It generally takes something pretty substantial to drag our media around from the day-to-day focus on personalities and press releases and towards coverage of an issue in depth, but our sudden swelling of public feeling on race is clearly such a thing.
Unsurprisingly, the New Zealand Herald is making the best fist of it so far. The Weekend Herald's Digipoll findings on Maori issues were interesting. People surveyed objected overwhelmingly to "special" treatment for Maori, but, when pressed, more than a third of respondents could name no area in which special treatment occurred. Eighty seven per cent said that the special treatment had little or no effect on themselves personally. Some people expressed concern about things that simply aren't going to happen, such as purported claims for oil and gas reserves, which are officially and emphatically off-limits.
The poll itself seemed at least partially devised to generate a headline: its questions are heavy with the words "special" and "specialist". You're never going to get New Zealanders to admit anyone else is "special". Thus, more than half of the respondents declared themselves opposed to "specialist Maori schools" and two thirds to "specialist Maori health services".
And yet the answers to the identical questions otherwise phrased - "Do you think Maori students should have the opportunity to learn more about their culture than is practical in mainstream classrooms?" and "Do you think Maori should be encouraged to deliver health services to their own communities, especially if that is shown to improve results?" - would presumably (well, you'd damn well hope) be different.
The paper's excellent Review and World section was largely given over to the issue, and focused on interviews with Pakeha middle New Zealanders from Glenfield and Putaruru (would be it churlish to point out that Glenfield doesn't represent me? Couldn't they have chosen a slightly funkier suburb? Birkenhead, perhaps?).
Among the people interviewed, there even seemed to be widespread opposition to scholarships from The Maori Education Trust and iwi organisations - which, so far as I can tell, make up the majority of those available. So not only should Maori get no public help to improve their lot, they should be prevented from helping themselves? (When you've finished sucking on that one, ask yourself whether the people who found or bequeath to trusts should be told by the government what they can do with their money.)
I don't think people really think that. The main feature story described the landscape thus:
We found a reaction that goes beyond the redneck voice of talkback radio and that crosses barriers of gender, status, age and distance. The comments of Putaruru and Glenfield residents were interchangeable.
But their verdict is also confusing: many who say we should all be treated equally also believe targeted assistance "to help Maori off the bottom" is fair enough. The same people who say "we are all New Zealanders" believe Maori culture should be encouraged.
"We should all come under the same rules," says a builder in his early 30s. Then: "I don't mind if Maori get a little more for education if they are going to come out of their slump."
Pregnant housewife Maria Lopez, 33: "I think the special treatment should be to conserve their language and culture and to keep traditions alive - but not in health or education."
And although most believe Maori do get special assistance, they struggle on the details of which areas, what form and how much. A retired Glenfield man summed it up for many: "It's basically everywhere."
None of this makes for a coherent or rational policy, as National, even as it revels in its stunning revival, is acknowledging. Across three different forums this past weekend - the Herald stories, the following day's Sunday Star Times, last night's 20/20 programme on TV3 - it proved almost impossible to discover exactly what National would and would not do in government.
The certainty of the original briefings around Brash's Orewa speech - made from the relative safety of an apparently hopeless electoral position - has dissolved. Back then, the Maori Television Service was unambiguously for the chop.
Now, in the Herald's interview with Brash, he hedges: MTS is "inefficient" (he thinks the money would be better spent on schoolbooks - but wouldn't they be "special" too?), but "there is an obligation on the Crown to support the Maori language."
In the same story, he was asked the question: To be consistent, should you not also be abolishing health, welfare and education programmes based on such things as gender, age, disability and region. Why is race-based targeting so much more objectionable? His answer:
Good question. I'm not sure I know the answer to that.
But isn't that a question you should know the answer to before you embark on this sort of thing? He continued:
I think there are some things which are specific to women, for example. Some health problems are specific to women, some health problems are specific to men. I can't think of anything in health or education which is specific to Maori.
So I think a case can be made that there are some things which are peculiar to gender and peculiar to age. I can't think of anything that is peculiar to race.
Try diabetes and rheumatic fever, to both of which Maori have a genetic disposition. Maori also suffer higher rates of all cancers, other than skin cancer, than non-Maori. I happen to suffer from gout, a condition most common among Pacific Islanders. Do I object to the fact that much of the public health material available on the condition is oriented towards Pacific Islanders? No. Of course not. And even where public health issues can be slated home to lifestyle - high rates of smoking among Maori, say - does it make sense to scrap "racial" programmes aimed at change? Murray McCully, the key figure behind the new stance, gave confusing, and confused, answers to Ruth Berry from the Herald:
Back to smoking and McCully has decided Maori smoking programmes pass the test - as long as there are other smoking programmes for non-Maori (there are).
