The bicultural path to a new centre

The most important word uttered by Helen Clark last week was “worldview”. It signals her recognition of biculturalism, the country’s biggest challenge.

Turning that challenge into opportunity would inscribe Clark’s prime ministership in history more memorably than a bigger economy or better hospitals.

Maori traditional culture is animist, seeing all nature, including inanimate objects such as stones, in terms of whakapapa, interconnected through genealogy. It is deeply distinct from, and in important ways contradictory to, the human-centred culture of the descendants of Europe.

This “worldview” was at the heart of many submissions by Maori to the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification (GM) and rejection of GM by Clark’s own Maori caucus.

Biculturalism is not just a branch of multiculturalism.

Multiculturalism is acceptance that people of minority cultures might maintain their customs, ceremonies and language and that the state might even help them do that.

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

But does mutual recognition and respect mean irreconcilability, as the Maori caucus’s standoff suggests? That depends on how traditional Maori knowledge is used.

For a clue, listen to Tahu Potiki. Potiki has strong Maori cultural credentials: at present kaiarahi (elder) at Christchurch Polytechnic and about to chair the Ngai Tahu Development Corporation, he states flatly Maori have much to blame colonisation for. But he condemns an “ostrich syndrome within Maoridom” on GM.

Describing the Maori knowledge system to the Polytechnics Association’s conference on Saturday, Potiki said whakapapa could not encompass all the new items introduced by “western” knowledge.

“The relevance of whakapapa is in communal solidarity, kinship and identity,” he said, “but these traditions cannot be seen as truth or as an excuse not to engage with the rest of the world in seeking out new knowledge.

“There is no modern, credible discipline that continues to expand to an understanding of the universe based on genealogical lines. So, as we consider the knowledge society, it must be in the context of modern global knowledge that has survived critical or practical analysis.”

This does not mean trashing Maori knowledge. “Countries, identities and systems of government find their origin in knowledge systems that have long since been disproved,” Potiki said. Traditional Maori knowledge is the “cement of identity”, as language, shinto religion and traditional values are to Japanese.

So, to loosely interpret Potiki’s line, in a bicultural country that “cement of identity” must be fully respected and incorporated into national life at all levels, especially the ceremonial. But bicultural mutual recognition and respect does not dictate acceptance of Maori traditional knowledge as a bar to full participation in the modern technologically-driven economy. Japanese, Potiki says, are at the forefront of technology.

Clark has preferred so far to focus on practical delivery of services to Maori — in the classical traditions of welfare-state social democracy. And she has been sensitive to Maori requests for more control over how services are provided for Maori.

But until her “worldview” statement last week she has given little, if any, evidence of acceptance of the bicultural dimension.

And, in truth, it doesn’t mesh easily with her core project. That is to create a new “centre” in our politics.

The centre is usually understood as a geographical location between the extremes of left and right ideologies — and Clark does in part intend that.

But to understand fully her mission, the centre needs to be seen in a different light, as (to take three words she used a lot last week of GM) “practical”, “commonsense” and “reasonable” policy and government — to which all practical, commonsense and reasonable people can subscribe.

Potiki’s no-nonsense restatement of Maori traditional knowledge’s value and limitations provides an opening.

Biculturalism can be made to look like separatism, as the Maori caucus did last week. But it can also be a practical, commonsense and reasonable way of binding a nascent nation. That is Clark’s biggest challenge.