Ethnicity and the Treaty: no simple matter

Bill English was at it again on Thursday on the Treaty of Waitangi: “one standard of citizenship for a nation of mongrels” might be a loose translation.

“We must,” he told a party fund-raising dinner in deeply conservative Matamata, “break out of the paralysing ideology of the Treaty and the arrogant attitudes that go with it.

“Every New Zealand [I presume he meant New Zealander but it could be read the other way] has a sense of what this [one standard of] citizenship means. No leftwing elite has the right to claim it exclusively.”

“Paralysing ideology”, “arrogant attitudes”, “leftwing elite” and, earlier in the speech, “political correctness”: those are loaded, emotive phrases.

There was more. “We have a history people don’t know,” he said, “because they don’t want to know it and because that history is so loaded up with political correctness and blame. Sure, there are other positive stories that go along with it but they are not about the heart of the nation.”

Really? The “heart of the nation” is that black? There was a time English was more positive.

Anyway, he wants to “change that”. He wants people to be proud of “what we have made of this country”.

So by “citizenship” he now means “people who love their country, who recognise that New Zealand represents rights of legislative privileges and opportunities that are unique, people who treasure our national values of fairness, equality, opportunity and our environment; the intimacy and tolerance, the determination and hopes of our small, distant nation.”

And this requires that “the sense of our nation has to be stronger than the sense of our different races” and that “the state would recognise citizens’ rights and democratic processes as paramount over whakapapa and rangatiratanga”.

The Treaty, by implication if you put all that together, is getting in the way of a unified, positive nation. It represents a “left-elite political correctness” and a flawed history. New Zealand risks “becoming a Fiji, a Sri Lanka, a Bosnia”, he said. More emotive tags: military coups, a bloody war of secession and ethnic cleansing.

English’s alternative is “a mixture of peoples… more of a mixed-race nation over the next generation” … a “browning and whitening”.

This is what people used to say 40 years ago. Ethnic difference was supposed to disappear into a blend. It didn’t.

But there is support for English’s “browning and whitening”. Associate Maori Affairs Minister John Tamihere, also Minister of Statistics, has talked of the nation being reformulated in the bedrooms.

And a careful analysis of recent censuses by Paul Callister, a respected social researcher, found “single ethnic identities” to be “increasingly outdated concepts”.

“More helpful is the concept of a complex emerging society where a significant number of people claim to have dual or multi-ethnic ancestry,” Callister told a social research conference in late April.

A multi-ethnic New Zealand “provides a major challenge for the design of social policy aimed at helping overcome disadvantage among particular groups.

“It is increasingly likely that ethnicity, whether based on single or multi-ethnic affiliations [in the census], will become a relatively poor predictor of social outcomes.” Intermarriage “raises some difficult issues when social policies use ethnicity as a means of targeting”.

Moreover, Callister said, “the Human Rights Commission’s education programme … tends to perpetuate myths of pure ethnic/racial groups”.

The commission is already in the National party’s sights for “left-elite political correctness”.

And now the commission has plunged into the Treaty argument with the issue last week of a “draft discussion document”.

For the most part this carefully presents alternative perspectives for discussion and there is a useful section on what self-determination might mean in a Treaty context. But there are also some contentious parts. Among them:

* It touches on the so-called “article 4” of the Treaty (though it does not call it that), asserting that, as a result of Captain Hobson’s verbal promise of freedom of religion, “Maori have a specific right to practise the religion of their choice”. Really? A different right from our general right?

* It notes that “some believe that prior to [a tapu lifting ceremony] only men should be allowed to work” on a public building. The government dismissed this flatly earlier this year in a controversial case which the local Maori majority also rejected. It does, however, add that others believe tikanga Maori requires equality in men’s and women’s roles!

* It asserts that indigenous peoples have a human right in their status as first inhabitants.

On his current form we might expect English, when he comes across the document, to label it “left-elite political correctness”.

Which would do this usually thoughtful man no justice. Yes, ethnicity is more complex than Treaty slogans allow. But are emotive tags any more constructive than the slogans?