Hard News by Russell Brown

The long campaign

Clearly, it is going to be a very long election campaign. Helen Clark has made her "bring it on" speech, Richard Prebble has outlined the case for Act, and Don Brash has sounded the horn of triumph. Already.

I got an email about Brash's speech from someone who, rather self-consciously, declared his intention to remain anonymous "for now":

Brash's second speech simply demolishes - destroys - the case of his opponents. So little of intellectual weight has yet been advanced by Brash's opponents that I concede this does not take much.

Brash's "challenge" at the end of his speech is a straw man - things so ridiculous that no one could seriously support them. But all these things actually occurred - and that is why people are having the collective sigh of relief to which Brash refers. It is these incredibly foolish fringe activities that have prepared the fertile ground Brashy is now exploiting.

And it *is* madness - a special kind of left wing bigotry that us on the left MUST confront. The right's foolish economic and social policies are out of vogue because they don't work. Don't let it be said that our own ideology equally blinds us to life's realities.

As it happens, I do think it is a crisper speech than that delivered, with its carefully burnished generalisations and selective history, at Orewa. More of it actually sounds like Brash.

Brash does make a clear argument against "the whole bi-lingual, bi-partisan, partnership framework", in favour of an interpretation of the Treaty as "fundamentally … the launching pad for the creation of one sovereign nation". He rejects the broader findings of the courts as mere judicial activism and briskly disowns the philosophy pursued by National through the 1990s, when ministers frequently spoke of partnership under the Treaty. He's well within his rights to mock Labour's policy panic attack. That's all fine.

But to decry the attention focused "on two sentences in a 5000 word speech" (it was actually more than that) regarding so-called race-based funding in health and education is just a bit rich. It was precisely those angles that struck a chord with the public, and Brash himself who wound the dial further with his ill-advised comments about the lesser value of qualifications earned by Maori. How many times did he tell the story of the Otago lad and his undeserved scholarship? If he didn't want those issues to dominate the headlines, perhaps he shouldn't have talked about them so much.

The fact is that it is not the drier arguments that have captured the public mood, but the murky generalisations, a number of which feature in the "challenge" with which he concludes his speech. "Life's realities" certainly deserve a look in here. A few of the challenges:

Should we pay for three kaumatua to accompany frogs from the Waikato to Christchurch so the frogs can be given a powhiri when they arrive?

Ah, the frogs. This is clearly a McCully contribution. Last year, 49 rare native frogs, in danger of extinction from a fungal disease, were gathered from a Waikato forest and taken to a captive facility at Canterbury university. Three kaumatua from the local iwi accompanied them, at an expense to DoC of just under $2500, including $41 for food. McCully decried this variously as "political correctness gone mad" and "political correctness out of control". National's Judith Collins joined in the sneering: "Nowhere in the Treaty did it say that the New Zealand taxpayer would fund kaumatua to accompany the travels of native frogs from the North to the South Islands - and then have them die anyway."

Only three out of 49 frogs died, but let's not let that get in a way of a good story, eh? To anyone who cares about the science, they were actually extraordinarily important frogs, part of a genuinely valuable biological heritage. But what none of the detractors ever manage to say is that the iwi was part of the project, and members went out into the forest helped gather the frogs. It sounds rather less preposterous that representatives should accompany the transfer in that light.

Should we allow the supposed home of a Taniwha to hold up a roading project?

The taniwha and the road have become emblematic of the whole argument - remarkably so, given what actually happened. Local iwi representatives complained that the new bypass near Mercer would destroy a swamp that was home to a taniwha (or, if you prefer the secular version, a place of great historical importance to people who had lived in the area a very long time). It took a month to work out a compromise: Transit offered to build a steeper embankment that would preserve the swamp. Thing is, the project itself will be five years late when it finally arrives in 2006, thanks to problems with budgets and land subsidence. Presumably, many of those who drive past that odd "bridge to nowhere" by State Highway One believe it is still that way because a taniwha got in the road. It simply isn't true.

Should we allow the supposed nearby home of a taniwha to halt the construction of a new prison?

We didn't. The presence of a nearby taniwha was cited, among other grounds, by a fringe group as among the grounds for the scrapping of plans for a prison at Ngawha Springs in Northland, but their appeal was rejected by the Environment Court, despite the support of Act MP Muriel Newman and the Green Party (the established local iwi, Ngati Rangi, had already worked with the Corrections Department and approved of the project). The prison project has meanwhile been plagued by the same problems as the Mercer road: budget and subsidence. Maybe there's something in this taniwha business after all …

Should universities have to check with iwi before doing routine research? Should medical research have to be checked against the Treaty?

There has certainly been some airy stuff written and said about this, but the actual ethics guidelines for health research published by the Human Rights Commission ("All issues relating to Maori cultural and ethical values should be resolved in discussion with the whanau, hapu or iwi concerned. The ownership rights of participants to personal data must be respected") seem reasonable and unexceptional.

I could go on, but I'd better do some work (I'll try and write a Wellington travelogue tomorrow). The more you look at these things, the more they look like a matter of decent people seeking solutions - and the solutions might not always be amenable to absolute logic or the loftiest principle, as Trevor Mallard discovered last week with his foolish outburst against the Muslim prayer room at Hagley College.

Conclusion: Don Brash is welcome to demolish what he sees as myths about the Treaty. I'm increasingly inclined to the view that we ought to have a big, formal, public discussion about what the Treaty means to us. The trouble arises when he propagates myths of his own.