Monday, July 25, 2022

Professor Elizabeth Rata: In defence of democracy

I gave this address ‘In Defence of Democracy’ to the New Zealand ACT Party Annual Conference, in Wellington and Auckland, July 2022. I want to thank David Seymour, Leader of the ACT Party, and like myself committed to liberal democracy, for inviting me to speak. Although the address was given at a political party event, I was a guest speaker so the ideas I present are my own.

Good afternoon. Thank you for inviting me to speak today. My talk ‘In Defence of Democracy’ is for those of all political persuasions who are deeply worried about New Zealand’s descent from democracy into a tribal form of ethno-nationalism .

I want to talk about democracy – about what it is we are in danger of losing and what we need to do to retain our nation’s remarkable 170 year legacy of democratic governance.

Nearly forty years ago the 1985 Treaty of Waitangi Amendment Act set in motion a radical constitutional agenda. The aim – to shift the country from democracy to tribalism. In that time a corporate tribal elite has privatised public resources, acquired political power, and attained governance entitlements. Activist judges have created treatyism – a new interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi as a ‘governance partnership’. Intellectuals have supplied the supporting racialised ‘two world views’ ideology.

The question we must ask is this: How has a small group of individuals, both Maori and non-Maori, managed to install a racialised ideology into our democracy?

In his book The Open Society, philosopher Karl Popper identifies those who would take us back to the past, to that closed tribal society from which we are all descended. He describes how throughout history those who ‘could only make themselves leaders of the perennial revolt against freedom’, those ‘incapable of leading a new way’ will return us to what he called ‘cultivated tribalism’.

It is this colossal failure of vision for a democratic future that has taken New Zealand to the crossroads. Democracy is one path ahead; ethno-nationalism is the other.

Treatyism’ success can be seen in how comprehensively ‘partnership’, ‘decolonisation’, ‘co-governance’ – whatever term is used – is inserted into all our government institutions, into the universities, and into the law. It is an ideology that tells how we are to understand our country’s history and how we are to envisage its future.

The 1840 Treaty of Waitangi was, like all human products, of its time and place. One aim – shared by British and Maori signatories alike – was to establish the rule of law by imposing British sovereignty through British governance. Sovereignty and governance go together as two sides of the same coin – with intertwined meaning. In the decades which followed, the treaty lost relevance in the new colonial society. This is the case with all historical treaties.

Revived in the 1970s as the symbol of a cultural renaissance, the treaty was captured by retribalists in the 1980s to serve as the ideological manifesto for the envisaged order – a reconstituted New Zealand. It was given a ‘spirit’ to take it above and beyond its historical location so that it could mean whatever retribalists say it means.

This treatyist ideology successfully promotes the false claim of partnership between the government and the tribes. However there is a deeper more insidious strategy propelling us to tribal ethno-nationalism. It is the collapse of the separation between the economic and political spheres.

The separation of the economic from the political is absolutely essential for democracy. When economic interests and political ambitions are merged there is no accountability to the people – consider all those totalitarian leaders whose power gives wealth and whose wealth gives power – a merger broken only when (and if) the people revolt.

When the combination of reactionary politics and wealth accumulation is justified by ‘myths of past perfection’, we have what I call the neotribal capitalist version of the wealth-power merger.

The corporate tribes have already acquired considerable governance entitlements – the next and final step is tribal sovereignty. It’s a coup d’etat in all but name, accomplished not by force but by ideology – enabled by a compliant media.

Given the enormous success of retribalism is it too late to reclaim New Zealand from the relentless march to blood and soil ethno-nationalism?

That depends upon our willingness to understand, value, and restore democracy.

To do this we need to be clear what democracy is.

First, it is the remarkable and still uncommon form of government described in Abraham Lincoln’s famous words as ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’.

Second, democracy has three pillars. Remove or even tweak these pillars and it collapses.

Third, democracy requires the ‘partially loyal’ universal individual.

I want to talk about these three pillars and that partially loyal individual. If we are to understand democracy this is where we start.

Democracy’s Pillars

The pillars are:

1. The citizen – the individual who bears political and legal rights – not the racialised group member.

2. The state –– the governing infrastructure of parliament, systems of law, education, health and so on, regulator of public resources such as water, foreshore and seabed, flora and fauna, radio waves . . ..

