Can National learn to be bicultural?

Some things don’t change. When last the National party conference met in the Auckland Town Hall in 1980, my low opinion of the morning tea biscuits stirred divisional chair Pat Baker’s wife Susan to bake me a batch of excellent cheese scones.

This Sunday morning just past, in the same unhallowed precincts, Pat delivered me a little box of Susan’s tasty fresh-baked cheese puffs to mark National’s return.

Some things do change. A rapid riser through the party ranks asked me of the person presenting the party taskforce’s superannuation report: “Who’s that guy?”.

“George Chapman.”

“Who’s he?” Decades descended heavily on my shoulders. Sir George, as acute now as when president in 1973-82 and a storehouse of wisdom any rapid riser would mine to great profit, took it philosophically when I told him.

Some things link what doesn’t change with what does. New president Michelle Boag was a Young Nat in the Chapman years, worked in all three leaders’ offices in the 1980s and was involved at high level in presidential campaigns through the 1980s and 1990s.

Boag knows high politics and knows the party. She knows modern business and what under-35s think. She spans the old and the new in what might be the strongest presidency since Chapman’s.

One marker will be selection of candidates. Boag has been talent-spotting while campaigning. National’s 1999 intake was higher quality than Labour’s. If she repeats that for the 2002 election, National will thereafter outgun Labour in the middle and lower ranks.

But Boag faces an uphill grind to prod the party to broaden its policy range and its ethnic reach.

Nick Smith’s intelligent conference pitch for a “blue-green” repositioning to appeal to soft greens who don’t like heavy regulation got ahead of his audience, most of whom (sharing a caucus prejudice) see only the word “development” in the phrase “sustainable development”.

And a much stronger Maori contingent than has ever been seen before at a National conference — pulled in on the initiative of aspiring candidate Hekia Parata (once a David Lange adviser) and her business and life partner, Wira Gardiner (once a National candidate himself) — left delegates pleased the Maori had come but uncertain what it implies.

National strategists have gradually grasped that if they don’t win at least some votes among Maori who identify strongly as Maori, that might in itself be enough to deny power under MMP.

But there is a price, illustrated to the conference when the Parata phalanx commandeered the constitutional forum to block calls for a referendum on abolishing the Maori seats. Most in the National rank and file want the seats gone.

How National responds to such challenges will decide whether the newcomers will be at next year’s conference. National’s history is replete with will-of-the-wisp Maori appearances.

The answer is one few Nationalists understand, let alone can respond to. To keep and build a Maori contingent and on that platform expand National’s Maori support beyond those who don’t identify strongly as Maori, National must learn biculturalism.

Just settling Treaty grievances and setting up a few Maori health authorities misses the point.

National’s present attitude to Maori is in essence multicultural — acceptance that people of minority cultures might maintain their customs, ceremonies and language and that the state might even help them do that.

Biculturalism, by contrast, acknowledges that two cultures stand side by side as equals and command mutual recognition and respect.

A bicultural perspective sees nothing out of order in a Maori ceremony at the recent opening of the Bangkok embassy which included religious observances that provoked multicultural Rodney Hide of ACT to magisterial condemnation. Each culture decides what is appropriate for the event. The majority culture is secular, the Maori spiritual.

National’s Maori visitors are bicultural. So — unsurprisingly, given her high tribal rank — is the party’s lone Maori MP, Georgina te Heuheu.

Can National grasp what te Heuheu has been trying to tell it for five years when even the three left parties still struggle to live up to it? If Boag, alerted to that challenge, can rise to it, she will indeed bridge the old and the new.