Toby Manhire 's Opinion

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: Privilege debate guillotined by Act's French farce

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Jamie Whyte - ACT party leader / photo / John Stone
Jamie Whyte - ACT party leader / photo / John Stone

In this week's episode of Election 2014, a distinguished philosopher and a world champion squash player meet in 18th century France. "Grotesque and inflammatory", said Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy of Act leader Jamie Whyte's claim that Maori in New Zealand today enjoy a legal privilege just like that bathed in by the aristocracy in pre-revolution France. Sacre bleu, came the response from Monsieur Whyte. This was outrageous, astounding, incroyable. This Devoy woman must resign. Indeed, if she loved race-based parties so much, why didn't she just go and marry one of them?

It is hard to say quite where events might go from here, but the likelihood is that the impassioned masses will pour through the major arterial routes of the country, commoners of all colours - white, brown, black and especially blue-and-yellow - stomping their peasant boots, waving their flags and singing their hearts out. "Do you hear the Pakeha sing? Singing the song of angry men (and also women)? It is the waiata of the Pakeha, who will not be slaves again!"

A few weeks ago I interviewed Whyte - coming tomorrow to a Weekend Herald near you - and suggested that small parties' struggle to get media attention very often saw them gravitate towards the fruity, shouty excesses.

"You're absolutely right, this is a very serious problem," he said. "Fortunately, most of the things we truly believe in are considered mad by other people. Therefore it's not such a problem for me. I just say what I honestly believe, and people say, 'did you hear what he just said?'"

In those terms, it is hard to know what to make of Whyte's self-made maelstrom around race and privilege in New Zealand law.

He seems baffled and angry that people have homed in on his comparison of Maori in New Zealand to the ancien regime. And it is true that the very next sentence from his weekend speech reads, "of course, in our ordinary use of the word, it is absurd to say that Maori are privileged". But the whole comparison is absurd, and no basis at all on which to launch the "civilised debate" he insists he seeks.

How could he not have expected people to say, "did you hear what he just said?" Whyte's response to questioning around his race argument has looked less like absurdism and more like French farce, the befuddled, fulminating party leader bounding about the stage, banging into doors (there is probably a cameo for Gerry Brownlee here somewhere). In one breath Whyte is denouncing his critics for "name-calling", for "tackling the man rather than the ball", in the next he is telling the journalists asking him questions that they are idiots, ignorant, unable to "read or think", the "thought police".

Whyte is aghast at claims of race cards, race baiting and dog whistles, and I don't doubt he's genuinely upset to be seen as propagating all that. But it's incredibly hard to see how he wouldn't have foreseen the impact of this approach.

There are many problems with his argument: from its refusal to accept any prevailing historical grievance or injustice beyond "property rights" through to a misunderstanding of the way law school quotas work. But on an immediate level, in the opening exchanges of an election campaign, the obvious reality is that choosing to lob "Maori privilege" - and an invocation of the French Revolution, to boot - into the mix is going to have a toxic effect.

It reeks of desperation, too. A decade ago, a desperate Don Brash, then National leader and later to become Act leader, delivered his Orewa speech, attacking Maori "privilege" in strikingly similar terms. The Act Party of 2004 loved it. "Don Brash's Orewa speech was an earthquake that split the political landscape," cheered the party's newsletter in February 2004. "Now it is producing an electoral landslide." The then Act leader, Richard Prebble, is today the party's campaign strategist.

Whyte's election as leader was heralded as the birth of a classically liberal Act, shaking off years of personality crises, social conservatism, and rank populism. In January, Whyte said he had "no interest in Maori-bashing as a political game". No doubt he would today insist that his controversial speech was not Maori-bashing at all, merely addressing a point of principle. But it's hard to see how this Bastille-storming salvo can be motivated by anything other than the party's freezing-level polling.

And, as others have pointed out, there's a telling irony at play here. A party that depends on the patronage of the National Party in Epsom to get around the electoral rules is furiously complaining about special privileges. Call it noblesse oblige.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

Toby Manhire

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for listener.co.nz, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

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