By Chris Trotter*
Minorities are a problem. In a staunchly majoritarian political culture, such as New Zealand’s, successive governments have learned to deal with the problems posed by minorities, primarily, by not dealing with them. The New Zealand state bends over backwards to accommodate minority demands.
With considerable justification, the authorities tend to argue that defending the general interests of the majority, against the specific demands of a well-organised and vocal minority, is likely to make the problem worse. Politicians, in particular, are extremely leary of making problems worse – especially when quietly appeasing the minority responsible for them will, almost always, be the surest way of making them go away.
There are times, however, when the actions of minorities affect the majority in ways that cannot be ignored. The behaviour of the nation’s evangelical churches – most particularly the derelictions of the Mt Roskill Evangelical Fellowship – constitute an urgent case in point.
Drawing their inspiration from the overwhelmingly right-wing evangelical churches of the United States, New Zealand’s evangelicals have been in the forefront of challenging both the reality, and the authorities’ handling, of the Covid-19 Pandemic. Though the Government and the Ministry of Health have been at some pains to play down the extent of the Mt Roskill church’s intransigence, the sheer size of the “cluster” it created, and the seriousness of the threat it posed to the rest of the Auckland community, argues for it being considerable.
Given the beliefs of the worldwide evangelical movement, matters could hardly be otherwise. At the very heart of what is, in essence, their First Century understanding of the Christian faith, the evangelicals see themselves as being in the same position as the Christian congregations operating under the watchful and unforgiving eye of the pagan Roman Empire.
In their own eyes, they are God’s elect: his special children; who are called upon to suffer persecution at the hands of a fallen world for their uncompromising adherence to “the way, the truth and the life” proclaimed by their redeemer. It is precisely this First Century mindset that leads groups like the Mt Roskill Evangelical Fellowship to cut themselves off from the wider society. Paradoxically, they are already “self-isolating”. Not from the Covid-19 virus, but from the soul-destroying contagion of New Zealand’s secular – i.e. wilfully sinful – society.
This would have been a tough nut to crack. The harder the State threatened to strike them, the more certain the Mt Roskill evangelicals could be that, like the martyrs of the early Christian Church, their place in heaven was assured. The Government, wisely, turned to the broader Pasifika community for the help it needed. We may never know exactly what variation of Christ’s supremely ambiguous, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s”, the more moderate and mainstream Pasifika pastors offered up – but it worked. (Perhaps all it took was a veiled threat from the Government to remove the churches’ tax-exempt status!)
It’s a delicate business, this balancing of minority/majority rights. Democratic theory requires the state to protect the rights of the minority from the so-called “tyranny of the majority”. It is, however, very dangerous for a Government to openly and obviously privilege the rights of a tiny minority at the majority’s expense.
Certainly the National Party Prime Minister, Rob Muldoon, was unwilling to placate the minority of New Zealanders who, in 1981, were adamant that the Springbok Tour should not proceed. With the telling example of the 1972-75 Labour Government in front of him, Muldoon opted to keep faith with his party’s supporters by ensuring that the Tour went ahead. The consequences of that decision: the deep divisions it opened up in New Zealand society; have stood as a powerful historical argument against ranging oneself unequivocally on the side of the majority. It was only the dumbest luck which prevented the Springbok Tour protests, and the Police effort required to contain them, from spilling over into deadly violence. Politicians on both sides of the ideological divide drew the obvious lesson: never again allow the political stakes to rise so high.
In no other facet of New Zealand political life have the arguments favouring minority appeasement enjoyed such enduring currency than in the vexed matter of Maori-Pakeha relations.
Once again, it was the majoritarian convictions of Rob Muldoon that exposed the dangers. The forced removal of 200 Bastion Point protesters, in 1978, required a truly massive effort from the state’s instruments of coercion. Bastion Point made very clear to the authorities the enormous difficulties which a more geographically extensive manifestation of Maori protest would impose upon the state. “Winning” would likely require the use of deadly force, which would, almost certainly, provoke an armed terrorist response. Like the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms assailed by the Norsemen during the Ninth and Tenth Centuries, the New Zealand state opted to buy peace with gold.
There are limits, of course. Should the price of social peace rise to a point where the majority is no longer willing to pay it, appeasement will very quickly become a dirty word.
Had the General Election of 2005 been held a week earlier, it is highly likely that Don Brash, the author of the in/famous “Orewa Speech”, would have become Prime Minister. His commitment to repudiate the Treaty of Waitangi, curtail the Treaty Settlement Process and abolish the Maori Seats (all policies which the polls indicated enjoyed majority backing) would have pushed the country to the brink of civil war. Significantly, it was Brash’s successor, John Key, who steered his party back towards the appeasement policies initiated by National’s Jim Bolger and Doug Graham in the early-1990s.
The question posed by the absolute necessity of keeping New Zealanders – all New Zealanders – safe from the Covid-19 virus, is a simple one. Is it possible to envisage any other set of circumstances where the demands of a minority, no matter how well organised and vocal, are swept aside by a majority which refuses to put itself at risk? Will the experience of seeing the wishes of New Zealand’s capitalist minority overruled in the name of protecting the health of all those New Zealanders who do not own and/or run businesses (the overwhelming majority) embolden those same New Zealanders to advance radical majoritarian claims in other areas?
And, if they do, is there any minority – economic, social or political – which can, realistically, expect to stop them?
*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. He writes a weekly column for interest.co.nz. His work may also be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com.