I didn't expect to have a passenger driving back to Mount Eden from a civics education debate at Papakura marae two weeks ago. I definitely didn't expect that person to be Don Brash.
The debate was for a civics education project for young Māori. 'By rangatahi, for rangatahi' was the underlying principle. In my 30s I no longer qualify as 'youth' (sob) so my role in this project was a supportive one and it threw up some surprises.
I've seen a lot of 'get out the vote' campaigns and I think they have a critical role in reaching some of our young people. For some, however, those campaigns can feel like being dictated to without addressing the underlying causes of why so many rangatahi don’t vote. To differentiate our offering, we asked a group of young Māori leaders to facilitate and chart the course of the project which would extend across three wananga held on marae around Auckland. This meant the decisions were all left up to the people we were trying to engage with.
In my experience, when you put young people in charge, unexpected things happen. My late-night passenger being a case in point. At first I thought they were joking when this group of Māori youth said they wanted Don Brash to be on the panel for the civics education debate they'd decided to hold. Then I thought they might have more sinister plans. When they said they wanted Wikatana Popata (of the Popata brothers’ fame) on the panel too I was even more wary.
I should have given them more credit. My assumptions did me and them a disservice; their only motivation was to include a range of speakers with different points of view from themselves.
This was the striking theme of the night for me. I consider myself to be an objective political observer, prone to bias like the best of us but as well-informed as anyone with an interest in the way our country is run. With this lofty perspective of myself, I still fell into a trap of almost preventing the involvement of someone I disagree with in a contest of ideas.
Don Brash accepts in 2017 that taxpayer money should fund Te Reo. I'm not here to praise the guy but doesn't that seem remarkable progress?
Brash was interrogated for those ideas extremely seriously but he was treated with the respect afforded a guest on a marae and given time to make his case. And, as is often the case when you engage with someone as a person, there were surprises for those of us (me) who saw him through a one dimensional (anti-Māori) lens. Agreement with Chlöe Swarbrick on cannabis law reform is one example. In a haze of Hobson’s Pledge-induced rage I had overlooked Brash's speech as the leader of Act in 2011 where he (ill-advisedly for his prospects in that party, as it turns out) advocated for exactly this.
His views on Te Reo were not as easy to loathe, either. Asked if he supported compulsory Te Reo in the school curriculum he was dead set against it for a variety of unconvincing reasons - something to do with the economics of the education curriculum and that Mandarin was a better option for our trade-savvy youth of tomorrow. This was widely scoffed at by our audience and other panellists, especially Tasha Hohaia from the Māori Party, who made an impassioned case for the value of our other national language.
However, he did say that it was completely appropriate for the Government to fund Te Reo for anyone who wishes to learn it. I’ll repeat that for emphasis: Don Brash accepts in 2017 that taxpayer money should fund Te Reo. I'm not here to praise the guy but doesn't that seem remarkable progress? Not for Brash, but for what it suggests about the constituency that he represents? Are we finally inching towards a normalisation of Te Reo in New Zealand such that after years of activism and heartache, the representative of the group which advocates specifically against ‘Māori privilege’ accepts that it should be a taxpayer-funded right for anyone to learn Te Reo?
“The reality is we’d love for you to come in, to be able to jump up and respond to speeches and mihi in our language, to understand why we take our shoes off inside and whatever. There’s no toll booth, no gate on that bridge, when you’re ready and willing you’ll be welcome.”
- Kelvin Davis to Don Brash
How I ended up driving him back to his apartment in Eden Terrace was a coincidence - the taxi we ordered for him was going to take too long, and it turned out we didn't live too far from one another. For forty minutes we talked about the economy, fiscal policy and Winston Peters. He tried very hard not to be a back-seat driver and mostly managed, despite some appalling driving on my part as I tried to navigate the Southern Motorway while also following a discussion on the current account deficit. He proved a remarkably patient teacher and I enjoyed his company. As we left the marae he'd given his business card to some young Māori entrepreneurs who had said "We're not going to learn anything about culture from you, but maybe we can learn something about business".
I'll leave the conclusion of this story to Kelvin Davis, another guest panellist at the debate. Brash was astounded that Davis, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, had appeared at a marae to speak to a relatively small crowd. “The fact that Kelvin Davis is here tonight doesn’t seem to strike many people as amazing.”
“Of course not,” said the debate moderator, TVNZ journalist Maiki Sherman “we know Kelvin, he’s just the matua from Te Tai Tokerau. He’s always been a leader to us.”
Davis made a case for his vision of Kotahitanga – being ‘one people’ and how it was different from Don Brash’s:
“There’s an old reverend up in Nga Puhi by the name of Charlie Shortland who once said that there’s a river. On one side of the river is Te Ao Māori and on the other side is Te Ao Pākeha, and the Treaty of Waitangi is a bridge that connects the two sides of the river. Who has crossed that bridge most often and picked up the tikanga and reo of that other world.”
It’s been almost entirely Māori. Very few Pākeha have made that journey.
“That’s my vision of New Zealand, where both sides of that river can cross freely and be totally comfortable. Don Brash can be welcomed in, can stand up and mihi and reply. I can go into a town hall somewhere and stand up and feel comfortable speaking. Regardless of venue, regardless of race you can feel comfortable in all contexts. That to me is when New Zealand will have come together and we really will be one people. At this stage I don’t believe we are.”
Brash replied and said he clearly wasn’t as comfortable crossing into the Māori world as Kelvin was in the Pākeha world.
“Don, we’d love you to be able to cross over,” Davis said. “The reality is we’d love for you to come in, to be able to jump up and respond to speeches and mihi in our language, to understand why we take our shoes off inside and whatever. There’s no toll booth, no gate on that bridge, when you’re ready and willing you’ll be welcome.”