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Waitangi Day 2018

Ranking Politicians' Clumsiest Attempts To Weigh In On Māori Affairs

"Once were Warriors. Once were British."

by Branko Marcetic
05 February 2018, 10:25am

Illustration by Ben Thomson.

2018 has barely begun, and already we've seen the two sides of the often turbulent relationship between Māoridom and politics in New Zealand. On the one hand, we had Bill English's comments that saving te reo Māori was up to Māori, and Bob Jones' NBR column calling for “a public holiday where Māori bring us breakfast in bed or weed our gardens … out of gratitude for existing.” Such episodes seem a throwback to an earlier time when casual disrespect toward Māori from our politicians and pundits was par for the course. On the other hand, Jacinda Ardern's decision to spend five days at Waitangi, along with her widely praised speech while there, seems to serve as a symbolic counterpoint to these incidents.

But English and Jones' comments weren’t the first time we've heard such rhetoric from a politician's mouth, nor will they be the last. Here is a by-no-means-exhaustive list ranking of some of the worst episodes from politicians both past and sitting in modern memory.

13. Andrew Little demotes Māori MPs
Early last year, a poorly polling Andrew Little launched into a stinging criticism of the Māori Party's record, declaring that it was “not kaupapa Māori.” But two months later, after earlier promising to make one in every five Labour list candidates Māori, there wasn't a single Māori in the party's top 15. Little claimed Māori MPs had asked to be ranked low; their responses suggested otherwise.

12. Chris Carter, the Clouseau of Waitangi
When in 2003 Helen Clark decided to duck out of the 5AM dawn service at the Treaty grounds the morning after Waitangi Day on the eyebrow-raising basis that she was “just not a morning person,” then-Conservation Minister Chris Carter was forced to attend instead. What followed was a tour de force of inadvertent, bumbling offensiveness. His speech was immediately interrupted because he was standing on the kotahitanga flag. His unprepared remarks dwelt at length on the history of animosity between the Te Arawa and Ngāpuhi, offending attendees who had come for a service on unity. He then launched into a rendition of song Pokarekare Ana that was maligned for both Carter's pronunciation and the quality of his singing.

11. Richard Prosser's not a fan of te reo
The man who introduced “Wogistan” into the New Zealand political lexicon also happened to have some less-than-ideal views on Māori affairs. In particular, Prosser spoke out against compulsory te reo. “Why? What for?” he asked: “So I can communicate with people in other Maori-speaking countries?” He would later suggest making Spanish New Zealand's second language, because it was “actually useful as a language. Everything Māori isn’t. Just saying.”

10. Gareth Morgan vs. Winston Peters
As part of Gareth Morgan's attempted schtick as the New Zealand Trump, he took the opportunity last year to directly attack his chief competition: Winston Peters. Speaking to an audience at Rātana Pā, Morgan called Peters an “Uncle Tom,” a derogatory term for an African American perceived as excessively servile to white people. The attack backfired. A relaxed Peters, opening his retort in te reo, chuckled the insult off and tore into the Welsh-descended Morgan, saying that in the four decades he'd spent coming to Rātana, Morgan had been “riding a motorbike around Mongolia.”

9. Shock jock antics
Former Auckland mayor John Banks has had a bumpy, varied career, including a period in the mid-90s where he moonlit as a talkback radio host. One day in 1995, he got a phone call from an unemployed Māori man named “Hone” who was worried he “won't get any more dole or anything like that” if Treaty claims were settled. Except “Hone” was actually John Carter, Banks' fellow National MP and the party's chief whip, who was soon demoted over the incident. When another man called in to say his Māori workmates were decent men, Banks challenged him to name one.

8. Jamie Whyte: Māori are the second estate
The French nobility before the French Revolution were an absurdly wealthy class who ran the country, paid no taxes, and enjoyed every type of advantage you can imagine. Māori, by contrast, are a historically subjugated group who face systematic discrimination and suffer from everything from below-average life expectancy to over-representation in prison. All of which is why a firestorm erupted in 2014 when then-ACT leader Jamie Whyte likened today's Māori to the French aristocracy. Race Relations Commissioner Susan Devoy condemned the comment as “grotesque and inflammatory,” one of his candidates quit over what he said was a calculated “stunt,” and Whyte suffered a humiliating loss, leading to his resignation.

7. Winston Peters' career
It's hard to choose a single incident from Winston Peters' career. Peters raised his profile in the late 80s with a law-and-order campaign aimed at predominantly Māori gangs, and has now reached the twilight of his career campaigning on a (broken) promise to abolish the Māori seats and accusing a Māori MP of “hiding behind the Māori language” in Parliament. In between, he's launched broadsides against “sickly white liberalism” and railed against the “separatism” and “hate” of race-based parties. If there is one that stands out, it's Peters' completely false attack on Whānau Ora as a separatist, race-based welfare programme.

