The minister for modernity

If John Tamihere departs he will be a loss not just to the cabinet and the Labour party but to the nation — not for what he is but for something important he has represented.

Tamihere — flawed, volatile, passionate, angry, good fun, impulsive and modern — is at the cusp of a shift in Maori priorities which may not really start to show through for years yet.

For the past 35 years the main focus of Maori aspirations has been on rights: redress of injustices, the recovery and reassertion of the culture and the reclamation of a significant role in decision-making.

For the past 20 years, after marches, protests and land occupations commandeered authorities’ attention, the main focus of government policy has also been on rights.

Under this spell the political elites of both the National and Labour parties have wrought a veritable revolution. Twenty years ago it was unimaginable, except to a very few, that many laws would require consultation of iwi, taniwha would command official respect and iwi would run separate health and education delivery agencies.

Over that time this country has changed more deeply than most realise, particularly those over 50. That is because no longer is the change just in recognition of rights. Maori culture is beginning to influence mainstream culture.

Much of the drive in popular music is from Maori (and Pacific islanders). Maori words are used increasingly in common discourse. Kapa haka was and is part of the school life of a large proportion of the under-25s: they might resent, or have resented, it but it is now part of their culture.

And Maori culture is Pacific culture. The link between Maori and other Pacific Polynesians, broken eight centuries ago, is being reforged in Auckland.

So New Zealand is becoming more of a Pacific country — not just geographically, as it inescapably is, but culturally. And no longer tokenistically, as it has been for many decades, but essentially. We will all become a bit less British and bit more Pacific.

This shift is not instant. It will evolve slowly and the Pacific dimension will undergo great change as it seeps into mainstream culture. But the signs are growing that in the next generation or two this society will more and more be defined culturally by its increasingly numerous and increasingly confident and assertive ethnic-Pacific component.

This is not, and will not be, an easy transition. Cultural challenge and change generate cultural insecurity among the challenged and change-averse. And, as Winston Peters has shown since 1996 over Asian immigration and Don Brash brutally illustrated with his Orewa speech in January, cultural insecurity is a powerful political stimulant.

Cultural insecurity will make the adjustment often fraught, perhaps in ways that make the tension over rights in the foreshore and seabed issue look like a tea party. It may well intensify white flight across the Tasman.

But there is a saver, a cause for optimism. And that saver is found in Tamihere.

The rights-based push is reaching high tide. Increasing numbers of Maori in their thirties are more interested in development, educationally and economically. The evidence is only anecdotal, with a dash here and there of focus group information. But the incidence of anecdotes, in my experience, is growing.

If you want a parallel, it is with feminism in the 1980s. Feminists then puzzled that their daughters were less excited than they were about pushing an extension of women’s rights. The reason: much had already been won.

The daughters did not dismiss the need to realise freedom and equality for women. They were in a matter-of-fact way as feminist as their mothers. But they had other priorities.

So, too, with emerging young Maori leaders. The archetype is Tahu Potiki, 37, Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu chief executive.

As the fact that he carries the name of the iwi’s progenitor suggests, Potiki is steeped in tribal tradition and an upholder of iwi rights.

But he also focuses on development. He looks for new ways to lift iwi members’ living standards — such as the plan for accounts for all members drawn from Ngai Tahu Holdings’ profits to turn them into holders of assets instead of just recipients of cash handouts.

Now ask what chiefs’ driving motivation to sign the Treaty of Waitangi was. Answer: access to British technology — military, yes, but also economic (tools, machines and crops). In short, development.

Tamihere is in that mould. Within the cabinet he has been the prime driver of the hui taumata in March on Maori economic development. Low-born and impatient with ageing iwi leaders, he recognises rights go only so far: good education and a good job is the longer game.

Make Maori richer and we all will be. That is the nub of the Treaty in the wake of the rights revolution.

Take Tamihere out and you take out a minister for modernity. That will be the big loss if this wild man’s latest imbroglio wipes him out. And it will be a loss for all of us.