Bryan Gould

Bryan Gould, CNZM, writes an occasional column on current events

Bryan Gould: Maori issues matter to Pakeha too

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Time we all spoke up to bring the economic, health and education welfare of indigenous Kiwis to the fore.

Sir Robert Mahuta felt Maori needed to look forward as well as back. Photo / Yanse Martin
Sir Robert Mahuta felt Maori needed to look forward as well as back. Photo / Yanse Martin

For many Pakeha, the Treaty of Waitangi is an exclusively Maori domain. It is seen as simply a mechanism for the pursuit of Maori grievance. This indifference to our defining constitutional document means that our country is weaker and less united than it should be.

Similarly, Maori politics are seen as solely a Maori concern - so much so that non-Maori gratefully concede that it is not a topic on which they should intrude. Yet Pakeha commentators are failing in their duty if they treat Maori politics as irrelevant to our wider national concerns.

We all have an interest, after all, in the success or otherwise that Maori have, not only in managing their own affairs but in making their full contribution to our national life. We all have a stake in seeing those shocking statistics for Maori health, education and employment reversed.

We are all poorer and our society is more divided because we tolerate a situation in which an ethnically defined and growing part of our biculturally based country is left to languish.

When I was growing up, it was widely believed by Pakeha that the future for Maori was assimilation, a process that was seen to be both painless and inevitable. We now know better. Not only have we (or at least most of us) learned the real and continuing value of Maori language and culture, but we also understand the magnitude of the challenge Maori have had to meet in adapting to a bicultural world. And we now know we have much to learn from the Maori world view.

Most Kiwis of whatever ethnicity will have grasped that Maori have a better chance of success in today's world if their own language and culture are recognised as the basis of building confidence, security, self-identity and a sense of self-worth. If Maori are required to operate in a Pakeha-dominated world according to Pakeha values and prescriptions, it is little wonder if they struggle.

So, there will - or should - be an understanding welcome for measures, such as the whanau ora programme, that are designed to provide a culturally appropriate way of improving access to a range of public services for Maori - services whose successful delivery for both Maori and Pakeha is essential to our health as a society. There is little point in providing them but placing them behind a cultural barrier which in effect denies them to those who most need them.

But this is only part of the story. It is right to accept that an increased role for te reo and tikanga Maori is essential to provide a secure base from which Maori can play their full role in our country. But it should be just a base. Valuable though it is, it is not the endpoint. Cultural security should be the launching-pad for an assault on the real goal - the increased ability for Maori to operate successfully in today's rapidly changing and increasingly international and multicultural world.

My old friend Robert Mahuta used to tell me that "it is time for Maori to stop looking in the mirror and to look out the window". He was right.

Maori, like everyone else, need to be looking forward as well as back - forward to a new world in which a good education, good health and well-paid employment are the crucial passports to success.

Many Maori are already showing the way. But the statistics for overall Maori health, employment and educational achievement cannot be gainsaid.

Maori politicians who want to make a difference should have no difficulty in accepting these statistics point to the right priorities. Their concerns must go beyond issues of Maori language and culture; Maori are even more directly concerned than the rest of us by wider social and economic issues. When those issues are badly handled, it is Maori who are most vulnerable.

One issue above all should demand attention. The restoration of full employment, and the chance of a job for the more than 15 per cent of young Maori now unemployed, would be the single most important advance for Maori that could be made. It would put money in pockets, raise living standards, improve health, lift self-esteem, encourage educational effort - and transform the life prospects of future Maori families.

For as long as large numbers of young Maori are excluded from the chance to play a full role in our economic life, the outlook for Maori - and for all of us - is grim. Maori leaders should be using their political clout to force a Government that treats the issue of unemployment with supreme indifference to do something about it. Maori politicians should not be satisfied with a few inexpensive concessions on specifically Maori issues.

Their focus should be on those wider issues that really matter, to Pakeha as well as Maori, yes, but that have an especially damaging impact on Maori. It's time that they - and we all - spoke up.

Bryan Gould is a former British Labour MP and vice-chancellor of Waikato University.

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- NZ Herald

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