Pākehā tolerance won’t restore Māori power

It is time to move on beyond the comfortable idea that a little bit of cultural tolerance within a liberal capitalist Pākehā world is all that is required, writes Dr Ian Hyslop

I may be talking out of turn – as an old Pākehā bloke that is – but I’d like to reflect on the bicultural journey in Aotearoa-New Zealand and share some of the things that trouble me. 

First off – one of the most progressive things we could do as a society is introduce compulsory Te Reo Māori into all levels of the education system. That would make a difference in a generation. We are told we don’t have the teachers but it could be done with sufficient political will. Imagine a bilingual Aotearoa.

And then imagine an Aotearoa with successful state policy initiatives that reverse the disproportionate representation of Māori in all negative socio-economic statistics. 

It did once seem that this would be a reality with The Children, Young Persons and their Families Act, 1989 (now the Oranga Tamariki Act) which was driven by the vision of Puao te Ata Tu (A New Dawn), a report prepared in 1988 by the Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Māori Perspective for the Department of Social Welfare. 

This Act specifically focused on addressing over-representation of tamariki Māori in state care. Thirty years later and Māori children and young people are still grossly over-represented. In fact the situation is probably worse. What went wrong?

The official narrative is the whānau empowerment vison of the Act was flawed. But official state narratives are seldom completely truthful. The counter-narrative gets closer to the mark – that whānau decision-making, particularly kin placements, has not been adequately resourced or supported – that the 1989 Act degenerated into quick-fix state social work on the cheap. This is more accurate, but it obscures the bigger picture about power, self-determination and the legacy of colonisation. 

The colonial encounter between the settler emissaries of the British Crown and tangata whenua has been described as a clash of life-worlds. This clash resulted in alienation of Māori land into a European system of individual ownership through war, confiscation and operation of the Native Land Acts from the 1870s. 

As with Māori language in schools, a significant degree of Māori self-determination within our nation state is feasible, but a leap of political courage is required.

Puao te Ata Tu (1988) illustrates the objective of the colonising power as follows: Those early Pakeha power brokers knew exactly what they were doing. It was summed up by the distinguished 19th century politician Sir Francis Dillon-Bell when he said, “The first plank of public policy must be to stamp out the beastly communism of the Māori”.

Puao te Ata Tu is not well understood and a deeper understanding is not particularly convenient for guardians of the status quo. This report was not just about permitting Māori to practice their culture: establishing kapa haka in institutions, inserting te reo greetings into our e-mail introductions, or teaching tamaiti in out-of-family care something about their cultural heritage. It was about a transfer of power, about tino rangitiratanga – about the same thing the Māori struggle has always been about: self-determination. 

The report recommended the following to the whole of the state of New Zealand: To attack all forms of cultural racism in New Zealand that result in the values and lifestyle of the dominant group being regarded as superior to those of other groups, especially Māori by: (a) Providing leadership and programmes which help develop a society in which the values of all groups are of central importance to its enhancement; and (b) Incorporating the values, cultures and beliefs of the Māori people in all practice developed for the future of New Zealand.

And this, of course, is the real change that never happened. Instead, Tau Iwi (non-Māori) authorities decided institutional racism could be resolved by allowing Māori some degree of cultural process in child welfare decision-making, some degree of cultural expression and that Tau Iwi might in fact benefit from learning some of this themselves. As illustrated above, this is not all that was recommended.

The fact is, a real transfer of power to Iwi Māori requires more than Treaty settlements that simply facilitate Māori ventures into corporate capitalism. It requires constitutional reform of the sort that has been advocated by Māori lawyers for decades. Moana Jackson, for example, has tirelessly pursued the vison set down in writing by his great grandfather in 1892: Those who came after are the ones who believed in new stories and turning new pages hoping in that way to change the way that we tell our stories to ourselves. But I will struggle on with the old stories about our tikanga, about our history, about our Treaty, about what has happened to our people since then. And I will struggle on in the hope that before those stories are finished they will have made it worth all the trouble for us now and for our mokopuna tomorrow.

It is time to move on beyond the comfortable idea that a little bit of cultural tolerance within a liberal capitalist Pākehā world is all that is required. Precolonial Māori law existed as naturally as language. Could mana be restored? Could a real degree of power be returned to Iwi Māori? The answer is yes it could. The Urewera governance arrangements negotiated with Ngāi Tūhoe offer one possible sign-post. 

As with Māori language in schools, a significant degree of Māori self-determination within our nation state is feasible, but a leap of political courage is required. Why have so many of us learned to lower our sights?

A longer version of this article appears on Reimagining Social Work

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