Friday, May 29, 2020

Karl du Fresne: Redefining racism in 21st-century New Zealand

Trevor Richards, once famous as the driving force behind Halt All Racist Tours (HART), recently wrote an essay in which he reflected on the history of New Zealand race relations. 

He recalled growing up in a country where history was viewed entirely through a Pakeha lens and the notion of racism was hardly acknowledged.

I grew up in the same era and recognised the country he described. We learned little about Maori history or culture at school and the Maori world only occasionally overlapped with that of white New Zealand. Racism was something I associated with America’s Deep South.
Richards went on to deride what he clearly regarded as a smug belief that New Zealand enjoyed the best race relations in the world. I found this criticism a bit more problematical.

I can see why, when viewed through an ideologically pure 21st century lens, aspects of the old New Zealand could be seen as racist, if only in a passive way. But I also believe a persuasive case can be made that by world standards, our race relations were admirable.

We were a highly integrated and harmonious society. It’s easy to judge ourselves harshly now, but it was reasonable to look at race relations in other countries – Australia and the United States, for example – and conclude that ours were pretty good.

Of course much has changed for the better since then, and people like Richards can take some of the credit. But I wonder what purpose is served by denigrating past conduct and attitudes, other than to congratulate himself on his own enlightened thinking. It struck me as an exercise in presentism: the tendency to interpret and judge the past according to contemporary values.

And here’s something else that struck me. Richards freely used the words “racism” and “racist” to describe the New Zealand of that era, but nowhere did he attempt to define those terms. No one ever does. I think it suits activists to leave them loose and undefined. That way the words can mean whatever the user wants them to mean.

On that note, it was disappointing that Sir Robert Jones abandoned his defamation action earlier this year against the Maori film maker Renae Maihi, who had called him a racist. I had hoped the trial might result in the judge attempting to pin down the exact meaning of the word.

For what it’s worth, here’s my own attempt at a definition. I believe racism is the belief that some races are inherently superior or inferior to others, and that discriminatory treatment is therefore justified. But discussion about racism in New Zealand is muddied by the fact that the definition has deliberately been stretched to encompass virtually any statement or action that is perceived as not favourable to Maori or other minority groups.

We are told, for example, that it’s racist not to have unelected Maori representatives with voting powers on city or district councils. Or that it’s racist to object to roadblocks set up to inhibit the public’s freedom of movement and to police iwi “borders” that have no basis in law. In effect, any opposition to the activist Maori agenda is routinely condemned as racist.

But surely another definition of racism is the assertion by one racial group of rights that are not available to others. Try to imagine, for example, how far a Pakeha group would get trying to block public roads without legal authority. Is this the new racism?

Truth is, the situation described by Richards has largely been turned on its head. We have moved down a path to a form of institutionalised separatism so well-entrenched that people barely notice it.

We have special funding for Maori affected by Covid-19 (over and above the billions for the community at large, as if Maori suffer differently), separate Maori streams in public policy formation, an unelected and inscrutable iwi leaders’ forum that exerts influence at the highest levels of government (and behind closed doors), Maori control over lakes and rivers, state-funded Maori media outlets that confuse journalism with advocacy, special courts for Maori youth and “cultural reports” for Maori defendants, preferential quotas for Maori medical trainees and elaborate mechanisms for iwi engagement on major public projects, regardless of whether they specifically impact on Maori. I could go on.

Then there’s the matter of the Maori seats in Parliament, which survive even though 20 of the 27 Maori MPs currently in Parliament were elected from the general rolls. Oh, and the country has acquired a quasi-official Maori name without any public mandate. (If we want to become Aotearoa, fine – but let’s do it properly, through a referendum.)

In almost every area of public policy, Maori are treated as having separate, exclusive needs. We have been persuaded that this is necessary to remedy 180 years of disadvantage. But at what point do we realise we’ve over-corrected and created a society where racial division is permanently built in and officially sanctioned?

Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at published in The Dominion Post and on


Unknown said...

Hear hear!! Finally, someone who is brave enough to tell it like it is. I have been shocked to witness the degree of apartheid that has been built into official government policy in the last twenty years. It is clearly evident nowadays that to have a white skin is a clear disadvantage and we border on being second class citizens.

Thank-you for your insightful article.

Rod K said...