3. The nation – at once a geographic entity and a symbol of a unified though historically diverse people who muddle along together in liberal civil society.

Each of these pillars is riven by a necessary tension – a tension arising from their inherent contradictions – contradictions which make democracy future-oriented, progressive – and vulnerable.

The contradictions are:

• As citizens, we have a duty to society but, at the same time, we have personal interests arising from kin, cultural, and other social loyalties.

• The state is simultaneously the capitalist state – generating economic wealth and inequality – and the secular democratic state – guaranteeing political equality and regulating wealth distribution.

• The nation is unified in facing the future, yet diverse in its past.

Democracy is peaceful battle within and between each of these three pillars. This bloodless conflict is only possible when individuals are partially loyal.

So what is ‘partial loyalty’?

Partial loyalty

I first came across the term in anthropologist, Alan Macfarlane’s The Making of the Modern World. It intrigued me and I have developed the idea further in the following way.

‘Partial loyalty’ can explain what it is about the modern individual who has contradictory loyalties simultaneously – identifying as a family member, a member of an ancestral group, a cultural group, a tribe, a religion, an identity group defined by leisure interests, sexuality, and so on.

This is civil society. From different, even conflicting interests how do we decide where our loyalty lies – is it to New Zealand? To an identity group? An ancestral group? To those ‘who look like us’?

The idea of ‘partial loyalty’ is a way into thinking about this question.

It is a question that someone in a tribal society, an autocratic society, a religious society would not have to ask, or be permitted to ask, because the answer is already provided.

Most societies demand total loyalty.

• Traditional tribal societies allowed one identity – fixed by birth status and and kinship ties – not open to individual choice. Loyalty was non-negotiable because total loyalty ensured the group’s survival.

• Autocratic regimes, both past and present, impose total loyalty – not for the survival of all, but for the elite – imposed by might and by ideological indoctrination.

Democracies are different in a fundamental way. They not only allow partial loyalty but require it.

In a democracy we hold many loyalties simultaneously – family and social groups where the loyalty is personal – creating a deeply held sense of identity and belonging – perhaps to a tribe, culture, religion, sport or other type of association.

And at the same time we are loyal to a diverse society and to its governing system that is not personal. Indeed loyalty to the democratic nation is loyalty to a vision – the idea of ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’.

These two different loyalties – one a deeply personal identity – the other a rational commitment to an idea – is why democracy is so difficult. It is much easier to fall back into loyalties of emotion, not reason.

The ease and attraction of total loyalty favours ethno-nationalism – it is profoundly anti-modern and anti-democratic – yet profoundly seductive.

I want to turn now to how we have been seduced. This means talking about ideology.


Retribalism has attacked the three pillars of democracy through the covert use of ideology. I want to talk specifically about how this is occurring in language, education, and the media.

Retribalist ideology and language

Ideologies control not just speech but thought itself. The most successful have a manifesto, a ‘sacred text’ or covenant . Mao’s Little Red Book, the Communist Manifesto, the sacred texts of religions, the US Constitution’s Second Amendment – these are used to symbolise a spiritual, ‘beyond this world’ authority, disguising the real-life ambitions of those controlling the ideology.

Since the 1980s the Treaty of Waitangi has been developed as such a manifesto – using two highly effective tactics.

I call the first the transubstantiation tactic.

Here the treaty is transformed from an historical document to a sacred text. This mystical transubstantiation takes the treaty into the realm of the spiritual from where it acquires a doctrinal authority – one to be interpreted for we common folk by a new priesthood – treatyist intellectuals.

Once the treaty’s unchallengable spiritual authority is established the second tactic comes into play. It is the diversion tactic. This ‘how many angels on a pinhead’ tactic operates by diverting us into echo-chamber squabbles – about the 1840 meaning of this word, that word, this intention, that intention. This is all interesting and important material for historians but our concern should be, not what the treaty said in 1840 – those days are gone – it served the purpose of the time – but what it is being used to say today – and for what purpose.

What about retribalist ideology and education?

Our education system is indoctrinating children into retribalism. The so-called ‘decolonisation’ and ‘indigenisation’ of the curriculum is the method. This is a disaster. Decolonisation will destroy the very means by which each generation acquires reasoned knowledge, and in so doing, the ability to reason.

