John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Don Brash tells: Why I played the race card

The National Party leader's Orewa speech on race relations and special treatment for Maori has had a seismic impact on the political landscape. The reaction surprised him, he tells Herald political correspondent John Armstrong and political editor Audrey Young in a discussion about his beliefs and plans.


Who decided your Orewa speech should concentrate on race relations - you or your advisers?

I made the decision. But clearly I discussed it with key advisers. We had a choice of doing a general overarching-type speech or a speech on one of the specific themes, and I think the reason I decided to go with the Waitangi/Maori/non-Maori issues was simply because of the Government policy on the seabed and foreshore in mid-December. It seemed to be a highly topical subject.

Isn't race politics the easy option for a party struggling to attract support?

It certainly can be argued that this is the case. But I didn't see the speech in that context at all, not least because the specific proposals in it had been well flagged in advance. The decision to accelerate and bring to an end the treaty settlement process, the abolition of Maori seats, the one standard of citizenship, had all been quite well flagged.

I didn't expect quite as dramatic a response as we got.

National Governments have long accepted special programmes for Maori. What has changed?

I think that many of those policies were, in retrospect, unwise. I think successive Governments have brought us to this point. I am not pointing all the fingers at the Labour Government.

To be consistent, should you not also be abolishing health, welfare and education programmes based on such things as gender, age, disability and region. Why is race-based targeting so much more objectionable?

Good question. I'm not sure I know the answer to that. I think there are some things which are specific to women, for example. Some health problems are specific to women, some health problems are specific to men. I can't think of anything in health or education which is specific to Maori.

So I think a case can be made that there are some things which are peculiar to gender and peculiar to age. I can't think of anything that is peculiar to race.

Bill English said much the same as you about ending special treatment for Maori when he was leader. Why have you struck a chord where he did not?

I am not quite sure why it created the impact that it did. People have in some cases said they weren't sure whether Bill meant what he said. I don't think that is fair at all. I think Bill did mean what he said but for some reason I don't fully understand, the speech did strike a chord.

Does it worry you that your speech risks polarising, even poisoning, relations between Maori and other New Zealanders? And might even lead to violence?

It certainly does concern me that I have unleashed a lot of emotions that have been building up over a long time. I guess my justification for doing that is that we desperately needed to have an adult discussion on this issue because it seems to me on our present direction, that those emotions were gradually building up and building up.

Okay, some of the people who have said, 'We agree with you', are by definition red-neck. But a great many are people who, on the basis of their comments to me on email, are anything but redneck and, of course, many of them are Maori. I got a very good email yesterday, for example, from a guy who is a student at Otago University flatting with four other friends.

He said: "I have predominantly European ancestry but some Ngai Tahu ancestry. One of the other four people in the flat also has some Maori ancestry". He said: "By chance the two of us come from the wealthiest families in the flat. The other three are pure European". But, he said, "We both have special scholarships to assist Maori". He said: "My European flatmates are angry and resent that fact that they are scrimping and are having difficulty getting by whereas we from quite affluent families get these scholarships".

Maori do appallingly badly according to most social indicators. You say funding should be based on need. Labour also says funding should be based on need. The argument is about how services should be delivered. Labour simply says that special programmes for Maori covering such things as health and education produce better results for Maori? Surely you would agree that is merely being cost-efficient?

It is quite clear that current programmes are based, at least in part, on race and not on need and that's what I am objecting to. I have no problem if people prefer to go to a Maori provider for education or health services and indeed said in the speech that I was comfortable with that as I am comfortable with choice in most areas of policy. But I don't think subsidies should vary depending on the race of the recipient, as we've got now.

Do you regret having instituted as Reserve Bank Governor scholarships to attract Maori and Pacific Island employees?

It seemed a good idea at the time. We introduced those scholarships in 1990 in the context of looking for some way of marking the sesquicentennial, which is why I know the date. What we decided to do was commission a major Maori carving to erect above the door of the Reserve Bank, and it is still there. And because we had a number of Maori on the staff but no Maori in the senior ranks of the bank or even in the research department of the bank, I felt it was helpful to encourage more Maori graduates.

Do you believe affirmative action programmes have any value?

