Colin James’s column for the NZ Herald for 25 October 2000

Matt Robson’s media profile is a reasoned advocate of enlightened treatment of criminals.
This is not a fashionable cause, even with his Labour allies in the cabinet. Characteristically, however, Mr Robson courts not popularity but rightness as he sees it.

This is the man who in 1989 gave up almost certain Labour candidacy for a safe seat to follow his conscience into minority politics. That marks him as unusual in a place where the main chance is the main course.

Mr Robson is bringing his unusual approach to another of his portfolios, that of the courts. He is encouraging Joe Williams to speak publicly – even to a National party gathering. This encouragement might turn out to be one of Mr Robson’s most important acts.

Joe Williams is an outstanding Maori lawyer who is now Chief Judge of the Maori Land Court and deputy chief of the Waitangi Tribunal. He has an illuminating take on the government’s “gaps” which he offered to the Alliance conference 10 days ago.

Judge Williams assigns Maori to four “primary” groups:

around 100,000-150,000 who live in or near their rohe (tribal area) as part of their whanau and hapu;
a similar number, increasingly well educated, who live outside their rohe but participate in whanau or tribal activities;
around 100,000 dispossessed, often young, people who have no Maori cultural or linguistic connection;
another 170,000-odd “assimilated New Zealanders of Maori descent” who know they have Maori ancestry but primarily identify with European culture.
The first two groups, Judge Williams says, are by and large bilingual and bicultural and have a strong sense of tino rangatiratanga and “separateness from the mainstream”. The second group in particular drives much of the policy debate. Both groups are growing in number.

The third and fourth groups are indifferent to Maoriness. We can all recognise the third group as star performer on the wrong side of the government’s gaps.

Judge Williams didn’t say this but most non-Maori would like groups one, two and three to migrate to group four, that is, assimilate (and pull their socks up). But in Judge Williams’ assessment law and policy designed to assimilate rather than “protect the [Maori] community” would cause trouble with groups one and two, where there is already a high level of dissatisfaction, and instead of prodding them into group four would more likely move some of them into group three. “And that is dynamite.”

Judge Williams says protecting Maori distinctiveness is not moving to separatism. “It has always been there. The difference is simply that it is visible now.” It is “solidifying”.

And, he argues, the stronger Maori people are in their culture the more they are likely to contribute positively to society. On this assessment, “the point of closing the gaps is survival”. And the answer to current low performance is “to get group three shifted to group one or two as quickly as possible”.

How quickly? Judge Williams warns that “it is a generational thing”. I take this to say that the “gaps” and “separate” initiatives are going to be an inescapable feature of the whole of the first quarter of this century and that failure to engage might unleash anarchic forces.

Judge Williams’ analysis is the more forceful for its lack of conventional symbols of radicalism. He dresses as you would expect of a lawyer-turned-judge. He speaks in the reasoned tones of the bench. He looks part of the establishment.

Which is the point. Front him to National party members and they will likely hear what he is saying. Likewise the service clubs and the heartland white groups up and down the country whom Treaty Negotiations Minister Margaret Wilson is setting out to “educate”.

In those places the likes of Annette Sykes and Moana Jackson – and Tariana Turia – can be dismissed as unlike the Maori who are their friends and workmates. But Judge Williams cannot. He is too non-threateningly part of European culture and too obviously concerned for social cohesion.

A different Minister of Courts might shut the good judge down, as other public servants have been. But Mr Robson is serenely sure of his principles. He and Judge Williams make one of those unusual cocktails politics mixes from time to time.