The prospect of being labelled racist elicits deep discomfort among most Pakeha – me included.
Though there is no question about the need to eliminate racist behaviours, attitudes and rhetoric, awareness of this discomfort is increasingly being used as a cynical weapon for suppressing important questions and debate.
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This was evident during a recent Auckland Council Governing Body meeting, which discussed Tūpuna Maunga Authority's 2020/21 Draft Operational Plan and budget.
But first, some background. The authority was established to administer 14 volcanic cones (maunga) following a 2014 Treaty settlement which vested ownership in a collective of 13 iwi/hapu but placed the land in trust for the common benefit of that collective - and the other people of Auckland.
The "other people" includes Māori excluded from that settlement, and people from other ethnicities. The lands were designated reserves, thus guaranteeing public access.
To reflect this Treaty partnership, the authority equally comprises iwi and Auckland Council members. Any questions about its processes are therefore directed at its Auckland Council representatives as much anybody.
Every year, Auckland Council ratifies the authority's ratepayer-funded budget, and operational plan. This year's meeting was held against a backdrop of significant public disquiet about the authority's programme to fell nearly 2000 exotic trees from Auckland's maunga.
Yet, as was the case last year, the vague wording in this year's plan gave no hint of the intended massive, single-phase tree felling.
Auckland councillor Christine Fletcher highlighted this when she noted last year's plan had not made it clear so many trees would be felled. She asked how, in approving a similarly worded plan and budget for this year, could the council be sure it didn't contain any other fish-hooks.
During the ensuing debate, several councillors implied it was racist to question the authority. The council subsequently voted in favour of the plan with only one dissenting vote – councillor Fletcher's.
Likewise, the Honour the Maunga tree protection group routinely experiences accusations of racism based on nothing more than our daring to challenge the authority's plans to fell hundreds of trees during a climate emergency.
The Tūpuna Maunga Authority directly receives many millions from Auckland Council every year. It utilises many council resources, so ratepayers' real financial contribution to its operations will be far higher than the authority's budgets suggest.
The Human Rights Commission describes racism as negative statements or actions about any racial, ethnic or religious group of people.
Criticising a people is never okay. However, criticising a publicly-funded organisation's deeply flawed processes and calling out questionable behaviour is a sign of a democratic and open society.
A healthy society encourages healthy debate. It requires being unafraid to question all publicly-funded bodies, including Treaty co-governance organisations even though an important part of their mandate quite rightly involves addressing very deep injustices to Māori.
Yet societal norms have shifted so now there is an unhealthy expectation of unquestioning acceptance of anything done by publicly-funded entities administering Treaty settlement land.
Labelling as racist those who raise valid, process-related concerns provides a convenient distraction from the issues.
There is no question of the need to embrace the cultural redress intended by Treaty settlements but we, as a society, need to have the courage to learn how to walk that difficult and sometimes uncomfortable line between racism and unquestioning acceptance of inappropriate behaviours and practices.
We also need to learn how to acknowledge the many wrongs done to Māori in a constructive manner that sees Māori and non-Māori developing a workable partnership that benefits all.
However, it is simplistic to assume the answer lies in simply putting the boot on the other foot. The satisfactions this may bring some in the short-term, are unsustainable and ultimately self-defeating.
A more constructive approach is needed for there to be empowerment rather than power, which carries with it an expectation of responsibility and accountability.
Robust debate should therefore be a part of building mutually respectful and culturally sustainable practices and protocols together. It requires all parties to be held equally accountable within the co-governance partnerships.
Failure to have the courage and integrity to call out baseless accusations and poor practice - no matter who it is done by - enables wrongdoing and emboldens the perpetrators.
Consider what happens in societies that are controlled by self-censorship and fear and where a blind eye is turned away from where light needs to be shone. Is that really what we want for New Zealand?
• Anna Radford is the spokesperson for Honour the Maunga, which had, until the Covid-19 lockdown, occupied Ōwairaka/Mt Albert for five months to save 345 trees.