6. Gerry Brownlee's career
There was the time Brownlee famously started an address at National's 2000 party conference with a greeting in te reo, only to break off with a “bugger it” and say “gidday.” Or the time the year before that when he called for the Māori Language Commission to be abolished on the basis that “no one is speaking Māori” when you go “walking down the street of any major city in the country.” Or, his response in 2004 to a question about how he could credibly be National's new Māori affairs spokesman, calling it “a bit of a prejudiced statement to make.”

5. Steven Joyce helps craft the most race-baiting campaign in modern memory
As National's 2005 campaign manager, Joyce was intimately involved in crafting probably the most racially tinged campaign in modern political history. Joyce was described as being in Don Brash's “inner circle” and, as a former advertising man, was part of the team that created National's campaign billboards that year, which, lest we forget, included the infamous “Iwi/Kiwi” billboard. Joyce, delighted with the product, explained that “they demonstrate the clear differences between us and Labour on the key issues.”

4. Trevor Mallard goes on a dog-whistling spree
In the newly–created position of race relations minister, Mallard started slow when he professed that he couldn't “put my hand on my heart and say that is absolutely the case” that scholarships were based on need and not race. Soon he started criticising “politically correct schools” that allowed prayer in te reo but not in English, and charged that powhiri went on for too long and were sexist. The coup de grace came with a speech where he charged that Pākehā were also indigenous New Zealanders, claimed the Treaty conferred no different rights for Māori, and told New Zealanders to leave behind the “bad past” and “get on with it.” “Once were Warriors. Once were British,” he said.

3. Bill English burns it all down
Back in the early 2000s, then-leader Bill English attempted to forge a new, big-tent National party that was inclusive of Māori and sympathetic to their concerns. Then he received a historic election drubbing and decided it had all been a huge mistake.

By the following year, English came out in favor of abolishing the Māori seats, ending decades of bipartisan support for their existence. He assailed a variety of Treaty-related legislation, charging that Labour was creating a “policy of segregation” and trying to set up a “bicultural” nation that made “distinctions between New Zealanders on the basis of ethnicity.” He accused the government of “writing out cheques virtually at will” to Māori organisations to fund “classes in break-dancing and family reunions.” Seen in this context, perhaps English's recent comments are a return to stabilising National's traditional base.

2. Labour appeases middle New Zealand
When the Court of Appeal ruled the Māori Land Court could decide if iwi and hapū had claims to the foreshore and seabed, Labour put forward the infamous legislation that denied Māori that right. Clark refused to meet with the 15,000 person-strong hīkoi that marched to Parliament in protest, calling them, in words that elicited outrage and would dog her for the rest of her years in power, “haters and wreckers.” Instead, Clark did take the time to meet with inexplicable mid-2000s ovine celebrity, “Shrek the sheep,” explaining that “Shrek is good company.” Clark said that she “chose my words very carefully” because “most New Zealanders do not want to see their prime minister ... put in a position where they were treated the way I have been treated by a particular group.” Later, when a UN report criticised the government's treatment of indigenous people, Clark called it “grossly inaccurate.”

1. Don Brash shifts the political landscape
Brash's 2004 Orewa speech remains the yardstick by which all other incendiary comments on indigenous rights in New Zealand are measured. You could literally fill an entire column with the rest of Brash's campaign antics, as well as moments from his post-National career. But all you really need is this speech: Brash's references to “racial separatism” and the “Treaty grievance industry,” his belief that New Zealand was a country “where the minority has a birthright to the upper hand,” his statement that there's a limit to “how much any generation can apologise for the sins of its great grandparents,” and his suggestion that Māori were no longer an actual, distinct people anyway, among others.

It's hard to overstate the impact of Brash's speech, which didn't just stir up long-simmering racial animus in New Zealand, but catapulted National ahead of Labour for the first time since 2000. A scared Labour moved right on Māori issues. The Foreshore and Seabed legislation was put forward directly in response to Brash's reference to the issue. Programmes were cut. “I think you can thank him for some focus on this,” Trevor Mallard said at the time, while Brash pointed to Labour's changes to claim victory. Labour's standing with Māori was heavily damaged, and the Māori Party emerged as a political force.

This list certainly seems to suggest cause for pessimism. Yet perhaps that's not justified. Don Brash's ongoing political irrelevance, coupled with John Key's nine years of careful avoidance of similar rhetoric and, more recently, Ardern's attempt to mend fences with Maori, perhaps suggests some progress has been made. While debate will rage about how substantive this progress actually is, it seems thus far that 2018 is a very different world from that of 2004.

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