Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: The political minefield of race relations

The hikoi over the deep sea oil make their way to the treaty grounds on a wet and cold Waitangi Day held at Waitangi, Northland. Photo / Dean Purcell
The hikoi over the deep sea oil make their way to the treaty grounds on a wet and cold Waitangi Day held at Waitangi, Northland. Photo / Dean Purcell

Discussion, debate and reporting on race relations in New Zealand is a political minefield. There's passion, anger, and polarised thinking, which all leads to sensitivities and potential explosiveness and hurt. This is especially the case with Waitangi Day commemorations, celebrations, and protests, which are inseparable from important issues relating to the Treaty, racism, and inequality. The many diverse arguments and perspectives about these are worth exploring.

Media coverage and protest

There appears to be widespread public dissatisfaction with elements of Waitangi Day and with New Zealand's race relations in general, but the complaints are myriad and there is little consensus on what needs to change. One of the more interesting complaints this year were from a leading political journalist about media coverage of Waitangi Day. Rachel Smalley - the Newstalk ZB broadcaster, who has just been announced as a new TVNZ Q+A host for election-year - has written an opinion piece that makes a plea for New Zealand's media to report race relations and Waitangi Day with less sensationalism - see: More balance needed in Waitangi Day reporting?. She explains the problem: 'the media needs a headline. It needs to entice, it needs to suggest there is conflict. Why? Well the media is ruled by listener or viewership numbers, and the reality is that Maori politics and Maori issues don't snare a big audience in this country. So there's an unspoken need, if you like, to 'ham it up'.

So that's one of the reasons we see a distorted view of Waitangi celebrations. Yes, at times Waitangi has been confrontational. There have been protests and flag burnings. But when the conflict isn't there, the media invents it'.

As if answering Smalley's request, the New Zealand Herald made the contentious decision not to report on Waitangi Day protests yesterday. On the front page it proclaimed that the newspaper would contain 'protest free news pages'. Instead it dedicated its first seven pages to what it saw as positive coverage and perspectives on race relations and Waitangi Day. Such an approach did not go down well with many in social media. For example, Paul Brislen (@paulbrislen) tweeted to say 'Dear NZ Herald, I thought the idea of newspapers was to encourage debate not revel in not having one. Unimpressed'. He was answered by Herald editor Shayne Currie (@ShayneCurrieNZH) who explained: 'Sick of 1-2 individuals who hijack the day and dominate TV/headlines. So we've ignored them and devoted 7 pages to debate'. Media expert Russell Brown (@publicaddress) added, 'Given we've been complaining about other media seizing on stoushes at Waitangi, I do get what @nzherald was trying to say but "protest free" really wasn't a good way of saying "we have seven pages of Treaty debate and discussion in today's paper."' For further coverage of the social media debate and the Herald's use of a symbolic protest fist on the front page, see Pete George's Herald, protest free and white power. See also, Martyn Bradbury's Dear NZ Herald - a protest free newspaper is an abdication of responsibility and The Standard's NZ Herald watch - history repeats.

The Herald's coverage wasn't exactly apolitical or devoid of dissenting voices on race relations. For example, the paper ran Hone Harawira's opinion piece Ngapuhi's settlement role critical to future of Treaty. Nonetheless the decision does raise questions about what other protest activity might go unreported in future. And it's also worth noting that the Dominion Post ran an editorial yesterday that sought to justify and embrace the tradition of Waitangi Day protests - see: Protest part of our democracy. It pointed out the positive role played by such actions: 'And protests at Waitangi were a necessary part of our history. We had to learn to take the Treaty seriously and to attempt to right the injustices of the past. If we had not done so, Maori anger and frustration could have taken far more dangerous forms than it has done. The angry scenes at Waitangi over the past generation have been part of this revolution in thinking about the nation's founding document. Nobody is defending violence or law-breaking of any kind. But harsh words and insults were part of the nation's learning curve'.

Other media has also stressed the importance of examining contentious issues of race relations during 'Waitangi week' - see, for example, The Press' editorial Race inequity still tolerated.

How to mark Waitangi Day?

Herald columnist Toby Manhire doesn't seem to have got the memo about covering the protests. In his column today he points the finger at the 'the posse of cantankerous media commentators denouncing the Waitangi commemorations, the protests, the rows' - see: Don't try to replace Waitangi Day with a myth. Manhire makes the case for the beauty of Waitangi Day in its current form, and strongly argues against the idea of replacing it with a New Zealand National Day.

There are plenty of interesting voices on how to celebrate - or whether to celebrate - Waitangi Day. The most interesting is Morgan Godfery's Myths of nationhood: why I'm not "celebrating" Waitangi Day. See also, Carrie Stoddart-Smith's Waitangi Day Blues. And for a young Asian New Zealander's point of view, see Andrew Chen's Why I'm not celebrating Waitangi Day.

It's also notable that not all schools were closed for Waitangi Day - see Jenna Lynch's No public holiday at two top Waikato schools.

Contentious issues and ideas

In order to understand the Treaty of Waitangi, its legacy, and what it means for the future, it's necessary to look at interpretations of the past. Along these lines Chris Trotter has a particularly interesting blogpost with A Precise Moment In History: Pondering The Legacy Of Waitangi. For a very different view, see Martyn Bradbury's It's not the Treaty of Waitangi - it's the Cheaty of Waitangi.

But the must-read item about how the Treaty is currently influencing politics and government is Gareth Morgan and Susan Guthrie's Time to end use of Treaty partnership framework to justify reforms. They argue that the current emphasis on establishing bicultural 'power-sharing arrangements' has no real basis in the Treaty of Waitangi and is anti-democratic. They conclude by saying "We believe this direction will suit no-one and will ultimately generate more, not less, disharmony between Maori and non-Maori. New Zealand needs a new framework for thinking about the relationship between Maori and the wider society. The Treaty partnership framework has had its day'.

Some similar arguments about 'co-governance' are made by Mike Butler in No hearing for non-iwi constitutional group, Muriel Newman in Waitangi Day Reflections, and Peter Cresswell in Waitangi Day: Something to celebrate.

For a critical parody of some of this thinking, see Scott Yorke's The Marries are at it again and Explosive alternative version of Treaty uncovered.

The Green Jacket and racism

In the lead up to Waitangi Day, the biggest race-related issue was Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei's allegation of racism directed at National Party MPs. In responding to accusations of hypocrisy from Anne Tolley, Turei said that she was being singled out because she was Maori. Some were turned off by the apparent pettiness of it all, but for others the spat elicited strong emotions. In fact, the saga was incredibly revealing about a number of issues in contemporary parliamentary politics - especially issues of racism, wealth, inequality, political rhetoric, aggression, and the use of social media by politicians. For a detailed account of this, see my blogpost, Playing the race, class and gender card (about Green clothes). See also, my blogpost Images and cartoons relating to Metiria Turei's clothes and racism.

For a more trenchant leftwing critique of Metiria Turei's allegations, see John Moore's blogpost, The Elite politician that cried racism. He argues that Turei's defence of her 'opulent' clothes reflects her integration into Establishment politics, and that her claims of racism demean real experience of racism in New Zealand.

Finally, issues of national identity aren't just confined to debates about Waitangi Day, and the other major issue relating to this at the moment is the 'flag change' debate. To see how the cartoonists are dealing with this debate, see my blogpost Cartoons about changing New Zealand's flag.

- NZ Herald

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Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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