Equality Before the Law Stands Before Race

New Zealand Herald, March 4, 2004

Denis Dutton


www.denisdutton.com



A few years ago, cartoonist Garrick Tremain found with his usual brilliance a way to epitomise a persistent New Zealand problem.

He portrayed an exasperated, potbellied European-looking bloke with scraggy beard and a bone carving around his neck, exclaiming to the reader, "Oh boy, I've got a grievance all right! The despicable way my Maori ancestors were diddled and hoodwinked by my Pakeha ancestors".

Tremain put his finger on a nasty issue that will permanently foil attempts to frame government in notions of bi-culturalism, "partnership", and the Treaty of Waitangi.


When Governor Hobson said in 1840 that "we are all one people", he could still mean it in terms of the Queen's political sovereignty - equality under Crown law - being extended over the Maori tribes on the one hand and the mixed bag of scallywags and settlers who were then reaching New Zealand on the other.

Today, 164 years later, as National's leader Don Brash has pointed out, there are no racially pure Maori left in New Zealand.

Some 70 per cent of 24 to 37-year-olds who call themselves Maori are married to non-Maori. Time, migration to cities, and intermarriage mean that Hobson has turned out to be right in a way he could not have envisioned.

Of course, go back far enough and all New Zealanders are to some degree of mixed race. Australia learned to take pride in its convict past, and so should New Zealand be able cheerfully to accept its mongrel present.

Ours is a vigorous multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-racial society that borrows its peoples and values (not to mention its cuisine, sports and entertainments) from all over the globe.

One thing that unites us is the single most important principle of all systems of governance, from prehistoric hunting bands to the modern world: equality under the law. It is the place of this principle in New Zealand that is at the heart of our current race debate.

Equal protection is part of the United States Constitution, and can be traced back through the Magna Carta. In ordinary terms it means simple fairness or justice.

Equality does not entail exactly the same treatment for all citizens: democracies place heavier tax burdens on high-income people, and are more generous in welfare to the less well-off. But behind all such calculations stands a principle of equality.

New Zealand's problem is that benefits and privilege are now seen as based in part on race, and to align privilege of any kind with race is like playing with hand grenades.

A sense of fairness touches deep intuitions in the human brain. So, alas, does ethnic identity, and successful modern societies have gone out of their way to defuse and redirect the demons of race.

Which is why reading a story such as Megan Church's is so disturbing. Megan is a 16-year-old whose parents have removed her from Marlborough Girls' College.

Megan has worn a necklace with an amethyst since she was 10. It was forcibly cut off her neck by a teacher, as a violation of the school's dress code.

This same dress code, however, allows Maori students to wear bone and greenstone necklaces as part of the school's "Treaty of Waitangi obligations". The school administrators justify their policy because of "improved outcomes" for Maori students.

Such actions decrease respect for authority in school, increase disdain for Maori culture among non-Maori, and in the country at large corrode respect for Government.

Megan Church's case is a minor instance of patterns of privilege that show up in education (check out your local teachers' college), in the enforcement of the Resource Management Act, in the politically correct contortions of district health boards.

Sometimes they verge on the comical: at the University of Otago, all research involving human and animal subjects, even such a trifle as having a class of students fill in an opinion form, must be passed on to local iwi for consultation.

Added together over years, such annoyances undermine respect for Maori culture. Not that everyone sees this. In criticising Dr Brash, the Rev Richard Randerson told Radio New Zealand that it would be "a disaster for New Zealand" if we abandoned the treaty and adopted a "one-size fits all" approach to New Zealand problems.

This is sheer clap-trap. No one doubts that education and medicine should adapt themselves to the varied ways of New Zealanders - Maori, Samoan, or Taiwanese.

The potential disaster for New Zealand is in abandoning the principle of one law for one people. Dr Brash has repeated a point admitted even by his political opponents: the writing of race out of New Zealand law will not make much difference in who receives help from Government.

We need to remind ourselves that endemic poverty and social problems are not peculiarly Maori, though they are accentuated in the bottom 25 per cent of Maori population. This is where support should go and it will under fair, non-racial policies.

By acceding to the insistence of special rights for Maori under the treaty, successive governments have undermined the status and legitimacy of the state.

Lincoln's famous dictum, "A house divided against itself cannot stand", was uttered in the context of a bloody civil war but it applies to every sovereign state. Happily, our situation is nowhere near as dire.

Australia calls itself a lucky country, and in many respects it is. But from this side of the Tasman we have only to contemplate the fate of the luckless, isolated Aborigines to realise how much luckier we are: we are well and truly one people, as Garrick Tremain illustrated with comic effect. Let's be thankful, too, that we can laugh about it.