Cultural reconciliation is the greatest challenge

This weekend is a reminder of our greatest political challenge: the reconciliation of two dissonant cultures and two ethnically separated peoples.

Beside this, the great political debate of the 1980s and 1990s, over which precise point on the scale from socialism to free-market capitalism we should occupy, pales into a squabble.

That argument is contained within the value boundaries established by the Enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth century. The issues between Maori and non-Maori frequently escape those boundaries.

At its most audible in the past few weeks the cultural issue has been women’s place in one element of Maori ritual. Titewhai Harawira’s objection to Helen Clark’s role at the Waitangi marae gave Ms Clark the excuse and impulsion to substitute “nation-building” for the mire of protest into which Waitangi Day has sunk.

In the modern Enlightenment framework the issue Mrs Harawira has pushed is automatic: women merit the same treatment as men, so ancient concerns about their “safety” are a flimsy construct clung to by ultra-conservatives (much as Catholics cling to a male-only priesthood).

Maori culture is not by nature frozen, as the vibrant explorations by today’s artists, singers and writers are demonstrating. It was constantly evolving before colonisation and changed rapidly under the impact, positive and negative, of early European contact. Had Maori not been colonised, marae ritual may well by now have become more relaxed about women’s role.

Instead, understandably, tradition hardened as a defence against colonial depradations. The Maori renaissance of the 1960s and 1970s reaffirmed tradition as an anchor. When Maori can relax the fight to save the culture Mrs Harawira will win her point.

But that is only one dimension of the national challenge. A new generation of Maori, firm in its culture, is pressing for “partnership”. This has many and proliferating dimensions.

First, “partnership” is not tokenism. Intensifying Maori demands for, and increasing achievement of, a role in social services delivery (with full control over taxpayers’ funds spent on Maori an ultimate aim), representation on local authorities and government agencies, institutionalised consultation on policy and administration (for example, resource management consents) go far beyond protection of minority interests in a majoritarian society.

They are demands for a kind of equality, predicated on the treaty having been made between sovereign authorities. The tino rangatiratanga (chiefly authority) over Maori matters asserted in article 2 of the treaty is seen as parallel to article 1, by which Britain assumed sovereignty.

A minority of activists now equates tino rangatiratanga with “sovereignty” – for some, exclusive control over things Maori, for others overarching sovereignty over the nation. Even for less radical Maori leaders it is the basis of a quest for readjustment of the institutional arrangements between Maori and the Crown, to give Maori increased or even parallel policy weight with the rest of the population. There is a ferment of debate among Maori over constitutional reform – at a time when very few others are interested.

This towers over the claims process, founded on breaches of article 2’s tino rangatiratanga guarantee, which occupies most attention and is complicated enough on its own.

But there is more to Ms Clark’s challenge. Article 3, guaranteeing full citizenship, is now routinely interpreted as requiring the government to eliminate the “gaps” between Maori and others in economic achievement and social condition.

This is not just a treaty issue or an equity issue but also an economic issue. Ms Clark argues that the economy cannot afford Maori (and Pacific islanders) under-achieving because they are a rapidly increasing, and already large, proportion of the population.

Most want much the same things out of life as other New Zealanders: a house, a car, video, holidays. This highlights another conundrum for Ms Clark: not all Maori are bothered about – or would benefit from – achievement of “partnership” ambitions

Which butts on to Ms Clark’s greatest challenge: sorting out the legitimate from the humbug. It’s a big weekend, this.