Shifting the Maori focus from gaps to opportunity

Secure behind the glass wall of the Christchurch convention centre today’s Labour leaders couldn’t wholly repress a sniff at the motley few behind police lines opposite. In their day, with the Vietnam war and nuclear ships, apartheid and free love on the go, they could get up a real protest.

Nowadays, the real protesters are in the glass towers. They could be a serious worry for the government in time if they stop investing — and some say they have.

But they are out of sight. In majority-land even the rugby (so far) is going right. When a government is on top everything goes right for it.

Labour chose last weekend for its conference to avoid the World Cup final and risk showcasing itself to a nation in shock.

In fact a senior minister who must remain nameless was unsure that the choice of a quarter-final date was any safer. He joined me in confident pessimism about Saturday’s result.

We were wrong. The All Blacks won. And that is the story of this government: “it” — that is, to say the apocalypse — hasn’t happened. Whatever the economic rules say, the economy is going nicely. It has anaesthetised the voters against discomfort.

This is Don Brash’s difficulty. His message is predicated on, and predicts, a proximate apocalypse. In his speeches you glimpse old-school Presbyterian hellfire and damnation.

Trouble is, apart from those who want to believe in National and have added a titillating 4 per cent to the poll rating, voters are in no mood for hellfire and damnation sermons. They are borrowing up to the eyeballs to eat, drink and be merry.

And who wouldn’t when employment, incomes and house prices are up and interest rates low — and even the rugby is going right?

Labour grandees basked in that at the weekend. The conference basked with them.

It took Michael Cullen, who has a touch of the jeremiah about him, to inject a tiny prick of caution when he summed up.

In a masterfully succinct summary of the government’s six “basic strategic imperatives”, he warned the “broad church, with many congregations” that is Labour — one “congregation”, for example, is an impressive Rainbow section (gay, lesbian, queer, transgender and intersex), whose breakfast meeting Cullen attended — that “we cannot afford to outpace the tolerance of the broad mass of the people for change.

“Their values need to be treated with respect, too. If we don’t quit them, they won’t quit us,” he said.

Now put this together with one of his “strategic imperatives”: “dealing with the unexpected”. One possible “unexpected”, of course, is an economic whiplash from abroad if debt-funded consumer spending stops, but he kept that for his private nightmares. He mentioned only those that have materialised: the war on terrorism, leaky houses and the foreshore/seabed, none of which was on his horizon last election time.

“These sorts of issues are often deeply divisive, often not well understood and have the capacity to cause trouble with a capital T.” He might have added: especially the last. Brash’s terminology is wrong and his understanding limited, but he is correct to rate Treaty and indigenous rights issues critical to this nation’s health.

But the political point is: what is to be done? And the Labour conference flashed a glimmer of light.

One of the few startling speeches of the conference was at its Maori sector council meeting on Friday. It was by Maori Affairs Minister Parekura Horomia.

Horomia is typecast as “traditional” Maori. In that world age and seniority often have priority over merit and skill. In some eyes it has been a barrier to economic and social progress, not least in managing much of their land assets.

But his sector council speech displayed another Horomia. He talked of an “exciting transition” under way, which needs to be speeded up. Demographically, the Maori population is heavily weighted to the young. Young educated Maori are emerging as entrepreneurs, especially in the culture industry, which is developing into a significant export.

“We need to cut the young people in” to the decision-making, Horomia said. “Dont say they’ve got to wait till they’re in their 60s.” A cultural change is needed.

We have heard this sort of thing, in rougher language, from his sidekick, John Tamihere. When Horomia in effect says knowledge, skill and ability should rule or at least be seriously heeded, maybe something is afoot. If so, we will get an inkling at the government’s planned hui taumata (summit on Maori development) next year.

The issue for Maori, as for everybody, is to be full citizens in the international economy. If Maori had not been colonised that would always have been their preoccupation. The past 20 years have in several ways taken them in the opposite direction.

Is a sea-change now under way? Is the Maori generation now in its 20s and 30s and 40s the one that will change the focus from “gaps” to “opportunity”, as Helen Clark phrased it to me?

If so, everything is indeed going right for this government.