I have described how this ability creates the disposition of partial loyalty that is required to be a citizen. Reasoning provides the rationalism to counter the irrationalism of total loyalty. By undermining the secular academic curriculum – that which creates the reasoning mind – we are destroying the partially loyal individual. Our fate – to be left with those capable only of mindless total loyalty.

And retribalist ideology and the media?

An ideology becomes omnipotent when it is not challenged. In a democracy the media should inform us of all competing interests and in all their complexity. We, the people, need to know everything, because it is us who will decide what should happen. Mainstream media has failed to do this – indeed is culpable in embedding treatyism.

The Future

Is it too late to save New Zealand’s democracy? Have we already passed the crossroads? A pessimist, realist perhaps, might say ‘yes’. As a reluctant optimist I would say there is still time if we do the following:

1. Remove the treaty and its principles from all legislation. People (not a sacred deity) put these into legislation. People can remove them.

2. Remove retribalism’s ideology from all public institutions, including the universities.

3. Encourage those in civil society who value and desire Maori culture to participate in – for example – Maori media, Maori language, kaupapa Maori schools, Maori literature, arts, music, fashion, film, festivities . . . all the activities of a vibrant culture.

4. Teach a complete and unvarnished NZ history developed according to sound scientific methods.

5. Allow New Zealand English to evolve organically through incorporating Maori words, not by government decree.

6. Re-build the education system to teach academic subjects – the source of the partially loyal individual – not ideological dogma.

And finally, hold a national discussion – possibly over several decades – about a symbol for New Zealand’s foundation. I have four suggestions:

1. The 1840 Treaty of Waitangi – for its historical value only – not as a legal and constitutional document. Recent attempts to trace democracy to the treaty are nonsensical and will further embed treatyism.

2. The 1852 Constitution Act. This Act, with all its limitations, did establish New Zealand democracy. It set up Parliament and the beginnings of the workable state that continues today. It recognised the citizen to whom Parliament is accountable – even though only certain Maori and settler men were able to vote – it is that crucial principle of accountability to the people that was put in place.

3. The 1893 Electoral Act – women’s suffrage.

4. Don’t have a founding document. Do we need one?

On a personal note – I confess an emotional pull to the 1893 Electoral Act – for kinship reasons – one of my great-grandmothers was a signatory to the Suffrage Petition. However as a ‘partially loyal’ citizen I must give full and rational consideration to the other contenders – even to argue against my own various loyalties in coming to a decision. There is no doubt that the 1852 Constitution Act is the strongest contender because we can trace our liberal democracy to this legislation. Surely it's worth celebrating?

But we may never decide on an official founding document – and that’s fine. It is the continuous peaceful battle of democracy in action that matters. But that ongoing battle is democracy’s inherent source of instability – an unsettledness that is both its strength and its vulnerability.

When citizens abdicate their democratic duty, when the media abandons its responsibilities, when judges become political activists, when academics are intolerant of open inquiry, and when governments are subverted by an ideology – that is when a corporate tribal elite emerges to encircle the commons, that is to privatise what belongs to the public, to us the people, and to govern not in our interests but for themselves. In this way wealth and power are merged.

Before moving to my conclusion I want to make one thing absolutely clear – especially to those who will seek to distort my words – I support the activities of those in civil society who value and engage in Maori language and culture. A liberal civil society is where we meet in all our differences – indeed society is at its most creative when diversity is practised and enjoyed by all.

To conclude

Politics arises from civil society – from the various conflicting interests of people. That political-civil interaction is what democracy looks like. But, and this is the crux of my argument, no interest group has the right of governance unless the people agree. Elections are that act of agreement – always temporary with the winner always on trial.

New Zealanders, both Maori and non-Maori, have not been asked to agree to tribalist governance. If we had been asked would we have agreed?

Tribalism and democracy are incompatible. We can’t have both. If we wish to keep New Zealand as a liberal democratic nation then, as we derive our citizen rights from the nation-state, so we have a duty to ensure that the nation-state which awards those rights, remains democratic and able to do so.

For our country to remain a liberal democracy, we need to know what democracy is, its true value, and what we must do to restore it.

Professor Elizabeth Rata is the Director of the Knowledge in Education Research Unit in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland. This article first published HERE


R said...

I will know that the exercise to tribalism is near completion when ownership of firearms by citizens becomes illegal.

