Does New Zealand have a race relations problem? Many New Zealanders would like to say no. But dig a bit deeper and there's no denying it: we have a problem.

Two events I recently attended in Hawke's Bay reminded me of this. Firstly, Te Matatini National Kapa Haka Festival, held in Hawke's Bay for the first time since 1983. It was extensively advertised and received terrific news coverage in Hawke's Bay Today.

I attended for most of days two, three and four, and was virtually blown away by how good it was. There were no incidents of violence and everyone I spoke to was friendly.

Te Matatini, which means many faces, is one of the peak events of modern Maori culture: comparable to the best of musical and dance events world-wide.

Advertisement

By my estimate, about 10,000 people attended on each of days two and three. On day four (finals day) there were about 15,000. Yet virtually the only place I saw any white faces was on the stage: some of the Kiwis with mixed ancestry, who identify as Maori, are as pale-skinned as me. Yet in the crowd, virtually no white faces.

Why did so few of my Pakeha fellow countrymen in Napier and Hastings, who love music and dance, come to this marvellous event? To me there's only one plausible answer: a deeply-entrenched rejection of Maori culture. If I can see this rejection, and find it hurtful, do we imagine for one minute that Maori don't see it?

The second event was held in Havelock North Tuesday night (28/2/17). A public meeting organised by an Auckland group calling itself the Hobson's Pledge Trust. The two invited speakers were Don Brash, former leader of the National Party and then the Act Party, and Casey Costello, a former police officer who now manages a private security company.

The meeting was attended by about 200 people, but the only place I saw a brown face was on the stage: Casey Costello has mixed ancestry too.

We were told at the outset no political speeches would be permitted, yet both the invited speakers gave very political speeches, and expanded on these in response to questions.

Members of the audience who agreed with them were permitted to make similar comments. Nobody made a speech disagreeing with them.

The general thrust of the meeting was strongly against any government action to ensure greater Maori involvement in making decisions. Such attempts were dismissed as separatist, redundant, pandering to Maori, and unfair to non-Maori.

The history of our little nation, including the 30 years from 1840 to 1870 when most of New Zealand's assets were transferred from Maori to European ownership, including by military force, and the Treaty of Waitangi signed in 1840 was dismissed as being of no account, was ignored except by implying it wasn't relevant.

Advertisement

No doubt this was music to the ears of many in the audience, but to me it simply reinforced the huge divisions in our country today, between those who acknowledge and respect our Maori fellow-citizens, and those who dislike and/or fear Maori and oppose any attempt to improve their relative position.

To return to where I started: we do have a race relations problem in Hawke's Bay, and it isn't going to be fixed by turning our backs on it, or pretending all that's needed is for Maori to adopt our way of doing things.

Pakeha need to take a good hard look at themselves too, and acknowledge that we still need to do better.

Bill Sutton was Labour MP for the former Hawke's Bay electorate and later served as a Hawke's Bay regional councillor.