Gordon Campbell on the government’s narrow conception of Waitangi Day

Come Waitangi Day each year, Treaty settlements have become a de facto scorecard for New Zealand’s progress in race relations. It is not a good measure. That kind of approach not only places the sources of disadvantage in the past and the onus of guilt on previous generations, but it assumes that any grievances can be resolved with a lump sum payment while business-as-usual proceeds merrily on its way. At Monday’s post-Cabinet press conference for instance, Prime Minister proudly cited the latest available tally: his government, he said, has signed 46 deeds of settlement in the past six years, while the Clark government had signed only 16 settlements in nine years…

Even if all those settlements were of the same size and complexity – which they aren’t – and even if speeding to a settlement was a good idea – which it isn’t, as some Ngapuhi elders felt impelled to point out this week – does this kind of scorecard really say anything that’s significant about the state of race relations in 2015? Hardly. This year, it is exactly 175 years since the Treaty was signed. If we ever do reach the day when every single Treaty claim ever filed has been done and dusted, would we then be living in a country where racial identity is no longer a barrier to opportunity, health, justice and general wellbeing? Obviously not.

Thirty years ago, the extension of the Treaty process to encompass historical grievances was a giant step forward. However, the positive effects of Treaty settlements are being swamped by the impact of the government’s current economic, justice, corrections etc policies. Against such odds, Whanau Ora looks like tokenism, not a solution. Also, the government doesn’t seem to have learned very much from its experience with all those prior Treaty settlements. Once again in Tauranga this week – as salvage efforts have been put on hold – the Rena owners seem to be getting away with murder.

Last year in its interim report on the claim by local Maori seeking the removal of the Rena wreck, the Waitangi Tribunal described the Crown’s consultation process as being ‘hollow’ ‘tick box’ and ‘mere window dressing.’ Thanks to this shot across the bows from the Tribunal, the Crown has now backed off somewhat, and has said it will partially oppose the attempt later this year by the Rena owners to gain a resource consent (under the RMA) allowing them to leave the wreck where it is. In the light of that timetable, this week’s halt to the Rena salvage efforts will do nothing to re-assure local Maori – and the people of Tauranga – that the Crown is handling the issue competently, or with any serious commitment to local concerns.

This isn’t an isolated case. In December in the fifth installment of its report on Te Urewera claims, the Waitangi Tribunal discussed the ownership and control of Lake Waikaremoana and noted that as long ago as 1930, the authority of the claimant groups was already “a pale shadow of what it once was” thanks to the loss of lands above and below the lake’ due to actions that “reflect no credit to the Crown” and which had reduced the claimants to “a dire and lasting poverty.”

Lasting poverty? Nationally, Maori continue to experience chronic and disproportionate bad health outcomes, lopsided unemployment figures, low wage rates, poor housing and high imprisonment rates. We have a corrections system where the likes of Jai Davis die uncared for, and a justice system that then refuses to lay charges to hold anyone responsible, even though some aspects of the failures in the duty of care to Davis appear to have been deliberate, and racially motivated. (If the institutions and individuals that failed Davis had been Maori, one can only imagine the media outcry.)

Ironically, New Zealanders are more aware of the names of black Americans victimised by racism – Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner etc – than they are of Maori (Jai Davis, Sentry Taitoko etc) who have died in custody. In a survey of 27 deaths in custody between 2000 and 2010, an IPCA report in 2012 found that almost half were Maori.

There are other less obvious dimensions to the impact of racism. As the courts ponder the current attempt by inmate Arthur Taylor to overturn the petty and vindictive ban that the Key government imposed in 2011 on the right of prisoners to vote, this policy also falls disproportionately on Maori, who comprise some 51% of the prison population. As Kim Workman pointed out in June 2014, 4,300 Maori were estimated to be in jail at the time of the last election, and 22% of them – or 946 – identified as being Ngapuhi or Te Taitokerau. Not all would have voted, or voted for the incumbent in Te Tai Tokerau last year – but clearly, Maori prison inmates constitute a significant, disenfranchised bloc of potential voters.

Even so, if and when the courts finally overturn the ban on prisoner voting, one hopes it will be because of the injustice that the ban does to both Treaty partners, and not simply to Maori. A Werewolf backgrounder on the issue – including an exclusive interview with Rick Sauve, the Canadian prisoner who overturned a similar ban in Canada – is available here. Ironically, Paul Quinn, the then-National MP and originator of the private members bill that scrapped the right of prisoners to vote, is of Ngati Awa and Tuhoe descent, and represented Ngati Awa in its Treaty claim.

Clearly then, the policies and practices that determine race relations in this country extend well beyond the Treaty settlement process. Yet to outward appearances, the government regard Waitangi Day less as a wake-up call, and more as a process that merely has to be endured for 24 hours, until business as usual can be resumed. Thus, Treaty settlements are managed as a process of containment, while Whanau Ora remains just a sop to the Maori Party, and the price of its support. There’s not a lot to celebrate about a Treaty partnership conceived and managed on such narrow, grudging terms.