Robert Arthur said...

Sadly we are unlikley to see much or any of that reported in msm. For a start it would not fit PIJF qualifying guidelines now efectively applied to all content. And there would be no reporters with the ability or time to condense it. The simplistic uttererances of the pro maori activists are so much easier to report, especially as the bulk of msm staff is now chosen for their enthusiastic support for maori domination.

Anonymous said...

A well thought out and reasoned discussion of the dangers which the present government’s policies of co-governance presents to democracy in New Zealand. No doubt there will be some who will seek to pick this apart through self interest. Allocating rights by race is anti democratic and will create a divide in the people through race. The effect of co-governance is to undermine democracy and the right of every individual of equality to under the law. Do we really want a split nation? I agree whole heartedly with Professor Rata, we are at the cross roads and unless we all speak out we will lose our hard fought democratic rights. Democracy is worth preserving.

Anonymous said...

ms rata gives hope in these times when academia seems to have bonkers!

DeeM said...

Very interesting.
Do we need a founding document? No, not in my opinion. But it would be the 1852 Act if we did. It could only be "re-interpreted" to suit the agenda of this or another extremist group currently over-throwing democracy in NZ.

What we should be doing is strengthening the power of the NZ Bill of Rights Act, other modern civil rights documents, and our electoral system to allow the public to demand a say on contentious issues and have the mechanism and power to remove a government mid-term which undertakes policy it failed to campaign on or refuses to get public support for.

DeeM said...

In addition, Elizabeth's extensive list of must-dos to prevent ethno-nationalism, is entirely reliant on a well-informed public who can then swing opinion and votes in favour of politicians campaigning for democracy, or run themselves.

This is virtually impossible with the dire state of the NZ mainstream media, who wholeheartedly support ethno-nationalism.

For me, the first issue to be addressed is how to expose the public to an easily accessible, mainstream media source which tells the whole story.
We're talking TV channel and national newspaper, which I suspect is still the way many Kiwis get their information.

David Lillis said...

Professor Rata has stated what many of us think - very eloquently. This time last year, during the height of the Matauranga Maori and Seven Professors saga, we might have judged that Professor Rata was taking a big risk in articulating such views. However, the Universities and other institutions have learned not to punish too quickly because of rightful backlash. We all learned that the world is watching.

I, for one, agree with Professor Rata unreservedly.

David Lillis

Terry Morrissey said...

I also certainly agree with Professor Rata. I certainly hope that David Seymour was listening very closely. There is a lot he could learn and take away from her wisdom and apply to his party's policies.

Chris Windley said...

I agree wholeheartedly with Professor Rata. She is a true patriot and will have to weather a storm of scorn from a section of our community which will see her as a threat to their agenda.
I stand beside her.
C.S. Windley

Anonymous said...


The Treaty of Waitangi is a simple nullity in international law, because no body politic capable of ceding sovereignty existed in 1840. It thus only has legal effect to the extent to which it has been – wrongly -- incorporated into domestic statute law.

Contrary to modern-day misrepresentation, the Treaty of Waitangi was not with a collective “Maori,” but with tribes, most of whom signed it, some of whom didn’t. In February 1840, what is today New Zealand consisted of hundreds of these “dispersed and petty tribes,” each in a constant state of war with one another, and lacking any concept of nationhood.

There was no collective "Maori" or nation state. It was up to the white settlers to create one out of two main landmasses inhabited by hundreds of small groups or bands of subhuman cannibal savages existing in a Hobbesian state of nature with one another, in which “every man’s hand was against every other man’s,” "no man was secure in his life or in his property" and "life was nasty, brutish and short."

Some 512 chiefs signed the Treaty, while a substantial minority refused to, meaning there were probably more than 600 of these individually insignificant groups.

In the absence of a universally acknowledged civil government and laws to provide for land ownership, in 1840, the various tribes owned NOTHING. They simply used or occupied it until a stronger bunch of bullyboys came along and took it off them. The only universally acknowledged system of laws was "te rau o te patu" [the law of the club] aka "might makes right."

The Treaty of Waitangi was no more than a simple, moral and practical way of allowing Britain to proclaim sovereignty over all the Islands of New Zealand thereby heading off annexation-minded foreign competitors.

