The greater ‘gap’ facing Maori

Just which “gaps” is Helen Clark closing and why were they so important she had to dump Dover Samuels quickly?

The “gaps” she sealed with last week’s sacking were threatened breaches in the political dyke: she secured her authority, got herself off the moral skewer of supporting a minister with an inconvenient past and for good measure divided the opposition in Parliament.

But the sacking rationale she skilfully promoted highlighted quite different “gaps” — those between the average status of Maori and that of the general population. Mr Samuels’ troubles jeopardised her “flagship” programme to close those “gaps”, she insisted.

This manoeuvre clinched acquiescence by the leadership of a constituency which is vital to her party’s electoral future. Though Herald pollster DigiPoll recorded a big majority of Maori against Mr Samuels’ sacking, MPs report that messages from opinion-leaders ran the other way.

This divide was reflected in government ranks: tribally-oriented Maori MPs supporting Ms Clark, John Tamihere and Willie Jackson, champions of city Maori against the big guns of tribal tradition, against. This in turn is a distant proxy for another “gap”, the gulf between poor Maori without rank and privileged Maori tribal worthies. Social democratic doctrine, which gives primacy to reducing inequality, embraces those on both sides of this gap at best awkwardly.

The poor, especially the urban poor, do not see a lot of the trickle-down from treaty settlements, which are in any case to restore mana and compensate tribes for wrongs, not to provide equalising social assistance.

Accordingly, the government is increasing emphasis on empowerment of, and devolution to, a variety of iwi and Maori urban organisations, to deliver education, health care and social assistance. It hopes these will be more effective than mainstream-culture social agencies.

But the government also talks at times of closing the gap between rich and poor generally. From some passages in the Budget you might infer that the “flagship closing the gaps” programme for Maori (and Pacific islanders) is just part of a general reduction of inequalities – in which Mr Samuels had only a walk-on part.

To this confusing proliferation of “gaps” let me add one more – that between those who can foot it in the world economy and those who cannot.

This division, analysed a decade ago by American “third way” theorist Robert Reich, has been partly responsible for the rich-get-richer, poor-get-poorer phenomenon which is often mistakenly ascribed wholly to “new right” ideology.

This global “gap” is pervasive and unyielding, dividing the struggling bulk of the population from the competitive elite.

So the “gap” Maori need to make up is not just between Maori and what many Maori analysts call the “colonisers” – ethnic Europeans. It is also with the best of the rest of the world: Americans, Australians, Japanese, Taiwanese, Germans, Chinese and so on.

That gap would gape in front of Maori even if there were no “colonisers”. It gapes in front of the “colonisers”. This is a harsh fact but a fact nonetheless.

Treaty rhetoric is not much use in closing this gap. Accentuation of Maori culture for Maori can build confidence, aspiration and willpower, which are preconditions for economic and social success. But to take on the world Maori need what all need: world-class schooling and tertiary education, world-class entrepreneurial skill and energy and world-class companies to work for that skill employees to world standards.

Ms Clark’s “knowledge economy” initiatives, though timid, show she understands this keenly. But political necessity and personal inclination have made ” closing the gaps” between Maori and non-Maori her “flagship”.

Of course, if disadvantage is passed to yet another Maori generation the social and economic consequences for the whole population could be dire. But failure to bridge the greater gap would surely keep Maori poor. It is a nasty conundrum.