Unifying a divided country is the next PM's big challenge

The issue for the next government is unification. There is a lot of healing to do. This is a divided nation.

The provinces went a different way from the main cities in the election, piling up huge rises in National’s share of the vote and stripping a swag of electorates from Labour. The cities were much more sedate in their swing from the government — in many electorates Labour’s vote share went up.

The next government needs to remarry town and country.

The 2002-05 Parliament legalised prostitution and civil unions, principally on Labour and Green votes. The religious right came in behind National with money and footsoldiers in the election.

The next government needs to soothe that sharpening tension on civil and social issues.

The Maori electorates tipped by a majority to the Maori party, which has a programme of extending Maori rights. Maori choose in increasing proportions, census by census, to enrol in the Maori electorates. There will likely be eight in the next election.

The National party made one of its two main selling points the rollback of Maori rights, which it called “separatism”. It did this in response to a wide unease in the country at the concession of rights to Maori over the past 20 years.

This indigenous divide poses the biggest unification challenge to the next government. Whether led by Helen Clark or Don Brash, the government will need to think hard about how to bridge that divide. The time for slogans is past.

Brash might usefully study his country and how it is changing.

It is changing its understanding of its history. The history Brash knew as a student was a straightforward construct of the transformation of stone-age savages into modern brown Europeans. Now it is one of a culture submerged and recovered — over-accentuated in its recovery but a useful, perhaps necessary, adjunct to rebuilding Maori aspirations.

And that is important because Brash’s country is changing its demography. Maori were out of sight and out of mind when he was a lad. They are now a quarter of those under 15 and increasingly they draw personal value from their traditional culture.

And that traditional culture is now part of ordinary school life, of the way our youngsters think and feel. The All Black haka has ceased to be a ritual and has become an element of national expression.

So our country is changing its understanding of the place of Maori culture. It is distinct and equal, not Brash’s 1950s quaint curiosity. And because it is distinct and equal, it intrudes into the power structure. Biculturalism is not just about song and dance but about rights and power.

Brash resolves this in his mind with “one law for all”, a statement of formal equality before the law for all individuals. But such formal equality does nothing for equality of life-chances. Long since, governments have intervened with programmes to reduce disparities in life-chances. But still Maori are more likely to be ill-educated, ill-paid and ill-used by the justice system.

Put cultural pride and material inequality together and you get ethnic politics. The young Brash’s New Zealand did not have that. The young Clark learning her politics 30-35 years ago did not have it either.

Ethnic politics is difficult to manage and potentially explosive if mismanaged. That is why it is the biggest unification challenge.

Once National was the unifying party, national in its reach and its representation. Now it is near skint of Maori and other ethnic groups. It makes election capital out of attacking Maori “privilege”. It uses division — those “iwi/kiwi” billboards, for example — as an electoral weapon.

But is Labour any more a national party? A Labour conference is now a colourful affair which looks more national than National. But, as the huge provincial swing against Labour may have reflected, a large swathe of the public is at odds with what it sees as Labour’s “political correctness”, including on Maori rights.

Clark has added to the concessions on Maori rights and thereby added to the confusion, fear and anger among many non-Maori about them. Ethnic politics has two sides. And when it meshes with majority politics it can be very upsetting.

So far ethnic politics has been contained with the relatively polite official political system. There are no street battles or bombings. Last year’s hikoi was a peaceable affair.

The challenge for Clark (and Brash if he does become Prime Minister now or in three years) is not just to contain ethnic politics but to resolve it. For that we need a new consensus.

Saturday’s divided election stated the absence of a unifying consensus. The next government’s task is to begin to build one. If it can’t do that, even the most brilliant economic policies will not make us richer than ethnic politics makes us poorer.

* For those who seem to have become interested, the colour of my tie on TV1 on Saturday night was the independent, neutral Electoral Commission’s orange. Perhaps some sets need adjusting.