I think affirmative action programmes have more costs than benefits. And I say that having lived for five years in the United States, where affirmative action programmes were very much part of the scene in the federal Government. It had two undesirable consequences. First of all, I strongly suspect that African Americans who got jobs at that time felt they were getting them because they were black, not because they were qualified for the job, and that wouldn't make you feel good if you were black.

I think the other problem with the programmes was the effect on those who were not the beneficiary of those programmes, in other words predominantly white Americans who saw an African American doing a job perhaps not very competently and had their prejudice against African Americans reinforced by that fact.

The Magna Carta and the 1688 Bill of Rights are part of Britain's unwritten constitution. Should not the treaty - our nation's founding document - be accepted as part of New Zealand's unwritten constitution and thus have an influence on the way governments make decisions?

Oh indeed. And that's why I regard it as a very important document. But to suggest that it is an adequate substitute for a constitution is a mistake and to imply that it involves an on-going "partnership" between two parties as though Maori were a distinct group of New Zealanders and the rest of us were, of some sense, exactly equal weight I think that is a serious mistake.

Did you learn enough about the treaty at school?

Probably not. When I went to school in the late 40s and 50s there was not nearly as much focus on the treaty as there is now and I think that is a pity. Because signing the treaty was a vitally important part of our history, and I think New Zealanders should have a good understanding of that document.

Do you believe majority-rule democracy will necessarily safeguard the rights of minorities?

Necessarily? No. I think it is crucially important that in any democracy, the majority thinks carefully about the rights of minorities, and that hasn't always been the case. One thinks of the laws which we had discriminating against gays and lesbians. I am pleased that those laws have gone. I think the majority has always got to be careful to not discriminate against minorities of whatever kind.

You didn't have a coherent answer when Kim Hill asked you in a television interview what it meant to be a New Zealander. Do you have one now?

You're right. I didn't. I started off by saying, "For starters, anyone who was born in New Zealand ... " And then I remembered that my first wife, my current wife and two of my three children were born outside New Zealand and that didn't make any sense so I stopped myself at that point. The answer I'd give in summary form is a New Zealander is someone who gets a lump in his throat when he flies back into the country after being overseas. And I guess that is shorthand for saying a New Zealander is someone who loves the culture, loves the land, loves the people, loves the fact that in New Zealand we are almost devoid of class structure, we are substantially free of racial tension, that someone who is the son of a person who works in an unskilled job in the parks and garden of a city council can become a law professor, and that is not true in many other societies. Maybe it is someone overseas who sings Pokarekareana when asked to sing a song. I don't think you can easily define a New Zealander but I think that's what I mean by a New Zealander.

In your Orewa speech, you raised the example of road construction being halted because it would disturb a taniwha. In the 1960s, Wellington residents vigorously opposed the construction of the city's motorway through the Bolton St cemetery, where early Pakeha settlers are buried. What's the difference? Shouldn't Maori spiritual beliefs be recognised?

I think if we were talking about putting a road through a Maori cemetery, we would need to deal with that as sensitively as putting it through any other cemetery. I am deeply troubled by incurring substantial cost for what, by almost any standards, is a mythological being.

In the same speech I referred to the reluctance to disturb the spirit of Mt Ruapehu. Inevitable there are tensions in areas like this. Religious beliefs are inevitably mocked and I don't want to do that but in a situation where there is a tradeoff between saving lives in the case of Mt Ruapehu [draining the crater lake to prevent a lahar] and potentially even in the case of the Waikato motorway and a belief held by a small number of people, I think sometimes those beliefs have to be discarded.

If you were Prime Minister, would you appoint a Minister of Maori Affairs?

I haven't crossed that bridge yet. It is clearly an issue we need to think about over the next 18 months.

Would you axe the Maori Television Service?

I think there is an obligation on the Crown to support the Maori language. The question is, "Is Maori Television an effective way of doing that?" I think what we've seen so far is not encouraging about this being an effective or efficient way of encouraging Maori language. I suspect it might have been very much more efficient to provide more Maori language school books, books in general. I think the way they've gone about it is very expensive and rather inefficient.

Does that mean you're not sure?

It means I'm not sure.

You have been photographed this week holding babies. Are you getting the hang of politics?

I think in a funny kind of way I have been involved in building constituencies for a long time. My Reserve Bank Governor's role was about building a public constituency for low inflation and explaining why low inflation was beneficial to all New Zealanders, expect perhaps property speculators. I am still building a constituency, this time for New Zealand's future.

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