The liberal tensions in Waitangi Day

The elite go to the Governor-General’s garden party on Waitangi Day. For a sense of New Zealand Porirua’s Festival of the Elements is more instructive.

The weather elements on Sunday were a buffeting wind and drizzle. The city’s elements were a wide range of events, in Te Rauparaha Park, the next door arena, a nearby stadium and the excellent Pataka museum.

There were Greek, Brazilian and Polish items, as well as multiple Pasifika ones. The was Beethoven and hip-hop, gospel and jazz. There were Afghani, Italian, Zimbabwean and Pacific cooking demonstrations as part of a “Healthy Eating Healthy Action” kaupapa. There was fashion, sculpture, weaving, poetry-reading, story-telling, belly-dancing and other dance.

“Local MPs” Tariana Turia and Kris Faafoi represented national politics. There were one or two central government CEOs.

It adds up to a diverse nation. A senior foreign diplomat who alleged to me last year that this country is overwhelmingly white might usefully have called by.

Within this diversity New Zealand is majority ex-British, a hangover from grant of residency to the British in 1840. New Zealand is signally Maori, to a degree scarcely imaginable in 1981: nowhere else in the world could you hear some of songs sung at Porirua. New Zealand is also many-cultured, the result of mass immigration.

This tension — monocultural v bicultural v multicultural — will test liberal principles, tolerance and the power balance in our evolving nation this decade and beyond.

The British brought with them a liberal principle: that a person is at liberty to do anything except what the law explicitly bans. That principle presumes good citizenship and, with that, tolerance: live and let live, unless harm is being done.

Of course, practice has never matched the ideal. Descendants of Parihaka, where a government committed outrage against the rule of law, know that. So do descendants of victims of jingo-driven state repression in the first world war.

Practice still doesn’t match the ideal. Go to an airport and you are presumed a terrorist until you prove to security guards you are not. Go to buy certain legal, non-prescription medicines off a pharmacy shelf and you will find Peter Dunne has instructed the pharmacist to quiz you on the presumption you deal in banned drugs until you demonstrate plausibly otherwise.

Liberal British philosopher A C Grayling devoted a book in 2009 to such inversions of the liberal principle, which he says are being made worse by the electronic tools available to governments twitchy about law and order.

Grayling also bothers about the distortions post-modern thinking has injected into live-and-let-live. He makes a liberal case for intolerance of practices that offend our — western — concern for individual freedom and integrity, especially, in some religions and cultural practices, those of women.

As our population continues to diversify, these issues are likely to land on the political agenda, with Winston Peters-like politicos standing on platforms that amount to intolerance. The alternative is to start an enlightened debate now to preserve the Porirua spirit of inclusive valuing of multiple heritages within a broad sense of what constitutes the core cultural values of a unified nation.

The nation has been learning, slowly, over the past three decades, how to value Maori heritage inclusively within a two-peoples nation. This inclusiveness now extends to other Polynesians, many now third-generation New Zealanders. Including those cultures requires some adjustment of political, administrative and financial rules. Koha and lofa don’t fit easily. Nor do class-based iwi presumptions of rights to cash and lifestyles.

The political system has also acquired some awkward ad hoc arrangements. Maori seats are one. The Maori party has thereby acquired more seats than its party vote justifies but far fewer than a strict “partnership” interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi would justify.

This partnership v popular vote tension is the source of the Maori party’s current agony. The party has to operate by standard realpolitik rules to win concessions. But, as Hone Harawira has shown, those rules don’t deliver to Treaty idealists.

Harawira has demonstrated another fact: that the party is a grouping of diverse individuals (as iwi are distinct from each other) rather than a party of solidarity around a programme. Harawira is a special case, scion of a protest-family, not a deal-maker. But his fight with the leaders highlights the tawdry tradeoffs the Maori party must make to stay in the power game. Even now that he is cast out, that tension will remain.

Harawira is at one end and “one-nation” whites at the other of the Treaty extremes that challenge a young nation writing a coherent story about itself. Multiple other cultures add to that challenge.

But there is much more cause for hope than despair. That is the Porirua Waitangi Day story. It is, for now, still a liberal story.