By Chris Trotter*
Paul Goldsmith, on the “benefits” – to Maori – of colonisation. First of all, and obviously, he shouldn’t have said it. From a party-political point of view (and what other point of view should a National Party MP be taking?) such a comment merely plays to the fast-solidifying narrative of National being a stale white bread party that can’t get out of its own way when it comes to voicing outdated racial attitudes. What’s more, given the events of the week just past, National’s attitudes on race are beginning to look like the least of its worries.
As with so much of National’s recent behaviour, Goldsmith’s comments raise some very dangerous questions. The most obvious being: ‘What’s wrong with these people?’ and, ‘In what, strange, alternative universe is conduct and attitudes like these considered okay?’ Questions that lead, inevitably, to a much broader concern about the quality of National’s due diligence when it comes to candidate selection. People begin to wonder whether the reason so many National candidates turn out to be embarrassing duds, is because their general demeanour and mode of discourse is construed by the selectors as entirely unremarkable. Or, to put it more bluntly, because National’s awfulness is now a feature, not a bug. They’re all like that.
Now, back in the days when the National Party boasted upwards of 200,000 members, what National’s candidate selectors recognised as good, solid, middle-of-the-road New Zealand-ness corresponded pretty much exactly with the perceptions of the ordinary voter. Back in those days, when memories of the Second World War and the enforced egalitarianism of the trenches were still fresh, unusual and/or disturbing idiosyncrasies were much easier to spot. People still recalled the stereotype of the “spiv”: the black-market con-men who were “all Brylcreem and no socks”. Both of the major parties were tolerant of a wide range of political beliefs and priorities, but the men and women they chose to represent them all evinced a reassuring sameness.
The effective destruction of New Zealand’s mass political parties, along with the thoroughgoing de-democratisation of the decision-making structures that remained, which the introduction of neoliberalism more-or-less mandated, robbed them of their almost automatic capacity to pick the “right” sort of person to represent them. The new economic order also required the major parties to abandon their former tolerance of heterodox ideas. Ideological orthodoxy now trumped social conformity. Especially after the arrival of MMP and its backroom-assembled Party Lists, the party bosses cared less-and-less about what MPs did privately – so long as they didn’t do it in front of the cameras and frighten the markets.
And it got worse. The political culture of neoliberalism bred its own, very special, kind of politician. Just as the producers of reality TV shows like “Survivor” are careful to screen out anyone displaying what most people would consider the “normal” human traits of compassion, co-operation and honest-dealing, in favour of the selfish, the ruthless and the faithless; so, too, are political parties careful to screen out those who display an excessive independence of mind and/or a principled unwillingness to subordinate their conscience to the dictates of the party leadership. The days of so-called “maverick” MPs like Mike Minogue and Jim Anderton are long gone.
The upshot, for the National Party, was John Key and his affably cynical amanuensis, Steven Joyce. Those of an older generation may have grumbled into their single malts about the party falling into the hands of a quintessential “spiv” and his backroom Machiavelli, but nobody who mattered cared. In a world where all that counts is the ability to buy and sell, the currency trader should be king. In a political environment where the ability to fake sincerity rates as the ultimate accomplishment, calling someone Machiavelli is a fulsome compliment.
Like it or not, these were the sort of role models National was happy to present to the next generation of aspiring MPs. Unfortunately, younger generations have a nasty habit of noticing attitudes and behaviours their elders would prefer them to overlook. This propensity to model themselves on the real – rather than the ideal – may be a perverse sort of compliment to the generation in charge, but the final product, when it steps into the public spotlight all-too-often proves to be an accident just waiting to happen – as National has discovered to its cost.
The ultimate guard-rail against these political eruptions is the party’s organisational leadership. The party president, in particular, must have an especially sensitive nose for potential stinkers. It’s a huge responsibility: in effect the president, and his/her colleagues on the party’s executive committee, must substitute their own judgement for the mass party’s homogenising instincts. In this regard, the incumbent National Party President, Peter Goodfellow, must be adjudged a costly failure. To put it crudely: far too many stinkers have been given the nod. National urgently requires a more sensitive pair of nostrils.
Not that Goldsmith is one of the stinkers, far from it. He’s one of National’s few remaining conservative intellectuals. As a politician, he is refreshingly open about expressing his opinions. The problem he has, however, is a very obvious lack of the common touch. Goldsmith is the very opposite of Simon Bridges – a National politician who has not the slightest difficulty with the diction of the ordinary Kiwi. The bookish Goldsmith, one suspects, would struggle in the average public bar: too concerned about the facts; not concerned enough about the tone.
Factually, Goldsmith has a case to make. Colonisation has not been an unequivocal evil. What it has done, however, by forcing them to respond to its ever-increasing impact, is divide Maori.
Since the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, the internal divisions within Maoridom have resolved themselves into three broad factions: the Loyalists; the Adapters; and the Rejectionists. For the Loyalists, the British Crown has remained a symbol of power and authority over and above the treacherous settler state. Having secured its protection under Article Three of the Treaty, successive generations of Maori leaders have continued to appeal to the only institution which has been willing to defend them from the “democracy” of the Pakeha majority.
Strong believers in the hereditary principle, and inheriting all the aristocratic mana of their forefathers, they have found it hard to believe that the British sovereign – the ultimate rangatira – reigns over her subjects but does not rule them. Even today, many Maori leaders evince a profound mistrust of the democratically elected legislature, and show a decided preference for working with the executive and judicial branches of the New Zealand State. Cabinet, and a sympathetic judiciary, have taken the place of well-disposed Governors and the Church Missionary Society.
The Adapters continue to seek an enduring modus vivendi with the world of the Pakeha. Their original vision of the 1840s and 50s: of the Pakeha in their place, the tangata whenua in theirs, and the Treaty over them all, continues to inspire a significant minority of contemporary Maori – not least the authors of He Puapua.
More numerous, however, are those for whom the Treaty and the Maori tribes’ heroic resistance form just one part – albeit an important part – of their family heritage. For two centuries they have taken the Pakeha’s tools and used them to construct a new identity. One-hundred-and-fifty years after the Sovereignty Wars, and with the genealogies of tangata whenua and tau iwi inextricably intertwined, they think of themselves – and call themselves – New Zealanders.
For the Rejectionists, however, the British Crown turned out to be nothing more than the glittering bauble which ruthless settler politicians raised above their heads as proof that their government’s bare-faced larceny would soon enjoy all the security of legal title.
The rejectionists cast aside Crown and Treaty in favour of a return to the old ways. One thinks of Rua Kenana, lost in the mists of the Ureweras. Or of the fiercely independent Maori communities of Northland, the King Country and the Waikato and Whanganui Rivers. Among these proud tenders of te ahi kaa – the home-fires of inextinguishable possession – the incantations of their forefathers continue to work their magic, and, in the very bones of the land, they hear the echoes of Rewi Maniapoto’s last, defiant challenge: Ka whawhai tonu matou, ake ake ake! – “We will fight on, forever and ever and ever!”
Goldsmith’s mistake was his failure to appreciate that, for the moment, it is the rejectionists who have the floor.
*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.