• The Maori Challenge

    When I left New Zealand for the first time in 1962 to study at Oxford University, I took with me an LP (yes, real vinyl!) of the St Joseph’s Maori Girls Choir. I was amazed to discover over my years in Britain that the one thing guaranteed to make me homesick was playing that record.

    Wiki Baker’s beautiful voice was only part of the explanation. I realised that the sound of Maori music awoke in me unsuspected emotions – as though I had throughout my early life picked up from the ether as part of my own heritage a cultural sensitivity to which my emotional antennae, even 12,000 miles from home, were still attuned.

    This was all the more surprising to me, since – while I had always got on well with my Maori classmates, and recalled with pleasure the rivalry I had enjoyed with Johnny Tapiata when we contested the Oratory Prize at Tauranga College – it had never occurred to me that Maori language and culture were still alive and (comparatively) well.

    When I returned to live in New Zealand in 1994, however, I discovered a country very different from the one I had left three decades earlier. There was a widespread recognition that New Zealand was – in its foundations – a bicultural society and that Maori had an equal part to contribute to that audacious enterprise. And I had the pleasure at Waikato University of working with Robert Mahuta in the committed work he was doing to bring about a raupatu settlement for Tainui.

    One element of that settlement was that Tainui became the owners of the University’s campus. There were those who found this prospect disturbing – and it is true that a few days after the settlement was signed, an enthusiastic young man arrived in my office and demanded a guided tour of the estate of which he was now part-owner!

    But Tainui proved to be ideal landlords. They saw the relationship with the University as a partnership, and substantial parts of the rent we paid each year found their way back to the University in the form of scholarships and other help for disadvantaged students.

    The University derived a further benefit; we became one of the few tertiary institutions in the country to have a proper legal title (in the form of a perpetually renewable lease) to our own campus. Tainui, of course, has gone on to become an economic powerhouse in the Waikato and beyond.

    How, then, should pakeha regard this Maori resurgence? Is it a threat to be nipped in the bud (assuming that to be possible) or is it an opportunity to be seized for the benefit of us all?

    Let us first be clear about one thing. Maori and pakeha should have no difficulty in treating each other with mutual respect. Our joint presence in this beautiful land is the outcome of two of the bravest odysseys in human history; first, the great Polynesian navigation of the vast Pacific, and secondly, the voyage undertaken by my forbears, when families from small rural communities who had never seen the sea in their lives before boarded tiny sailing ships on a three-month journey to an unknown destination, the most distant point on earth.

    I am proud of that achievement, as my Maori compatriots are of theirs. The difference was that the Maori journey took place much earlier, so that knowledge of the huge changes that had taken place in the rest of the world over a thousand years was denied to them. Pakeha have little understanding of the huge adaptation that has been required of Maori over the last relatively short 180 years or so.

    It is greatly to the credit of both of us that we are committed to creating out of these historical givens something new and wonderful. If we succeed, we will have achieved something never before attempted – the synthesis of two very different cultures as the foundation stone of a tolerant and inclusive society where difference is seen as a source of strength rather than conflict.

    But we are still far from that achievement. We cannot call it success when Maori – by virtue in most cases of just being Maori – have a less than a fair share of our effort at partnership.

    We pakeha cannot be happy when a significant element in our country has worse health, poorer education and job prospects, and less chance of self-fulfilment than the rest. If we want to build a strong and successful country, who do we prefer as partners – a perpetually aggrieved, underprivileged, racially defined underclass or proud and successful brothers-in-arms, confident in their own heritage and identity?

    There are those, of course, who say that it’s for Maori to get themselves to the starting-line, that they must take their chances like everyone else in a market-based economy which rewards the strong and leaves the rest to fend for themselves. But we can do better than that.

    Yes, of course, there will be extremists on both sides of the issue who claim more than is justified. But the best defence against extremism is to recognise the justice of moderate claims.

    This is not the time to be fearful and mean-spirited. A divided society is a weaker society. We should grab the chance to understand and value each other, to support each other, and to build together.

    This article was published in the NZ Herald on 12 July.

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