Paul Spoonley: The cultural legacy of Ranginui Walker

Ranginui Walker saw Maori as the country’s ethical guardians. Photo / Ted Baghurst
Ranginui Walker saw Maori as the country’s ethical guardians. Photo / Ted Baghurst

The tangi for Ranginui Walker last week highlighted his achievements as a commentator and contributor to the renegotiation of Maori-Pakeha relations over the last 50 years. But the tangi also reminded the rest of us that there is more to be done to live up to his legacy.

Ranginui asked questions of how we understood our history, what needed to change in terms of our legal and policy framework in order to recognise Maori and queried the ability of our core institutions to embrace and reflect diversity.

However, things have changed significantly since Ranginui wrote about such matters in the 1970s and 1980s, as he would acknowledge.

In a post-settlement era, the possibilities for Maori development are now quite different. But if I was to channel the concerns that Ranginui might raise I'd ask, how well are these resources being managed and for whose benefit?

We are presented with a paradox. Iwi and corporate Maori organisations have much greater resources at their disposal, but Maori households and individuals remain amongst the most deprived in Aotearoa. This is compounded by educational underachievement and, often, poor health.

As Ranginui frequently pointed out, when it came to the management of national resources on behalf of all New Zealanders, often it was Maori who asked the questions concerning processes by the state and transfers of resources.

In a global world, where the borders of the state are more porous, and national interests - beyond the chauvinistic and at times xenophobic - are often contested by multinational interests or agreements such as the TPP, Maori continue to ask questions about whose interests are being served - and how these interests should be defined. That said there are other issues where I disagree with Ranginui. His interests in sovereignty, and in preserving Maori interests, meant that he was opposed to current immigration policy. I am not.

His concerns are worth noting: that the biculturalism of New Zealand would be put under pressure by new immigration policies and flows, that Maori labour market options and mobility would be undermined by skilled immigrant arrivals, and that the interest in new cultures and languages would diminish the investment in maintaining tikanga and Te Reo.

These are all important issues, but my own view is that we need a more robust and inclusive discussion about the role of Maori in deciding immigration policy, that Maori can and should play more of a role in welcoming immigrants and that immigrants should be encouraged to understand and respect the Treaty and Maori.

How the modern state and its various communities understand and respond to cultural diversity continues to be a defining issue of the 21st century.

New Zealand is a settler state, which has worked to rectify the marginalisation of tangata whenua, but circumstances have moved on. Ranginui Walker and others have had an impact on these issues - largely for the better. So, what does social justice and encouraging an inclusive and equitable society look like in the second decade of the 21st century?

Distinguished Professor Paul Spoonley is the pro vice-chancellor of the college of humanities and social sciences at Massey University. He was the author of Mata Toa. The Life and Times of Ranginui Walker (Penguin).

- NZ Herald

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