churches were actually all over the Prostitution Law Reform Bill. The Catholic church opposed it, as did a group of Catholic and Anglican bishops who - ironically - released an open letter outlining their concerns. On the other hand, the multi-denominational Churches Agency on Social Issues supported the bill in principle, but sought changes to it. In the midst of it, the Anglican assistant bishop of Auckland, Richard Randerson, gave a thoughtful sermon in which he expressed doubts about the bill, and offered a sympathetic view of committed gay relationships.

Speaking of which, what on earth is Brownlee doing comparing child prostitution with a move to create a form of civil union that offers same-sex couples basic rights? Would he care to expand on that for public consumption? Brownlee as deputy leader has been a real find for National - sticking with Nick Smith while he battles a contempt charge would have been disastrous - but if he carries on in this vein he is surely going to come a cropper.

By the same token, government members are behaving almost as oddly. Helen Clark has swapped her LOTR chain-mail outfit for a nifty little number in Teflon. Turns out she never really thought closing all those schools was a good idea, and Trevor never took the idea to Cabinet so how could it be her fault? I assume it's true that Mallard didn't present detailed proposals to Cabinet. I find it rather harder to believe that the Prime Minister remained somehow unaware of what he's been doing for the past year and a half. Labour MPs who used up valuable political capital backing the school reviews - such as Invercargill's Mark Peck - might now be feeling a bit confused.

Meanwhile, Steve Maharey has published a thinkpiece in which he muses that, hey, maybe a deadline on Treaty claims wouldn't be a bad idea after all. But he does so by way of an aside, rather than a conclusion. Is he running a new policy up the flagpole, thinking out loud, or what? The unfortunate thing for the government is that no one really seems to know. What on earth is going on?

Still, at least Winston Peters is enjoying himself.

Anyway, OtherPundit is all fizzed up at the sight of another conservative Maori - Ngai Tahu's Te Maire Tau, who is interviewed by Bruce Ansley in The Listener this week. The image of Ngai Tahu as a very businesslike tribe is not inaccurate. Many iwi have sought to redefine themselves as corporate entities: Ngai Tahu, for a range of reasons, is better at it than anyone else. While Tainui, bogged down in governance wars and prone to poor decisions, has lost a big chunk of its Treaty settlement, Ngai Tahu has nearly doubled its money. As Ansley points out, it doesn't need handouts. But the impression that Ngai Tahu's view of the world is somehow in sync with that of Don Brash is misleading.

Tau unabashedly makes a distinction between the rights of Maori organisations and the question of ethnicity. He has the law on his side. But the grumpy public, at least so far as the polls show, is not making the same distinction, and since the Orewa speech National has been happy - keen, even - to blur the two.

It's very strange that the foreshore debate isn't mentioned at all in the story, because it's there that the impression of a sympathy with the the present political centre-right would collapse. Read Tahu Potiki's unflinching speech on the issue to the Act Party's foreshore conference last October. It is about property rights, and on past form Ngai Tahu won't be shy about asserting its own. (Potiki also warns off any move on the Maori broadcast funding agency, Te Mangai Paho.)

Ngai Tahu's attitude to ethnicity, in so far as it is represented by Tau, ought not be a surprise either. It carried such a view through, for example, the endless Maori fisheries wrangle, insisting always that it wasn't about population, but property. It simply suits Ngai Tahu to decline to recognise a broader Maori identity. Its perspective is closer in many ways to that of iwi fundamentalists like Tariana Turia than it is to that of John Tamihere.

There's another irony here, in that Ngai Tahu, a rich organisation getting richer (and admirably so) would defend its right to continue to receive what Brash depicts as "special" treatment, while poor urban Maori - those in need - would be left to fend for themselves because they have been unfortunate enough to have lost their tribal affiliations.

Tau can brag that his tribe would never let a taniwha get in the way of a road. Yet it vigorously defends its right to govern use of and access to its sacred mountain, Aoraki Mt Cook, and demand, as this site puts it, "a degree of protection that transcends all other protected natural areas". I don't see a fundamental difference there.

One more thing. The guilt-ridden Otago student Brash keeps talking about appears, so far as I can tell, to have gained his $1000 scholarship from Ngai Tahu, and not the taxpayer. (I can't see why, if he thought it was so wrong for him to get money he didn't need, the young man went to the trouble of applying for the scholarship in the first place.)

Anyway, happier things: I was struck by the fact that almost all the feedback about yesterday's consideration of The Lord of the Rings came from expatriate New Zealanders (many of them at American universities). Perhaps national pride is more keenly felt at a distance.

Closer to home, Andrew Llewellyn remembers going to school with Best Sound Oscar-winner Mike Hedges: "Even then he was always tinkering with amps and stuff. An Oscar-winning geek."

Yep. That's the point, to me. People like that, who always had something special going on, getting a chance to show it.

Anyway, I'm off to Wellington today, to record a couple of episodes of Off the Wire, do some interviews for a story on telecommunications infrastructure and buy a bit of tableware at Moore Wilson. See you up Courtenay Place later on, hey?