The ethnic factor in Clark’s equation

Tariana Turia is right. Colonisation of Maori devastated a culture, an economy and a power system.

To understand why she is right, imagine that 7 or 8 million Chinese arrive and impose the Mandarin language, a different set of laws and way of doing business and a political system that marginalises us and follow that up, if we resist, by military confiscation of swathes of farmland, factories and offices – plus a bonus of deadly new diseases.

Mrs Turia is also right that the after-effects of colonisation are still being felt and that that accounts for some of the present economic and social underperformance of Maori.

Successive dispirited generations have passed on to the next generation low expectations for themselves and their children amid the dominant culture. Unsurprisingly, each generation lives up to those low expectations.

Though recovery of cultural assertiveness, rehabilitation of the Treaty of Waitangi and treaty settlements are changing expectations for many Maori, there remains a long way to go.

But Mrs Turia is also seriously wrong – politically.

She has misjudged her role to be minister for Maori when in fact she is Associate Minister of Maori affairs in a government that must speak for all citizens.

First, her speech could be read as excusing violence – and was bound to be in the circumstances of its delivery, especially with the “post-colonial traumatic stress disorder” label attached.

In fact, each individual, no matter how disadvantaged in early life, has a choice in each action. Even granted that “good” choices come a lot more easily after the self-satisfied moraliser’s upbringing of good food, good housing and good cheer than after one of neglect and abuse, a person beats a child to death because he or she chooses to.

Second, to “stress disorder” Mrs Turia added “holocaust”. That is political dynamite.

The Oxford English Dictionary allows a range of meanings and cites a 1987 headline, “Aids: the new holocaust”. But the connecting thread is total destruction (usually by fire) and systematic destruction, as in “a great massacre”. Colonisation, though it included atrocities and presumed a cultural supremacy that devalued, denigrated and displaced the indigenous culture, falls short of those criteria.

In any case ethnic-European (“mainstream”) New Zealanders don’t read 21,000-page dictionaries and have only a hazy understanding of our past. To them, as to the Prime Minister, “holocaust” is the Nazis’ planned, industrial extermination of the Jews. They object, on good grounds, to equation with Hitler.

Mainstream New Zealanders also object to having visited on them the sins of their forebears, for which they say they cannot be responsible. They have not yet confronted and incorporated the past in the nation’s everyday life. That would require an education that has scarcely begun.

So when Mrs Turia makes her passionate speeches, they see in her an “extremist”, a “Maori radical” in the bosom of the government.

There is nothing more surely fatal to a major party than to be credibly labelled “extreme”. It was Jenny Shipley’s fatal mistake in 1998 to accentuate free-market reforms instead of moderating them. It will be Helen Clark’s fatal mistake if she lets herself be painted as in cahoots with “Maori extremists”.

You can understand why, as one minister put it, the snow was steaming under Ms Clark’s skis last Wednesday.

But some of the mistake is hers.

Trained in the leftist political analysis of the early 1970s, she instinctively talks of Maori issues as sociological (hence her Waitara mistake), fixable by a bit more liberal-social democratic effort (“closing the gaps”). In this sort of thinking Maori are a socioeconomic underclass.

They are that. But Maori issues are more than sociological. They are also ethnic. Her own Maori caucus demonstrates that daily. Mrs Turia is a noisy example, not an aberration.

Ms Clark has made her Maori caucus central in her government, in part to show good faith to Maori electors. Now, if she is to shore up her government, she must find a formula that stitches together ethnic and social justice imperatives, establishes unity amid diversity.

That is her most intractable challenge. She — and social democracy — will be judged by it.