Tau Henare: Weaving culture into ideology - how recessions shape a nation

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With all the talk of recession and how to get out of it, I remember only too well the last one. The 80s downturn for us in Otara was like a bold-faced gate crasher who arrived early, wrecked the place and wouldn't leave.

Sixth form certificate wasn't enough to get me a job. Thirty years of service on the railways wasn't enough to protect my father from redundancy.

Yet as bad as things may have appeared to others, it was still one of the most upbeat times of my youth. I owe this to the rise of Maori culture. A culture largely forgotten by many of my father's generation as they settled into the gentle pace of urban life.

But its timely revival in rough times had given my own generation enthusiasm mixed with hope.

When cultural renaissance and recession collide it throws up some pretty odd stuff. For us it was new, it was exciting and we could change the world with our reckless blend of race, feminist, and class politics all thrown together to form one simple rant "we've all been done over by the rich white man and we want justice".

Yet it didn't take long to realise that we got it all wrong. That race was not about culture.

"Maori culture was around long before the theory of race was hatched in the laboratories of Europe" my old uncle said. And far from being simply a racial category, Maori like all cultures, are in fact a set of ideals. It was only about the good stuff, and if we commit a crime or do bad things, we are operating outside the prescribed limits of our culture.

We act as individuals. To say Maori crime then, is as stupid as saying Christian crime, or English crime or Welsh crime. For no society sets out to promote rules that are evil or bad.

Those words have never left me and while I might revert sometimes to the easy rhetoric of race politics, I mostly remember how culture comforted me and distracted me, the exhilaration of rowing a waka down the Waikato River with 100 others, the voluntary work at the local marae. Hitching to hui across the country and picking up the language along the way, meeting relations for the first time, changing our names.

So if culture is only about the good stuff then why aren't we grabbing it with both hands?

The role of culture comes into its own during hard times. Essentially, it's because it distracts us from the hopelessness of our situation while compelling us to become more creative, inventive and imaginative. Together with visionary leadership, we have the very fundamental to freeing ourselves from recession.

The combination of visionary leadership and culture can be seen in an earlier era. During the Great Depression, Sir Apirana Ngata understood that this was central to Maori economic recovery. He believed communities had to become self-reliant, socially cohesive and bound together by a peaceful culture with arts at its axis. Consequently, the renaissance was born resulting in a resurgence of marae building, carving, weaving, kapahaka and everything else in between.

The dairy farms he promoted as a foray into self-employment was back-breaking work with sometimes meagre returns, yet there was no burning resentment, no chip on the shoulder, no dole when things got a bit rough. Their motivation was fed by something that cannot be found in any economic model.

Fittingly his image graces the $50 note as a reminder that economic recovery and cultural regeneration are mutually inclusive. The blueprint was set as a remedy for future downturns.

Maori faced similar problems in the 80s. And through the chaos of urbanisation, a 23 per cent unemployment rate and a youthful population, two guardians of an earlier era Sir James Henare and John Rangihau, emerged with a new twist to the old remedy.

The revitalisation of Maori language was their focus forged from the old education system and remodelled to create a new philosophy, for out of early childhood centres, te kohanga reo was formed; out of schools, te kura kaupapa; out of universities, wananga; and from there came a record number of Maori tertiary graduates.

All that was old is new again. The current situation spurs us on to explore new pathways and the coalition between the Maori and National Parties provides a unique political platform for that to occur, not only because it is the mean between two extremes, but because it offers a forum to develop policy with the power to unify a nation facing uncertainty using the old remedies from the past.

Whereas in the past cultural revival has been exclusively for Maori by Maori, this time I sense a maturity and a willingness to share the same vision. That vision has a Maori heart whose presence, detectable only by nuances, pervades everything we do as a nation. The haka before a rugby game is a familiar example and so too the singing of the national anthem in Maori, proficient pronunciation, the hongi, body moko are all now common features of our nation's cultural pulse.

To build on that requires world views to merge. For instance in relation to recent policy statements, where some see just a cycleway, I see an opportunity for cash poor, land rich Maori communities to enter the tourism industry by unlocking some of the most scenic and historically fascinating geography in the country.

Where some see an army boot camp, I see shades of the old Maori Battalion whose noble mantra of service and sacrifice for one's country should be an inspiration to a troubled generation. Where some see the nine-day working fortnight as a day off, I see an opportunity for workers to learn Maori.

As someone who has traversed the full spectrum of political thought, and started a party based on this very concept of culture, I have come to the conclusion that it has no natural political home but culture should be woven into the fabric of all ideologies. Because its true worth, particularly in times of crisis and uncertainty, is that it encourages the energy, enterprise and intellect in people to aspire to a greater cause or as my old uncle would say "all the good stuff".

* Tau Henare is a list MP for National.

- NZ Herald

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