When Dame Susan Devoy was appointed Race Relations Commissioner last year, the intelligentsia sniffed at the choice of a squash champion. She had once made the outrageous comment that Waitangi Day had been marred by protest and New Zealanders should not feel ashamed on their national day.
Maori Party MP Te Ururoa Flavell said she "courted controversy" and Mana's Annette Sykes declared her not fit for the role. A letter in the Herald said it was like appointing Rachel Hunter Governor-General.
I had a feeling she would prove them wrong.
Dame Susan said she would "take time to understand a Maori viewpoint". With that attitude she was going to be far more effective than appointees we have had from the white liberal left. None of them would have dared speak out against a political party this close to an election. The previous commissioner, Joris de Bres, used to make no response to an offence until at least a year had passed.
Dame Susan took on Act leader Jamie Whyte this week for a speech attacking Maori "privilege". It was "grotesque and inflammatory", she said, to equate Maori with the pre-revolutionary French aristocracy, a comment he said would be "nothing more than a sign of ignorance if she were still a professional squash player". It suggested, he said, that she hadn't read his speech "or she can't think straight".
Whyte seemed to be a refreshing new presence in our politics six months ago, a philosopher from Cambridge who hoped to restore Act to its founding mission of liberal economics. Then came the incest comment, which he seemed to consider a tactical error rather than an intellectual one. It ought to have made him think there really might be more in heaven and earth than his philosophy.
But the Maori privilege speech to Act's Waikato conference last weekend suggests he does not yet think he has much to learn from politics.
In the speech he grappled with the fact that "race-based laws" in New Zealand are now advanced not just by Maori parties but by National, Labour and the Greens. The reason, he thinks, is that they are confused about the nature of "privilege".
"Maori are legally privileged in New Zealand today, just as the aristocracy were legally privileged in pre-revolutionary France," he said. "But of course in our ordinary use of the word, it is absurd to say that Maori are privileged, when they are generally poorer than those at a legal disadvantage." (That's what Dame Susan said, suggesting to him she hadn't read the speech.)
Whyte's theory is that the confused parties have not noticed that the Maori who take most advantage of their legal privileges are those who are also materially privileged. "They [the confused] think of Maori as being generally materially disadvantaged and they see their legal privileges as a form of compensation."
That is simply not so. "Privileges" such as mandatory consultation and co-management of some public resources, are not mere compensation, they are recognition of a couple of facts of life that Dr Whyte might not have met in his reading at Cambridge.
One of them is our founding Treaty, which he thinks is just about property rights. The other is the national needs of indigenous minorities, which he ought to know about because the library at Cambridge contains some interesting work in political theory that attempts to build ethnic identity into principles of individual rights.
These thinkers, Canadians notably, argue that ethnic identity is one of the elements of everybody's individual identity, and that ethnic identity demands a "national" expression, meaning a high degree of self-determination.
They distinguish between indigenous minorities and immigrant minorities. Immigrant minorities have their ethnic identity need met by a home country. Samoans in New Zealand know there is a place called Samoa where their ethnicity is self-governing and culturally secure. Chinese know there is a place called China.
Indigenous minorities have no other place that expresses them. When they had such a place and lost it to a colonising majority, problems arose. The United States, Canada and Australia share those problems with us. The other three have space for reservations where "first nations", as Canada calls them, have a fair degree of independence within federal states.
We are not so lucky - or maybe we will turn out to be luckier. Territorial reservations do not seem to be working very well. A treaty-based shared state, which ours has to be, may be better if it can satisfy the need of indigenous minorities for the ethnic pride, cultural security and national identity that the majority enjoys. That is the New Zealand project. Jamie Whyte should think about it.
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