By Chris Trotter*
Rawiri Jansen, co-director of Te Rōpū Whakakaupapa Urutā, the National Māori Pandemic Group, is warning of “a perfect storm”. This daunting description was prompted by the disturbing news that, to date, only 9% of Māori and 13% of Pasifika have received both shots of the Pfizer vaccine.
Certainly, the prospect of the Delta variant of Covid-19 rampaging through New Zealand when, say, upwards of 85% of the Pakeha population has been fully vaccinated, but 65% of the Māori and Pasifika population has not, is fraught with danger. The tragedy currently unfolding in the United States, where the Delta variant is cutting a vicious swathe through that country’s unvaccinated population, is not one New Zealanders wish to see unfolding on their own shores.
Avoiding such an outcome has, however, been made extremely difficult by “official” New Zealand’s zealous embrace of racialised politics. The acute risks associated with this race-based approach were on full display during TVNZ’s Q+A current affairs programme of Sunday, 15 August 2021. The show’s presenter, Jack Tame, spoke tremulously of the possibility that Pakeha New Zealanders would “swamp” the full-scale vaccination effort scheduled to get underway from 1 September 2021. Though he was careful not to come right out and say it, implicit in his concern about “equity issues” was a vaccine roll-out that prioritised Māori and Pasifika over Pakeha. How this option could be made to work without requiring Pakeha to wait for their jabs, is one of those questions just about every person in authority is too afraid to answer.
An important factor in the success of New Zealand’s elimination strategy against Covid-19 was Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s constant reiteration that every citizen was a member of “The Team of Five Million”. This was “progressive” nationalism at its best. Ardern’s formulation spoke directly to every New Zealander. “You are Us”, it said, “Whether or not your ancestors arrived here 800 years ago, 150 years ago, or last week; you are a valued member of the team. Your health and safety is no less or more important than any other member of the community. This government is here for you. This government will protect you.”
Crucial to the effectiveness of the Prime Minister’s strategy was her willingness to turn a blind eye to the check-points erected by a number of Iwi to guard against any repeat of the deadly flu pandemic of 1918-19 which killed a disproportionately high number of Māori New Zealanders. With the full co-operation of the Police, the Government conveyed to Māori everywhere the vital message that, within the team of five million, many different ways of keeping communities safe will be tried and tested – and that’s okay. Just so long as the job gets done.
The great tragedy of the 18 months since the first nationwide lock-down is that neither the Government, nor the Ministry of Health, nor the DHBs, have built upon these early improvisations. Had Māori been encouraged to develop and roll-out their own plans for the vaccination of their people, just as soon as an effective vaccine became available, then the chances of securing a high Māori up-take would have been dramatically improved. The Māori Battalion, of undying fame, may have been a separate military unit, but it was also an integral part of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.
It has been an outstanding feature of the New Zealand state that, until very recently, it had mastered the art of both acknowledging the special status of its indigenous people while, at the same time, locating them unequivocally within the circle of citizenship. That this art quite often defied logic and science in no way detracted from its practical success. New Zealand’s No. 8 Wire constitutional and ethnic arrangements may not have been elegant – or even rational – but they worked. Until, that is, the official acceptance, and extremely rapid uptake, of the “colonisation” narrative caused them to stop working.
It is simply not possible to maintain New Zealand’s ‘two peoples, one nation’, solution in the face of an ideology that casts 85% of the population as “baddies” and the remaining 15% as “goodies”, and then invites the state to develop its policies in accordance with this uncompromising Good versus Evil dichotomy. As exemplified in Jack Tame’s concerns about Pakeha “swamping”, adherents to the colonisation narrative will look at the mass vaccination of the Team of Five Million and, rather than seeing a positive sign that New Zealand is moving closer and closer to being able to open-up to the rest of the world, they will see only more evidence of Pakeha privilege and systemic racism.
Even more counter productively, the first instinct of the colonisation narrative’s adherents will be to demand that Māori and Pasifika (who always seem to end up being parenthesised in these debates) be vaccinated first, rather than be exposed to the Delta variant unvaccinated. Hard to believe though it may be, this approach requires the authorities to look upon the New Zealand population not as a single entity of five million human-beings – all equally vulnerable to Covid-19 virus – but as a collection of racial/cultural communities to be prioritised for vaccination in accordance with the seriousness of their historical sins.
Always left unstated in these outrageous, racially-charged discussions about who should go in front of whom, is the likely reaction of those being asked to accept a lower priority. The anger and resentment engendered by such a policy do not seem to enter the political equation. Not even when the quantum of the group being asked to wait is greater than the quantum of the group being promoted to the front of the queue. The assumption is always that if moral suasion does not ensure compliance, then coercion will.
It is in this dangerous assumption that the essence of the problem with the colonisation narrative lies. It presupposes the rectification of historical injustice by judicial fiat. Rather than seeing the state as a body of self-governing citizens, the adherents of the colonisation narrative see it as a kind of court, whose uncontestable judgements must be obeyed – on pain of severe punishment. In a country where the Māori Renaissance was kicked-off by crucial judgements in the Court of Appeal, or the findings of the Waitangi Tribunal, this is not, perhaps, surprising. It would, however, be a huge mistake to forget that this nation’s highest court is Parliament, and that the balance of power within the People’s House is determined by the people themselves – by majority.
It is to be hoped that Jacinda Ardern and her government will resist the racially-charged demands of the colonisation narrative’s adherents, and continue to deal with the Covid-19 Pandemic as a problem afflicting human-beings – not racial groups. Also to be hoped is that the Government will, at last, display a readiness to devolve the responsibility for achieving the only rational vaccination target – 100% – to those groups most likely to engage successfully with their communities. These may include Te Whanau o Waipareira Trust, or the Congregational Church of Samoa, a local Marae, or a nationwide trade union organisation. God knows, they could hardly do worse that the Ministry of Health and New Zealand’s DHBs!
Democracy’s direction of travel is always downwards and outwards. Only authoritarians draw decision-making inwards, and send it upwards.
Racism is always and everywhere the creation of elites. “Perfect storms” are invariably unleashed upon us from above.
*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.