So some "race-based" programmes are okay?
It ceases to be "race-based" if similar programmes for others exist, he says, which appears to contradict the key test he just laid down for the housing programme.
This is problematic because aside from a handful of capacity building programmes, the vast bulk of Reducing Inequality programmes targeting only ethnic groups do sit alongside other programmes for other groups.
Under the smoking logic most Reducing Inequality programmes would therefore not be "race-based" after all.
"I accept there's no easy simple test to this," McCully says.
Brash was similarly evasive in another feature interview in the Sunday Star Times:
But here is another surprise. Asked if he would abolish all government Maori scholarships if he got into power, Brash replies: "Ah, I'd like to think about that. I'd like to consider the case fully. All I'm saying at the moment is I think there are serious dangers in this. . ."
But wouldn't the voters expect that an opposition leader who said the scholarships had bad effects would abolish them as PM? "Aah, I think they would expect an opposition leader to say they have bad effects and therefore we will look carefully at the issue to see whether there are countervailing benefits. I can't see those at this point."
So there's no guarantee that he would abolish any scholarships? At this point, there is a flash of anger from the normally unflappable politician. He pauses, leans towards Richard Long, his chief of staff, and snaps: "Ah, this guy is damn good at twisting words, isn't he?"
The treble was completed by Gerry Brownlee, who as he was toured by 20/20 around "racial" Maori and Pacific Island health schemes in South Auckland, didn't seem to be able to find a single one that he would close down. That's hardly surprising. Much of what is being railed against is neither excessive or the product of "political correctness gone mad", but merely pragmatic. And if National does make the Treasury benches next year, most of it will suffer no more than a change of name, at most.
I am glad that National is being more circumspect about how it would wield the "racial" axe - and there are certainly worse predicaments to be in than having to lower expectations while you lead the polls - but the genie is out of the bottle now. People have been explicitly told they are being done down and deprived.
The Star Times has taken a harsher line against National's policy than other media - notably in its ill-advised comparison of Brash with Pauline Hanson - but across the print media, with the exception of familiar nutters like Garth George and Frank Haden, almost all the argument has taken issue, often sharply, with National's policy stance. Does this mean that journalists form an arrogant intellectual elite, distanced from the people? No, just that people whose practice is to assemble and compare facts are likely to be more circumspect on this issue than people speaking from the gut.
And, lord, the facts can be hard to come by. Yesterday, following a discussion on the issue on Chris Laidlaw's Sunday Morning programme on National Radio, Laidlaw read out two emails: one was a Muriel Newman-style bit of nonsense on the Moriori myth; the other an anecdote from a woman who had heard that Maori were able to attend university without paying fees.
The former went, lamentably, uncorrected. But Steve Maharey's office called to point out that there was no truth in the latter. I suspect there'll be a lot of media-monitoring and speedy rebuttal going on in the next few weeks. And that's fair enough. The degree of misinformation and misunderstanding on this issue is astonishing.
The Laidlaw discussion was interesting in itself. Tau Henare - who regards himself as National's great brown hope - seemed, most of the time, to be dutifully supporting both his party leader and the policies Brash wants to end. The talk got to the importance of capacity-building. "Look," he said. "If we need 1000 accountants, then the government will pay for that."
Er, no they won't, Tau. That's the whole point …
What was said on "tangi leave" was instructive too. Both Henare and Dr Ranginui Walker agreed that the days of the all-in three-day tangi were largely over. In the vast majority of cases, Maori go to a funeral and then come back to work like anyone else. The flap over this rests on the unspoken assumption that anyone with a brown skin is, potentially at least, a liar and a swindler. It's a miserable way to see your fellow New Zealanders.
And yet a few Maori act to foster just that impression. The kaumatua who tried to wriggle out of a drink-driving conviction on the basis that his arresting officer should have addressed him in te reo, for example. You can't drag your own culture into the gutter and then complain that it isn't respected.
So people have plenty of evidence of Maori misdeeds, and little enough - because that is the way news works - in the way of good news. Ironically, the most prominent examples of Maori greed and willingness to work the system have spring from people associated with the political centre-right: take a bow, Donna Awatere-Huata, Sir Graham Latimer and Tuku Morgan. Donna has done her party more good by failing so spectacularly than she ever did by succeeding.
The other irony, I suspect, is that the urge identified by National springs from the same place in our hearts as that thing against which National and its friends have long railed: the "politics of envy". We do have to "have the discussion", the government needs to make a clearer case for what it does, and iwi themselves need to show some initiative and improve their miserable performance in communications (where, for example, is a substantial poll funded by a Maori organisation?). And if there are real iniquities and inequities, let's be having them.
But in the end - and the National Party knows this as well as anyone - the politics of resentment is no way to run a country.