Waitangi: It's about power-sharing now

The Treaty of Waitangi was supposed, its British signatory famously said, to make one people of two. Today it signifies two cultures, not one.

And the unified power system imposed by the British assumption of government which the treaty legitimised no longer goes unchallenged.

That is biculturalism. Get it right and the future looks promising. Get it wrong and we risk a mini-Palestine.

Of course, there are not two separate cultures. “Western” values are pervasive and large numbers of Maori are predominantly or wholly “western”. A tiny few want an exclusively Maori value-system. Many Maori and a few non-Maori practise both cultures.

And there is a little Maori in every non-Maori: placenames, a word or two, Po kare kare ana.

Some non-Maori have gone a little further and acquired some Maori cultural skills, perhaps on an employer or state department programme or through marriage.

A smaller number have gone on to learn Maori perspectives and maybe incorporate them into their work or social life, even foster Maori units or components in their organisations.

Then, for a yet smaller number, comes a large step: to conclude a single organisation or way of life cannot incorporate the two deeply different perspectives and practices: much of the Maori worldview, decision-making and accountability and protocol, such as on women’s speaking rights, is anathema to modern “western” values. So parallel institutions such as kohanga reo have emerged with varying degrees of autonomy.

Beyond that, a tiny number of non-Maori accept Maori culture as parallel (some say equal) with the British-descended culture. That way leads to independent Maori institutions, maybe as joint ventures.

Taken this far, biculturalism implies some sharing of power. At its logical extreme lies something like Whata Winiata’s proposal for parallel parliaments (governing Maori and governing others) with a “treaty house” to resolve differences.

This is an unrealisable fantasy. But it has won an increasing following among Maori thinkers and activists. It is one interpretation of what Maori signatories thought they got in the treaty.

It is also light years from most non-Maoris’ assumption that Maori are a minority (some add “disadvantaged”), much like any other, though with historical links to the land.

This assumption leaves British-descended culture dominant, British-descended rules unchallenged and the British-descended state in full charge.

That’s where, understandably, most non-Maori want to stay.

Liberals sweeten it with new-age sensitivity: tolerance and even celebration of the disadvantaged minority’s culture (along with those of other minority groups). Some see a positive spinoff, the enrichment of cultural life through diversity.

But that is multiculturalism, not biculturalism. It is where public policy got to in the 1960s, before the long march to revive the treaty.

Maori thinkers and activists have since too successfully reasserted their culture — permafrosted with nineteenth-century anachronisms, yes, but also with burgeoning innovations in the arts — for tribal leaders to unwind it even if they wanted to. Maori won’t go back in the minorities box along with Chinese and Samoan.

There are two pre-eminent cultures now, not one. And that implies power-sharing of some sort.

Any genuine attempt to characterise and fashion this “nation” now cannot escape the bicultural dimension. (Of course, some avoid the attempt by assuming that just being here and being us constitutes a nation or by calling the issue irrelevant.)

But biculturalism divides us, for now at least. The proof is that for two decades Waitangi Day has symbolised division and difficulty, not the “gift of opportunity” Prime Minister Norman Kirk talked of in 1973 (not 18 years ago, as I miscalculated last week).

Can we recover that gift? Not by wishing biculturalism away as politically correct imaginings nor by cultural cringe to Maori — nor among Maori by boundless demands and pliable elders. Only through hard-nosed politics of adjustment, accommodation and boundary-setting on both sides that recognises all the realities.

That requires tough, cajoling, coercing, risk-taking leadership. Helen Clark has a toe in the water. It is her biggest test.