This writer is to be congratulated for expressing today's reality. Well done! Right now there is a window of opportunity for all of us like minded folk, to present the issue to all politicians seeking election in a few weeks. We need to remind them of the seriousness of the issue and ask if 'we' need to riot as they are in the US, to encourage the incoming government to actually address and work diligently to correct the imbalance that they have created. We also need to remember that is was a National government who created the current debacle with respect to ownership of the foreshore and seabed! The opportunity is now, let's do this!

Kerry Hart said...

I have been going on about the apartheid practices of this and the previous government for years but keep getting told that I'm a racist. I'm alarmed that no government has had the balls to campaign on the principle of "multiple races, one people" (like Singapore has adopted).
I am appalled at the separatism that is evolving through these Maori-only handouts and false proclamations of a "partnership" with Maori through the Treaty.

Mike said...

Actually the correct term is "racialism"

Unknown said...

A well stated article that needs to be supported by more journalists. Thank you for stating articulately the thinking of so many.

Anonymous said...

Our PM has recently said that since the Mosque shootings we have discussions about racism. The discussion that was predminant in the months after that terrible event was about changing the name and logo, etc, of a rugby team - how superficial is that? In the long run, what has really changed?

Graham Wright said...

In 1840 in consideration of ceding the islands of what was to become New Zealand, the inhabitants became British subjects with all the rights and privileges that that entailed. There was no partnership, no principles, just a simple memorandum of understanding. At the conclusion of the ceremony the governor, Captain Hobson, said “we are now one people”.
Military operations in the subsequent decades were necessitated by certain leaders of the previous inhabitants who rebelled against the authority of the Crown. Land seizures and other penalties amounted to punishment for those rebellions. There were no New Zealand wars per se.
Today, 180 years after those events the races have become irretrievably mixed and it would be difficult to find a true, pure blood member of the Maori race. Yet, there are certain members of the community who, using specious arguments, demand more rights and privileges for those who profess to be Maori.
Successive governments, of the left and the right, have not only increasingly acceded to those demands, but have paid enormous sums of taxpayer funds to privileged groups who use them to set up profitable commercial entities who operate tax free.
Meanwhile, the mass of the rank and file of those who claim Maori ancestry continue to exist in poverty, inhabit substandard housing, are malnourished, obese, have low health outcomes and are often unemployed.
Unless successive governments, elected by all the people of New Zealand, moved to eliminate these divisions, then it bodes ill for the future of this country.

Empathic said...

The interpretation of Te Tiriti as meaning that the Crown is in a governing partnership with Maori appeared to emanate from the Waitangi Tribunal. That definition has become the accepted reality by many despite the fact that nowhere in either the English or te reo versions of Te Tiriti is there any mention of partnership or the idea that Maori would be part of governing the country. Unless the Tribunal's definition is legally challenged, overturned or modified we will continue to see NZ increasingly governed by an entity other than a democratically elected government. Who can mount that legal challenge?

Russ said...

In fact if Maori activists get their wish and the Bi-Cultural State of New Zealand becomes reality there will only be one ‘official’ race of citizens in New Zealand – Maori. All other New Zealanders will be/are considered Pakeha which is not a race of people.
I believe it is now time for all New Zealanders to grow, cut the apron strings to their motherlands, take ownership of their country and declare that they now identify as being a part of the New Zealand race of people. I am sure the word "pakeha" will then fade into obscurity.

As for the name of the country I translated "Super Rugby Aotearoa" into English and googled it - nothing!

Pat said...

I totally agree that this country has a problem with Racism but not as the Maori see it. I have never heard myself someone calling a Maori "a Black Bastard, a Nigger, a Native but I heard non Maori often called 'You white Bastards, Pigs, White Trash, Racists so what dose this say "Are the Maori the racist people in this country and how do we get them to own the problem they have. Is it the Maori who are the problem or is it the few the Maori Racist that are the problem. How do we get the support of the True Maori people to teach the Racist Maori that they are Racist? Many of the True Maori know that there is a problem but they go quietly along living their lives causing no waves. In our nest census we should put down our race as KIWI in other if 15% of New Zealanders both emigrants arriving after 1700 and Maori did this it would have to become recognised as a RACE and then as a group we could pressure the Government to sort this Race problem out.