Hard News by Russell Brown

The mother of all debates

Am I the only one watching the story of the 16-year-old Sri Lankan girl with a growing sense of disbelief? For a start, would it kill One News to remind its viewers that she was sent home because, like hundreds of other people every year, she didn't meet the criteria for refugee status?

After initially lying to immigration officials - claiming political persecution - the girl and her grandmother changed their story to what appears to be the true one: that she was sexually abused by two members of her extended family. This is horrible, but it maketh not a refugee. The girl belonged in care in her own country - which, thanks to the actions of New Zealand officials, is where she now is. Sri Lanka isn't West Africa or Afghanistan.

On the other hand, what on earth did the Minister of Immigration, Lianne Dalziel think she was doing? At this point in the endlessly shifting story of what is claimed to be a privileged letter from the girl's lawyer, we now know that the letter - which appeared to carry potentially embarrassing jottings about a campaign to solicit public opinion should a Refugee Status decision go badly - was placed on a TV3 gallery reporter's desk by a member of Dalziel's staff. This, after Dalziel had told reporters she didn't know how it got there.

The matter of how her office actually got the letter is now mired in an odd-sounding tale of to-ing and fro-ing that somehow encompasses - and I bet this is going down a storm on the ninth floor - Helen Clark's electorate staff.

On the face of it, it simply didn't have to be this way. The applicants, having initially been dishonest, and eventually failing to meet the rules, had been flown home. Why try to trump the process by leaking the letter? And why take the foolhardy step of trying to exploit the ongoing rivalry between One News and 3 National News? It was amazingly dumb. Yes, there was clearly a degree of emotional manipulation going, with the help of media that had been given the story, but ministers are supposed to be above all that. It's a shocker and it'll probably get worse.

WTF is up with David Cohen? I realised yesterday that his February 5 Media Watch (no relation) column in the NBR (I couldn't find it online) contained the longish sentence: "But when a National Radio media show host can seriously liken the policy position taken by a democratically elected leader to the insane Pol Pot regime, then clearly something of a rather different order is going on."

Clearly, this referred to me, but I was stumped by it for a while. The implication a reasonable person might take is that I said that on National Radio. I didn't. I didn't say it at all. About two weeks ago, in Hard News, I used the phrase "year zero", in its common-enough sense of referring to something that sweeps away all that has gone before. For my own peace of mind yesterday, I Googled up some instances of it, and found it used in reference to September 11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel and the teaching of English history in British schools, among other things. In most instances it appears in title case. I've used it myself before, in taking issue with a column by Denis Dutton.

Had Cohen actually printed what I said, and where I said it, and let readers make up their own minds, it might have been alright. But he didn't, and it's not the first time he's mentioned me in an odd and misleading way in his column (my name was the only one mentioned - twice - in a column last year on an unfortunate incident of plagiarism at Real Groove magazine, in such a way that a casual reader would have thought I had something to do with it, where my only connection to the magazine is that I write a column for it). Cohen and I have the odd thing in common, and we've had perfectly cordial correspondence at times. You know me, I don't mind a bit of ginger (he can bemoan my "pathological raving" as often as he likes) but I really wonder what goes on in his head sometimes.

So anyway, just in case: if anybody else thought I was "seriously likening" Don Brash to a psychopathic dictator who forcibly relocated city dwellers to the country, banned religion and money and ordered the slaughter of nearly two million people, I wasn't. For the further avoidance of doubt, I've made the dread phrase lower case. But really…

I do think National's new policy meets the definition of revisionism, for better or worse. A fair chunk of what the party is now promising to sweep away is its own handiwork - many of the people who did it are still there. And I'm a bit weary of being urged to "have the discussion" by a leader who lacked the courtesy to "have the discussion" with his own Maori Affairs and Treaty Settlements spokesperson, or with any senior Maori member of his own party, in forming his policy.

Mind you, I'm still not sure what National is proposing to do. In an impressive performance on Face the Nation last night Gerry Brownlee answered the question "What would you do?" with the undertaking to remove reference to the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi from any law "where it is irrelevant, or creates two classes of New Zealanders."

Admittedly, he was pressed for time, but hasn't Don Brash been firmly promising to expunge all references to Treaty principles? And what happened to getting rid of the Maori seats, killing Maori Television, ending all "racial" public health and education measures, and then, after a breather, looking at getting rid of Te Puni Kokiri, Te Mangai Paho and the post of Minister of Maori Affairs? I've said since the day after Brash's speech that I thought much of this was not just unwise but virtually un-doable, and that many people seem to have extravagant and unrealistic expectations.

