Thursday, March 18, 2021

Karl du Fresne: In New Zealand...

■ It was drearily predictable that young, female commentators online and in print would unquestioningly accept Meghan Markle’s account of the affronts and injustices supposedly heaped upon her. So it was refreshing to see the New Zealand actress Teuila Blakely suggest that perhaps the “racist” comment about the colour of young Archie’s skin – supposedly made by a member of the royal family who remains unidentified (if indeed it was made at all) – might not have been so racist after all.

In these situations, as Blakely (who is of mixed race) points out, context can be everything. “At a time where [sic] racism is at the forefront of our world in terms of creating awareness around it, I think [those comments] can be damning,” the New Zealand Herald reported her as saying. “[But] I think what’s really important to remember [is] we didn’t understand the context of that conversation or how those those concerns were presented.

“For the royal family, who have never had a person of colour come into their ranks before, the possibility that their first great-grandchild could be coloured would be a conversation you would have.” She said similar conversations had happened in her own extended family when her Samoan mother entered the picture.

The Herald reported the former Shortland Street star as saying the context of the situation dictated whether the comment was the product of racism or something more innocent.

Precisely. Until we know in what context the supposedly racist comment was made – and specifically what was said, by whom and in what tone – we can’t judge whether it was malignant or harmless. But that hasn’t stopped Markle’s enraged supporters automatically concluding that she has been grievously wronged and that the Windsors are a family of contemptible white supremacists.

And here’s another thing. It’s Markle who insists on making an issue of her race and therefore presenting herself as a victim. Is it possible that the fact she and Archie have African-American blood actually doesn’t matter to most people, including the royal family?

■ So Wellington City Council has voted 12-3 to establish a Maori ward. “Maori voices must be at the table; it can’t be left to chance,” said Cr Jill Day, who is of Ngati Tuwharetoa lineage.

Spot something odd in that statement? That’s right – Maori voices are already at the table. Day is one of two councillors who identify as Maori, the other being Tamatha Paul.

They were elected without the benefit of a Maori ward and there’s nothing to stop other Maori candidates from being similarly elected, provided they put themselves forward for office and persuade voters to support them, just as Day and Paul did. I could also mention Paul Eagle, who was seven years a councillor and would almost certainly now be mayor of Wellington if he hadn’t been elected MP for Rongotai (a general electorate where in the last election he won 57 percent of the votes competing on equal terms with every other candidate).

Oh, and we shouldn’t forget Ray Ahipene-Mercer, who served on the council for 16 years and is quoted in the Dominion Post today as questioning whether a Maori ward is necessary. “I would only ever stand on the same basis as any other person, irrespective of ethnicity,” Ahipene-Mercer said. Good on him.

“It can’t be left to chance” is an absurd statement. The only element of chance in winning election to the council is the one faced by all candidates. They have to convince voters to support them. That’s how democracy works.

Or at least it did, until now. But the legislation that was shamefully rushed through Parliament last month under urgency – the legislation Labour was careful to keep quiet about during last year’s election campaign – fundamentally changes the dynamics of local democracy by introducing race-based wards, thereby bestowing on Maori a privilege not enjoyed by other sectors of the community (and one they clearly don’t need, as the election of Eagle, Ahipene-Mercer, Day and Paul, not to mention the many Maori councillors in other districts, shows).

Already there are signs that this may turn pear-shaped. Liz Mellish, speaking for an iwi grouping that regards Wellington as its rohe, or territory, is quoted today as saying she wants to know who would be eligible to vote in the Maori ward and how the new arrangement would affect her organisation's relationship with the council. “In a city like Wellington, we as mana whenua are outnumbered by other Maori. We need to ensure that mana whenua relationship continues.”

This sounds like an assumption of prior rights based on iwi affiliation, regardless of numbers or voter support, and seems to bear out warnings that tribalism and democracy are fundamentally incompatible.

The last thing Wellington needs now, on top of all its existing torments, is the prospect of an iwi power struggle over who has the right to represent the new Maori ward. But perhaps the city should start bracing itself for more convulsions.

Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at

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