Colin James: Ethnicity takes its course despite middle-class idealism

Don Brash is 25 years behind the times and 25 years ahead of the times on "race". How can he be both? Because these are revolutionary times.

Twenty-five years ago we were still securely British and the Treaty of Waitangi was a worm-eaten relic. Maori were honorary whites, and those who refused that status and battled the Crown for return of land were "radicals". There was one law for all.

The changes in the status of Maori in this society and power structure since that time were almost unimaginable back then. Social democrats and liberal-conservatives agreed there was no ethnicity in politics.

Brash is of that age and ilk - but with a twist. To the extent that a systematic world view is discernible from his comments, Brash is a classical liberal, an intellectual child of the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment of David Hume and others.

To the classical liberal there is no ethnicity, only individuals - and hence the focus on formal equality before the law and a lightly regulated, low-taxed market economy.

Right-wing Brash is fond of quoting left-winger Chris Trotter, because for classical social democrats such as Trotter there is no ethnicity, only class - and hence class action to even up life's chances.

That was where Helen Clark was once. But as Prime Minister she has learned that whatever the theory, ethnicity - the treaty - is a fact of modern political life. And, translated into the idiom Brash prefers, "race", it might undo her Government on September 17.

Brash has given voice to widespread misgivings in the suburbs and the countryside about the revolution in indigenous rights. The monthly reading by researchers UMR of whether the country is on the right or wrong track, plunged 35 points from hugely positive to just-and-no-more positive in the two months after the Appeal Court decision on the foreshore and seabed in mid-2003.

National's poll average rocketed 20 points in the month after Brash's famous Orewa I "end to race-based law" speech in January 2004. It zoomed again last week.

Ironically, this comes just as a growing number of Maori in their 20s and 30s, although not turning their backs on rights, have been focusing more on development - and the Government likewise.

The foreshore and seabed law marks a high tide in the concession of rights. Since 2002 the Government has been trying to emphasise educational and economic development. The shift reflects the rapid emergence of a Maori middle-class which concedes nothing on rights already gained but sees those gains as a platform for economic improvement.

There will still be arguments over rights. Brash not long ago thought article 2 was about "property rights" and now, having discovered it is also about taonga, seems to think taonga are just things.

He aims to roll back legislative rights to consultation and to extirpate treaty "principles" from the law.

On the other side, as the Maori Party demonstrates, many Maori think there is yet much to do on rights.

But over the next 25 years we will move on. A burgeoning middle-class generates wealth. It also individualises, modernises and democratises its society. Over the next 25 years this is likely to have a profound and often wrenching effect on the way iwi and hapu govern their affairs.

That, you might say, is Brash's Scottish Enlightenment infecting the tribal order. In that sense we can say Brash is 25 years ahead of the times.

But another profound change is under way. Maori culture, supplemented by Pacific Polynesian culture, has begun over the past five years to alter "mainstream" culture and the way we live our lives.

We are moving beyond the tokenism of the past 160 years. The new All Blacks' haka - which could do with an English phrase or two to be truly "national" - is a prime example.

This transformation is still in the very early stages, and in any case will modify, not blanket out, European cultural traditions and ways of life. But over the next 25 years, in part driven by demographics, it will make us a Pacific nation, not just dwellers in the Pacific - it will Pacific-ate us.

It will be a wrenching change and some of the politics will be very uncomfortable, perhaps as early as in and following this election.

To Brash, who pronounces Waitangi as if describing the qualities of a sauce, the cultural landscape of 2030 is unimaginable, as it is to hundreds of thousands of his countrymen.

They see, as he does, "separatism" in Maori exercising group rights. They feel their cultural security is under assault.

This election comes right on the cusp of this huge swing from rights to development, from reassertion of Maori culture to Pacific-ation of mainstream culture. That may help explain why it is such an intense and volatile contest.

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