Anyway, this would be an opportune time for a digest of some more readers' emails on the matter over the past two or three weeks. Some emails have been abridged, and abusive messages from idiots have not been considered for publication…

Rona Ensor said this:

My 74 year old Maori mother who has despite my best efforts been a paid up member of the National Party for fifty years has done nothing but weep since his appalling speech. I have copied off your comments and sent them to her to reinforce her aggravation. Go look for Ngati Rangiwewehi's case in the Eastern Bay of Plenty Resource consent process over water supply for the Rotorua District Council, and see why Maori get really grumpy about the issues confronting the whole nation. The case was heard last week in Rotorua. The only media to cover it so far was Te Karere.

Rob Stowell had this point to make:

Informed debate on the "race issue" is vital. And while I could never vote for the man, I gather Brash does make one good point. We've built a legal edifice on the treaty that the document just wasn't designed to handle. It's small, it contains, even in the written Maori version, an important and unresolved internal contradiction (James Belich's analysis in "Making Peoples" is cogent and worth reading - actually the whole book is bloody good) and it just wasn't intended to take such weight. A new flag would be great, but far more important is something like a constitution. It would have to include the treaty, but would indicate where and how it's applicable. And it'd have to enshrine "one law for all" (which it seems to me is and always has been fundamentally the case, contrary to Mr Brash). The bigger the legal edifice we built on a shaky foundation, the more wobbly it'll get.

Daniel Barnes had further common on the dichotomy identified by our Labour-voting lawyer, between keeping faith with a contract (the Treaty) and pursuing equality as an absolute condition of human rights:

Your lawyer reader is correct in that in principle law must try to be equalitarian etc. and this seems to create difficulties of racially based rights.

However, I think the reply to that is based on an equally fundamental democratic principle, and that is the responsibility of a democracy to protect minorities. Minorities hand over their power of self-determination to a democratic government on the condition that they will be protected from the majority that will wield power. And for the majority, with power comes this responsibility. Clearly, governments have failed to live up to this responsibility to Maori in the past, and this should be, perhaps, the source of grievance claims.

The identification and definition of inviolable ethnic-specific rights seems a far more complicated and dangerous process to me, not to mention being basically anti-democratic. It seems to open up mutual intolerance, and fundamentalism.

Total focus on the Treaty itself is a mistake too, though it is undoubtedly a valuable document. I think this falls into a version of contractualism that ACT would be proud of, whereas ultimately a democratic state must be able to trump the power of a contract.

Brash forgets there's more than one principle to a democracy.

Idiot/Savant chipped in with a cautionary note on taking up such issues with Act Party MPs:

Another reason not to email Muriel Newman: last time I did it, my email address somehow ended up in the hands of her husband, who proceeded to spam me with an ad for his money management seminars and stock tips.

Privacy? Schmivacy! Clearly, he's just insufficiently pro-market, eh readers? Meanwhile, Philip Wilkie was concerned about the radical fringe of the Maori sovereignty movement:

These radical "Maori own everything" concepts have in the last decade gained much ground among a certain now politically and financially enabled minority of tribal Maori groups and yet any attempt to challenge these opinions has been either silenced with the racism word, or a patronising sneer about how us "emotional types" couldn't possibly grasp the complex legal niceties involved.

And yet it is simply axiomatic that pre-European Maori enjoyed NO common law rights, as such a concept simply did not exist at that time. And arguably when Maori signed up for Treaty of Waitangi, that in accepting the undoubted benefits of British citizenship as equals with the European colonists, they also signed AWAY any subsequent common law rights as indigenous peoples. Is it not a fair question?

If only the courts had seen it that way, it would have been so much simpler. But they haven't. Meanwhile, Andrew R wondered if there was another dimension to National's apparent leap into favour - and given the performance of Brash and Brownlee recently, he's probably at least half right:

Was just thinking that the massive switch to National in the polls (which may be brief), is perhaps not so much a reaction to the Maori speech content but to perceived leadership standing up in the National Party. Centre-right voters have been in the wilderness for years without a viable option. ACT, NZ First and National all have suffered from fairly major deficiencies - National especially, with no apparent policy and weak leadership. Centre-right voters have surely been waiting for something solid to hold on to - and Don Brash has given that, even if they missed the content of the speech. Politics is all about perception - and he seems to be playing that very well.
.... And I still don't like any of them!

Gregor Ronald went looking for the classical liberal high ground down the pub - and didn't find it:

I thought the [quiz] was brilliant (though I got 8/12 and felt suitably humble) so I printed the questions & answers, and took them to my neighbourhood Chch pub at Sunday teatime. The response? "I don't give a fuck about facts, these bloody Horis have got it coming."


Adam Pope had a bit more luck in his search [he didn't say which page he had referenced, so I've copied the relevant text from this one - RB]…

Just ferreted out the second principle of John Rawls' Theory of Justice:

Rawls maintains that people in the original position would choose the following special conception of justice:

(1) Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.

(2a) Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged and
(2b) are attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.

Thus Maori are enabled in a free society. I don't necessarily agree with it (it gets attacked very effectively by the communitarians) but provide it for your edification regarding liberalism.

