Flagging the atmospherics of mana

Colin James’s Dominion Post and Otago Daily Times column for 20 July 2009 Note how respectfully China’s government has been treating one of its indigenous minorities recently. And note China’s vote for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Note also that China has arrested a Chinese-Australian Rio Tinto iron ore negotiator for stealing unspecified state secrets. And note that Chinese state steel companies are not happy with their negotiations with Australia on iron ore prices.

Therein lie two messages.

One is that managing the relationship with China is going to be the single biggest challenge for this country’s governments in coming decades. China’s military and economic might, coupled with its history of unified empire, will insist on respect from vassal states and states on its periphery.

Wayne Mapp’s defence review might usefully make China a core topic. John Key, Murray McCully and Tim Groser might usefully widen their take on the relationship beyond the economic connection. Anne Tolley might usefully boost the teaching of mandarin, to recognise that economic connection and east Asia’s major culture.

China’s second message is for the Maori party — and in turn the National party — on the value of United Nations declarations and the respect accorded to them by many states which vote for them.

China has no compunction about colonising Uighur territory with Han Chinese. It has no compunction about using the military to crush demonstrations for indigenous rights. Uighurs (and Tibetans) do not “freely determine their political status” or exercise “autonomy or self-government” for internal matters. Ponder the outcome here if China sometime this century feels the need to colonise our country, for food and other resources.

In this country scraps of paper voted for in New York carry weight. All other things being equal, if the government has signed up to or voted for something, that may well weigh in a court decision.

New Zealand has a stock of inglorious colonisation episodes. Only now is the Tuhoe disgrace being addressed. Parihaka is a stain on the rule of law. There are many other examples. The natives had to be brought to heel.

But over the past 25 years there has been an earnest attempt to address those wrongs and to recognise indigenous rights to respect for culture and custom, a place in the power structure and a measure of self-management. New Zealand has done more than the great majority of states which voted for the United Nations declaration to attend to the precepts which underlie the declaration.

That previous governments viewed the declaration with suspicion and the last government didn’t vote for it was because they took seriously its actual words on “autonomy” and so on. Don’t vote for what you can’t deliver.

Pita Sharples has been trumpeting an imminent reversal of that no vote. Key has said “caveats” are being worked on.

Unless the caveats are cosmetic, the difference between them and a no vote comes down to atmospherics. Sharples and Key are big on atmospherics. They say the crux of their two parties’ relationship is that it is “mana enhancing”.

There have been lapses on Key’s side, over the 90-day new employee probation and over Maori seats on the super-Auckland council. It took Key months to realise that the Auckland seats were an issue of mana for Tamaki Makaurau iwi. He came at it monoculturally, thinking in terms of a pragmatic substitute.

Doing something about the Foreshore and Seabed Act is also a matter of mana, every bit as much as — arguably more than — a matter of changing the process for claiming, and being recognised as having, customary title.

So voting for the United Nations declaration is a matter of mana. “Caveats” might take some shine off but a yes with caveats is more mana than a no.

Now for the flag. Sharples last week started consulting iwi on a “Maori flag”. He noted that on marae across the country iwi flags fly on important occasions.

A flag signifies a nation. Since indigenous rights are founded on a notion of “first nations”, having a separate flag for iwi accords mana to New Zealand’s first nations, the iwi.

Sharples said that “flags represent our strongest expressions of identity — they are a unique manifestation of the essence of who we are. Flags are like a beacon of hope; a signature flying high, telling the world who we are… The question we are launching today cuts to the heart of nationhood, of identity, of tangata whenuatanga. What flag best encapsulates the spirit of kaupapa and tikanga Maori, the spirit of the people?”

Sharples didn’t feel he needed to add: “within the New Zealand nation”.

The omission is apt. New Zealand doesn’t have a flag that manifests the “essence of who we are”, “the spirit of the people”. It appends a Southern Cross to Britain’s Union Jack. Key’s exhumation of knighthoods and queen’s counsels is in the same sub-cultural vein.

It’s a matter of mana. When he has done building the mana of iwi, he might usefully work on the mana of the nation he heads.