Saturday, January 31, 2004

Don Brash and the Politics of Equality in New Zealand

For people active in politics, there comes a point at which you stop focusing on changing other people’s minds, and concentrate instead on building a community of people who share your principles. Think of it as a sign of maturity. Arguing about politics with people who don’t share your values can be a frustrating experience. Working with people who do can be very rewarding. The big advantage is that you don’t have to spend all your energy arguing back to your first principles every time you embark on a political project.

But every once in a while a political event irrupts into your daily life. It’s the kind of event that gets you off your couch and back into the business of arguing with other people. Maybe it's because you feel that an important principle is at stake. Or else you realise that the buck stops with you. Nobody else is stepping up to the plate. Either way, you feel compelled to respond.

Such an event for me was the recent speech given in Orewa by Don Brash trashing the politics of justice and reconciliation between Pakeha and Maori. It’s not because I think that Brash made a particularly powerful speech. As John Armstrong noted in his Herald column, Brash’s efforts lacked “the fear factor.” I think it was the lack of the fear factor that started to get me worried. It was the sense that there was a very large and receptive audience for the things that he was saying that worried me. In a sense, he was just saying what was politically obvious. And as Armstrong says, easy.

The speech, as we all know, attacked Labour’s so-called policies of “racial separatism” in the context of the foreshore and seabed debate. By attacking Maori rights, Brash was effectively moving the perimeter of his political community to the right. It’s a pretty crowded part of the spectrum here in New Zealand, so many observers who found his comments politically obnoxious sought comfort in the fact that Brash is taking National away from the powerful political centre.

But Brash’s speech also criticised New Zealand’s feeble attempts at justice and reconciliation towards Maori. And to the extent that this kind of criticism forms part of the milieu of common sense in New Zealand, I think that it is important for people who support the rights of tangata whenua to now clearly articulate what the project of justice and reconciliation is all about.

Reconciliation and the Gesture

In his speech, Brash attempted to acknowledge historical injustice to Maori. But in doing so he attacked the Waitangi Tribunal, one of this country’s chief institutions for redressing this injustice. Although he acknowledged that there had been things done to Maori "that should not have happened" he also argued that the only legitimate answer to such injustice was what he called the gesture at recompense.

“Let me be quite clear. Many things happened to the Maori people that should not have happened. There were injustices, and the Treaty process is an attempt to acknowledge that, and to make a gesture at recompense. But it is only that. It can be no more than that.”

It’s a very clever use of the word gesture. Because in a sense, all justice operates at the level of the gesture. Anyone who has ever been the victim of a crime knows that no judgement or punishment ever fully restores what has been lost. There is no restitution that can restore an inequity caused by injustice.

So what, then, do our attempts at justice seek to achieve? On one level, justice is concerned with equality. Justice cannot be satisfied with punishment. It must seek restitution. But in addition justice must seek to alter conditions which cause injustice. In so doing, justice knows that it cannot alter the past, but that it has the capacity to open up the possibility of a future free of injustice.

This is the real meaning of the phrase gesture at recompense. It is a gesture towards the future. But this is not what Brash means by the gesture when he claims that there is "a limit to how much any generation can apologise for the sins of its great-grandparents". Not only does Brash telescope a complex and ongoing history of injustice into a single moment which has passed irredeemably into history, for the leader of the National Party there is no possibility of a future of equality. By denying responsibility for injustice we close the possibility of a futural justice. And although this assignment of responsibility for injustice towards Maori appears to be related to the sins of the past, in reality it is more complicated.

No matter how much the political right tries to spin it, the gesture at recompense that is at the heart of processes of justice and reconciliation like that provided for in the Waitangi Tribunal is not about finding contemporary Pakeha personally responsible for the "sins of our grandparents". Instead, it is about acknowledging that contemporary Pakeha are the beneficiaries of a history of injustice directed towards Maori. To the extent that we fail to redress this imbalance, we become personally responsible for the perpetuation of this injustice in the present day and into the future.