It allowed Britain to unite all the people of New Zealand (which included the Europeans already here as well as the settlers to come) in a newly-created nation state with one flag and one law, and to ensure the protection of its newly-minted Maori citizens from one another and the preservation of their lands.

Once the majority of chiefs had signed the Treaty of Waitangi, it had achieved its purpose: to cede the chief’s territories [such as they were] and rights of governance over their tribes [such as they were] to Queen Victoria in return for “the same rights as the people of England.” Captain Hobson was neither instructed nor had the authority to give Maori special rights in the Treaty not already enjoyed by all the people of England.

Anonymous said...

Under the Treaty of Waitangi, all Maori (including the chiefs) became British subjects, rendering it analogous to a used table napkin after a meal, and other than as a historical artefact, about as important. As Governor Hobson unequivocally stated as he shook the hand of each chief on the lawn at Waitangi: “He iwi tahi tatou” (“Now we are one people”).

The Treaty of Waitangi can thus best be described not as “New Zealand’s founding document,” but as “New Zealand’s founding moment.”

Britain obtained sovereignty over the North Island by Treaty and over the South Island by Proclamation of Discovery on 21 May 1840. The Proclamation made New Zealand a dependency of New South Wales as an interim measure.

Five months after Britain declared sovereignty over all the Islands of New Zealand, Queen Victoria’s Royal Charter/Letters Patent dated 16 November 1840 superseded the Treaty and the Proclamation, and was enacted into law on 3 May 1841.

The Royal Charter/Letters Patent was Our True Founding Document and First Constitution. This separated New Zealand from New South Wales, turned New Zealand into a stand-alone British Colony with its own Governor and Constitution, and empowered a legal government to make laws with courts and judges to enforce those laws, all under the watchful eye of Great Britain. In 1947 we became a Sovereign Nation when we adopted the Statute of Westminster.

It is not the Treaty of Waitangi, but Queen Victoria’s Royal Charter/Letters Patent, that is our First Constitution and True Founding Document. It lies in the Constitution Room at Archives New Zealand in Wellington gathering dust.

Anonymous said...

Parliament is currently [until the radical parts-Maori brown supremacists and their enablers get their written Constitution with the bogus 'principles' of the TOW written into it] the supreme law of the land. And no Parliament may currently bind its successors.

ALL THAT'S NEEDED TO REVERT TO COLOURBLIND GOVERNMENT IS A PARLIAMENT WITH THE WILL TO DISMANTLE TREATYISM - remove all references to race/culture/ethnicity from the statute books, repeal all racially divisive legislation, repeal all laws referring to the TOW, abolish the Waitangi Tribunal and the racist Maori Seats.

Why do you think the haters and wreckers want a written Constitution with the TOW [or rather its bogus 'principles'] written in?

Unelected liberal activist judges with lifetime appointments -- of the same ilk as those who invented 'partnership' and 'principles' in 1987 -- will be the ultimate source of law. They will embed and enable a permanent unelected part-Maori aristocracy [with an ever-declining amount of Maori blood[ to lord it over everyone else forever.

Since there will be a 66% or 75% Parliamentary majority required to effect changes to the Constitution, only tinkering around the edges is likely to be possible.

At that point, the only way to reintroduce One Law For All would be a civil war won by the good guys.

Peter John Hall said...

I am so glad Professor Rata is still sharing her distinctions and understanding of what is happening to this Country. I understand the need to abandon all references in institutions and legistration to the Treaty, to tanga te whenua too, as that is no more than 'we found it first.' Certainly it should be replaced. With one principal. One only. The Truth. And that is arrived at with examples and illustrations and always subject to examination. Just as an individual learns and grows, a country can too. But not by dividing it with lies.

In the 1997 Parihaka Report the Waitangi Tribunal was so blinded by telling the effects of firstly the wars in Taranaki then the arrests of the protest leaders on Maori it drew similarities with that Government and Hilter. This was most ignorant. As the Premier moved voting rights from property ownership to citizenship, and changed the five year term to three, applying this change to their term! And the two day election to one, and thirteen years later it was his bill that passed through the Lower House, then the Seddon Upper House giving females the vote. Sir John Hall.
This is just one small example of how corrupt our collective memory has become. While I feel this grievance. What I value most is the idea itself. It has the ability to correct, inspire, standing as it does beside all knowledge. It has to be taken to heart though.