Two huge issues back to the fore this month

This month poses to the government two challenges it must meet to make a memorable second term. On February 6 the Treaty of Waitangi is commemorated. On February 19 Helen Clark will open a followup conference to the mid-2001 Knowledge Wave talkfest.

Indigenous rights and a richer society: for 15 years these have been gnawing questions. Unless Clark and Co can make real progress on both, the equitable society, which is the point of classical social democracy, will elude them.

Take the easy one first: making the economy grow faster and lifting living standards.

This is not just a matter of volume, as Tertiary Education Commission chair Andrew West makes clear. Tourism is growing fast but produces mostly low-paying jobs. More bums in tour buses do not make a rich society.

West has a big role: to reorient tertiary education so universities produce an elite and polytechnics generate a pool of technical and skills talent. Universities’ quality is endangered by the mass education they have been pushed into — more is not better. Polytechnics are too much wannabe universities.

If West is to reform tertiary education to drive a “knowledge economy”, he will need strong backing from the cabinet. That is still moot.

Ministers’ 1970s social democratic centralising instincts don’t help him. They have recentralised school administration just as diversity is increasingly thought the key to optimum development of individual talent (though Trevor Mallard is putting extra money into early childhood and gifted children’s education).

One plus is that research and development policy is now sharper and more focused. In the strategy developed late in 2002 greater effort is to go into joint public-private research and creating new business ventures out of research ideas.

This is a main route to the higher-paying jobs which are the foundation block of a richer society. Getting richer does not come from more of the same nor even doing the same more smartly but from doing completely new things, some built on traditional strengths. An example is pharmaceuticals from milk, the focus of one of the six public-private research consortia developed last year.

Another plus is that more effort is going into international connectedness: hooking up with high-flying New Zealanders overseas and foreign companies and institutions.

But the government will do some discouraging things for business this term. Notable will be more restrictive workplace law and veiled tax-like imposts.

And the cabinet has yet to wrap its notion of a smarter, richer economy in an easy-to-grasp formula which entrepreneurs will buy into. “Growth and information framework” is as exciting as a wet dishtowel.

The challenge for Clark on 19 February, opening what is billed a “leadership” conference, will be to embody national leadership in the way Norman Kirk could 30 years ago. Her contribution to the Knowledge Wave conference 18 months ago was ambivalent.

So has been her approach to the Treaty.

She started with a handicap. Classical social democracy is race-blind and sees only socioeconomic difference. In office Clark has discovered ethnic difference is real and palpable: Tariana Turia’s every speech drives that home.

The Treaty is not just a matter of grievances and resource claims. Those are a big part of it and will be so for another 20 wearying years but they are a passing phase.

The Treaty is a matter of power.

The partnership principle is one dimension. A growing number of Maori demand a parallel and equal say in decisions — or, as a minimum, full consultation. Power-sharing is the true meaning of biculturalism.

Indigenous rights by virtue of having got here first is another dimension. In history later arrivals used to confront indigenous rights claims with suppression. Here the suppression wasn’t complete.

The Treaty is also employed to claim equal status of two cultures. The post-christian mainstream relies on science to explain the world. Maori culture is animist, according value and connection to all things. It is a culture where taniwha live. In “western society” science long ago consigned such creatures to private fantasy.

Maori culture is whanau-based. “Western” culture is individual.

So far the cabinet has retreated, neither conceding nor challenging each Treaty assertion. So resentment has grown — and not just among non-Maori, as Winston Peters’ residual appeal to Maori who are missing out both ways demonstrates.

Pegs in the ground. Boundaries. That is Clark’s challenge and some senior ministers are starting to voice it quietly. Unless she makes a start this term, the Treaty will be her undoing and the richer society a chimera.