What's in a group? That is the heart of the "Maori" question

At the heart of the wrangle between Labour and National over the Treaty of Waitangi are “group rights”.

National is uncomfortable with group rights. It is the party of individualism. Labour embraces group rights. It was born of a belief that for workers to force concessions from bosses they had to act as a unitary body, with no scope for individuals to act differently — as the song says, “solidarity forever”.

So Labour developed a habit of seeing the needy or disadvantaged as blocks — women in the 1970s and 1980s, gays and lesbians in the 1990s and 2000s — with indivisible group claims.

And so, too, with Maori: a block, with a group claim to a group right.

Traditional Maori tribal society was — and is — a group society. The individual was, and is, subordinate to the whole, which bound, and binds, all its members.

If anything, tribes have grown stronger since the Treaty of Waitangi came back to life because claims under the Treaty are tribal claims, since the Treaty was with tribes. Each tribe guards its autonomy — or, as some call it, “sovereignty”. Conversely, no tribe or even grouping of tribes speaks for “Maori”.

Moreover, only a minority of Maori are active in their tribes. The rest are individualised in modern western society.

So are Maori a “group”? Most political argument, assertions by “Maori leaders” and media commentary treat Maori as if they are a group, with group claims to group rights. Much government policy seems predicated on this assumption. Much public reaction is too.

But not too many more than half of all Maori are enrolled to vote in the Maori electorates. The rest remain on the general roll. And they think differently from those who choose to go on the Maori roll.

Detailed figures in the Marae DigiPoll, published on February 29, show that, while 52-53 per cent of those on each roll backed Labour, 15 per cent of Maori on the general roll backed National against 5 per cent on the Maori roll.

Those on the general roll were also more likely than those on the Maori roll to back mavericks Winston Peters and John Tamihere and vice-versa for the more “Maori” MPs, Parekura Horomia and Tariana Turia.

Those on the general roll were also less likely than those on the Maori roll to support customary rights (73 per cent against 82 per cent), more likely to back Brash’s argument that all New Zealanders should have the same rights (58 per cent to 30 per cent) and much more likely to agree with the government’s December plan to vest ownership of the foreshore and seabed in the people (63 per cent to 41 per cent).

And, tellingly, they see themselves differently: 44 per cent of general roll Maori called themselves New Zealanders first, compared with just 18 per cent on the Maori roll, whereas 64 per cent of those on the Maori roll called themselves Maori first, versus 36 per cent of general roll Maori.

So when you hear the phrases “Maori want” or “Maori say”, who is saying what for whom? Shane Jones says too often the voices that are heard are those of minority traditionalists and/or radicals. Do they even represent all those on the Maori roll, let alone all Maori?

Moreover, within the “group” that is “Maori” there are rich and poor, powerful and powerless. When the government directs a programme at this “group”, it directs it at rich Maori as well as poor, chiefs as well as commoners.

That creates anomalies between rich and influential Maori and poor and powerless non-Maori. Brash abominates that. So, instinctively (since they live in an individualistic modern western society), do vast numbers of non-Maori. And, the Marae DigiPoll shows, considerable numbers of Maori have doubts.

The government’s response has been to say it will root out such anomalies. But what about special consultation of “Maori” (actually tribes), so taonga and cultural claims — “rights” — are protected? Few New Zealanders are versed enough in Treatyology to grasp the argument, let alone agree with it.

And that is the issue: no right, of individuals or groups, is operative unless the claim to it is widely accepted by the citizenry.

Of course, private groups’ right to action is accepted if there is little impact outside the group. Much of what tribes do is of that ilk. But for a group right otherwise to prevail there must be general acceptance of the justice of the claim, taking into account others’ consequential duty or loss.*

A searching national debate might well establish the justice of many — maybe most — group claims by or for Maori, even under the “equality before the law” umbrella. But the public responses to taniwha in late 2002, to the foreshore/seabed decision in mid-2003 and to Don Brash’s Orewa speech have shown there is not general acceptance of many — maybe most — such claims.

How this nation works through that over the next generation or two will make or break us.

* A valuable pointer on these issues is a paper by Professor Andrew Sharp at http://www.treasury.govt.nz/academiclinkages/sharpa.