Denial, Reconciliation and the Future

In his essay Denial, Acknowledgement and Peace Building Through Reconciliatory Justice, Robert Joseph points to the way in which a process aimed at redressing the injustices of the past must work toward securing reconciliation and a just future; i.e., a future in which two communities live together in equality and justice:

“Reconciliatory justice focuses on the building of appropriate relationships by recognising and addressing past grievances and exploring future relationships at the post-settlement governance and grass roots levels.”

This is exactly the framework envisaged by the Waitangi Tribunal, though some might argue that its efforts are hampered by a lack of real power to enforce its decisions. For the Tribunal, the gesture toward justice is inherently a gesture toward the future:

“The Waitangi Tribunal's vision is that, having reconciled ourselves with the past and possessing a full understanding of the Treaty of Waitangi, Mâori and non-Mâori New Zealanders will be equipped to create a future for two peoples as one nation.”

For Joseph, the first step in achieving a just future of equality and reconciliation involves acknowledging the injustice of the past. Cultural differences are one thing. But it is critical to recognise the very real inequity that exists between two communities has its roots in an historical injustice. So there is a quality of denial when Brash maintains that there is no real difference between Maori poverty the poverty of other groups:

“It is the bottom 25 per cent of Maori, most of them on welfare, who are conspicuously poor. They are no different to Pacific Islanders or other non-Maori on welfare; it's just that there is a higher percentage of them in that category.

But this denial goes further. It turns into a denial of the Treaty as a treaty, that is, as an agreement between two peoples. As John Armstrong writes in the Herald, Brash’s view is that Maori “…have no special status as descendants of precolonial occupants who made a treaty with the British Crown, accepting its government in return for its protection of their territory, treasures and tribal mana. Dr Brash believes the Maori signatories at Waitangi gave up exclusive legal rights and became, in the words of Hobson, "one people" with Pakeha.”

Brash cites a statement spoken in “the halting Maori” of Governor Hobson as evidence for this view. But if it is true that Hobson spoke in a halting voice, it is equally true that Hobson had a halting understanding of what iwi meant when they signed the Treaty of Waitangi. Brash is unable to recognise that there may be differences of interpretation over the meaning of the Treaty because from his point of view we have ceased to be two peoples living together in agreement. So politically, the statement "we are all one people" must always be read as an abrogation of the Treaty, which is an agreement between two peoples.

John Armstrong worries that Brash shows an inability to comprehend that others may hold a different view of the document. But should Brash ever be in a position of power in regards to the Treaty, he will have to contend with the fact that international jurisprudence has recognised that it is the indigenous interpretation of a treaty that takes precedence.

From the recognition of past injustice and its repercussions into the present day, Joseph outlines several key principles that should guide a process aimed at justice and reconciliation between New Zealand’s two communities. It’s clear that we have a long way to go:

Recognition - truth finding and telling of the injustices;

Responsibility and remorse - acknowledgement and apology for the injustices;

Restitution - of Maori land and power to determine its use;

Reparation - for injustices in financial terms recognising that ethnocidal and genocidal harms are really incompensible in this way;

Redesign - of state political-legal institutions and processes to empower Maori to participate in their own governance and the government of the state."

Spinning to Win

Obviously, the project of justice and reconciliation is an ambitious one. And in the face of a growing culture of xenophobia in this country, you can understand that politically, it's a messy pot to put on the front burner. Even though New Zealanders put great store in the myth of racial harmony, it's easy to see that huge tensions exist. So how do we advance a programme of justice and reconciliation in a cultural context of jealousy and fear?

I think that the belief in the myth of racial harmony, misguided as it is, shows that there is some desire for reconciliation between Maori and Pakeha. The problem is that it won't be easy. There cannot be reconciliation without justice, which means that there are going to be some hard decisions to make. Any party that wants to tackle reconciliation seriously has to deal with the fact that for Pakeha the demand for justice appears as an assignment of personal responsibility for the sins of the past. That is how the right has spun it, and it's been easy for them because justice for Maori does indeed call upon Pakeha to bear responsibility.

But, and this is critical, the project of justice calls us to be responsible for a future, not for the past. It is this futural element, a promise of reconciliation, justice and freedom, that contains the language necessary for securing the goodwill and support of the Pakeha community.