David Moloney said this:

I did not do too well in the test but was often close with the financial answers. I have noticed in the past few years that normally liberal people I know have become very anti Maori. What triggered the change it would seem is the Maori Professors who claimed gas ,oil and the radio spectrum for Maori and the lecturing by the Associate Minister of Maori affairs whose father was a US Marine. All not very logical and I don't think that attitude is confined to educated liberals.

Christopher Dempsey didn't feel threatened:

Your analysis of the whole Treaty of Waitangi debate is refreshingly sane and sensible in what is rapidly becoming a wasteland of shrill people … As a 6/7th generation Kiwi, I've no problems dealing with Maori or ToW issues - it seems to me that only 3rd or 4th generation people have a problem with it. I don't feel threatened at all by Maori and feel a sense of partnership - a rather unique one at that.

Hadyn Green thought that "one law for all" had potential:

I love the one law for everyone stance, because most of us don't think of it past the issue that it is presented with (i.e. Maori land issues). One law for everyone also means that same-sex marriages will be legalised under a National government. That defacto couples will have EXACTLY the same rights as married couples etc. And a young Maori kid in Mangere who is picked up by the police while carrying knives and a loaded pistol will be released with a warning because his lawyer will argue that he "fell in with the wrong crowd" just like any former Auckland 'Land Baron'. [Note: I don't actually believe any of this will happen]]

Ross Barkman was thinking along similar lines:

One way to look at the balance between "treat everyone with absolute equality" and "affirmative action" or "honouring the Treaty" is to compare this debate with the debate over sexism. Now, most people now agree that treating men & women differently solely on the basis of sex is wrong.

But, hang on, doesn't that mean that health programs that target women, such as breast & cervical cancer screening, are "sexist"? Of course it doesn't - women have specific health needs that men don't. And vice versa, of course. So having health programmes that target the specific health needs of Maori is not "racist" or favouritism.

How about the programmes to get more women into the professions, into government and into senior management? While these may be less relevant now than they once were, are they not "sexist"? Again, no - they are an attempt to re-balance society and redress past wrongs. Maori have had the dirty end of the socio-economic stick in NZ since my ancestors arrived and took over, and now we need to work and invest, all of us, to change that.

Sometimes such things have been done in rather too blatant a manner - quota systems or guaranteed places for 'minorities' of any sort are always going to raise hackles. But does anyone seriously think that Maori (or women) are sitting back doing nothing towards their education or career, or not looking after their health, simply because they know that a relatively small extra provision is made for them when they need it? Give me a break...

Brent Wheeler had similar thoughts …

The economics of information helps us understand a bit here. We use terms to efficiently summarise information. One reason people may "pick" on racial terms is that they are an efficient way of summarising information. This can help and it can hinder. In health for example, if we want to identify groups of people with certain health "needs" (the non racial term?) an efficient way to do that is to identify certain racial groups. Racism? Not necessarily. Efficient? Very likely. The downside is we sometimes use words to summarise incorrect or judgemental information - so using race as an efficient information summary to help choose employees may be a problem.

Conclusion? Information is not a free good. People will economise on costs of getting information. Some words economise efficiently. That doesn't mean the information is valid or its intended use justified. Like all apparently free lunches you have to watch it - hard.

Mark Graham looked at the affirmative-action issue:

Firstly, a lot of people are mixing up social redress programmes like university placement schemes for Maori with Treaty of Waitangi issues and holding one responsible for the other. Well it's not.

These programmes grew out of the US affirmative action policies of the 60's and 70's (that are currently under attack in the US by the right) that were promulgated to try to address social issues of blacks (and Maori in NZ) being over-represented in prisons and poor health statistics, etc.

I think it would be very difficult for anyone to argue against the principle of trying to create a fairer society by helping those who need it - and Maori are an easily identified group that can be targeted. The implementation and detail of those policies should be re-examined and debated regularly but Brash called for abolition of all race-based programmes, which is dumb. If you can identify an health issue based on ethnicity, then surely you target that ethnic group. Why does the same not hold true for poverty and ill health?

The second item is that the positive response to Brash's speech largely seems to be coming from people who have little idea of the detail but resent Maori being compensated for past wrongs, largely from a perspective of "We weren't here 200 years ago, so why should we have to pay them out now?" school of thinking (if you can call it that). The fact is the Crown and Iwi who are the partners in the Treaty ARE the same as 200 years ago - they remain the same legal entities today, though individual people have obviously been replaced. The fact remains that as late as the 1980's Maori land was being illegally taken.

I feel there is a real risk that in moving away from addressing these issues from a positive platform of attempting to resolve them, we force those looking for redress to resort to violence. Mud slung at people can possibly eventually lead to destructive actions that can hurt people and this nation.

Ah, yes. Not for the first time, Mark and I seem to think along very similar lines. And that's probably as good a note to end on as any …