Act leader David Seymour told his party conference over the weekend that New Zealand is becoming an "ethno-state". He's said this before. His argument is largely based on the proposed Three Waters reforms and the creation of Te Aka Whai Ora, the new Māori Health Authority.
In my view, this is straight-out racism. He may say that's not his intention, but he is stirring up racial hatred and he cannot be unaware of that.
Three Waters will introduce co-governance arrangements with iwi for a resource that will still be owned by councils, albeit through four new agencies. Te Aka Whai Ora will work in partnership with Te Whata Ora, the new Health New Zealand, and with Manatū Hauroa, the Ministry of Health. But it won't control the Crown's work.
No matter. Seymour's complaint is not a dog whistle. It's an unmistakable clarion call to everyone who thinks Māori are getting too much.
Ethno-states promote the idea that their true citizens share a history, culture and ethnicity, and because of it belong to a superior race. Almost always, they defend their status with the brutal oppression of others.
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* David Seymour responds to this column
Myanmar, with its genocide of the Rohingya, is an ethno-state. China is too: its killings, enslavement, torture, mass rape and forced sterilisation of Uyghurs also amount to genocide. Apartheid South Africa was an ethno-state and so was Nazi Germany.
Seymour's attempts to equate benign co-governance here with systematic oppression by those states is grossly insulting to their victims. And to Māori, and to everyone else in this country.
It's a sick irony that he has already told us he knows what true ethno-state repression looks like: last year he tried to get Parliament to condemn China's treatment of Uyghurs as "genocide". Now, he seems happy to pretend New Zealand is on the same path.
He's not alone. A week ago, anti-Three Waters campaigners ran an ad in the Otago Daily Times showing a glass of water labelled "Kiwi" being poured into a glass labelled "Iwi". The message: What belonged to "Kiwis" will now belong to iwi. I believe that was racism too.
Given the possibility of a National-Act government, what is National going to do about this?
The larger party also opposes Three Waters and Te Aka Whai Ora, and says it will repeal both. But will National leader Christopher Luxon make it clear that talk of "ethno states" and the like will have no place in any government he might form?
Despite the fuss, something rather remarkable is happening in this country. We've just celebrated Matariki, the Māori new year that recognises the arrival of the Matariki star cluster and also roughly coincides with the winter solstice. The days are getting longer again and the earth can soon be prepared for planting.
Some of the core tenets of Matariki were widely observed. We remembered those who had died over the previous year, we celebrated the coming season, we gathered for light shows and other entertainments, we put on family feasts.
A feast day with the remembrance of absent friends? We already have one of those – it's called Christmas. But what a delight, to do it again in winter. What a thrill to celebrate an authentic festival of our own, a festival of Aotearoa.
We're all learning a little more of the language. Te reo classes are chock-full with people doing the hard mahi. The rest of us have quietly expanding vocabularies anyway, and a growing appreciation of what kaupapa Māori means, thanks in large part to the enthusiasm of broadcasters and public figures everywhere. It enlarges us.
And gives us some special moments. Years ago, a gifted teacher at my kids' primary school got them all on stage in a big theatre to sing the Crowded House song "Together Alone".
Anei ra maua
E piri tahi nei
E noha tahi nei
Ko maua anake.
Kei runga a Rangi
Ko papa kei raro
E mau tonu nei
Kia mau tonu ra.
Here we are together
In a very close embrace
Just us alone.
Rangi the sky-father is above
The earth mother is below
Our love for one another
The hair stands up on the proverbial, sometimes.
I imagine most people have such moments. Anzac services, perhaps, or a school or sports thing, or the waiata their work group learned and then performed, and which made them a team in a way nothing else quite managed. A haka, performed at a big game or on stage or at a tangi. The simple rightness of hearing rugby players speaking Māori, Samoan, Tongan and Fijian.
On Waitangi Day 2017, then-prime minister Bill English made a great speech on the Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei marae at Takaparawhau, Bastion Point. He said we were engaged in a "great enterprise" to build a country based on "fairness, tolerance and respect".
He also said, "Ngāti Whātua's future is New Zealand's future." He didn't mean it as a platitude. He was pointing specifically to the economic and cultural importance of iwi to the whole country.
"I would say that almost without exception the organisations that are most committed to development are the local iwi." Whānau Ora, he said, "represents the best and truest chance of the next 20 to 30 years".
Whanau Ora is a mechanism for Māori agencies to work in partnership with the Crown, somehow without the country becoming an ethno-state. It exists because we know the old ways of addressing social crises were wrong.
English listed domestic violence, educational underachievement and the high rate of imprisonment, but he might just as easily have added suicide and most other health indices, incomes, housing… all the indicators of a structural imbalance based on race.
"Much as we have good intentions the truth is we have not met our aspirations," he said. "These things are the signs of failure." He meant failure of existing government agencies and of society at large. Whanau Ora has been the essential prototype for Māori agency over Māori lives. Te Aka Whai Ora will build on it.
Why don't we hear Luxon talking like this? He used to run an airline where they use cultural signifiers from kaupapa Māori all the time. Does he understand that, or was it just window dressing?
As for Act, it didn't used to have a problem with co-governance. In 2010 it supported the creation of the Waikato River Authority, the body that exercises co-governance between the Crown and the five iwi of the Waikato River catchment. It works well, enjoys the support of the Waikato Regional Council, DairyNZ, landowners and many others and, gosh, it administers water.
And in 2014, Act voted for the Tuhoe Claims Settlement Act and Te Urewera Act, setting up co-governance between Ngāi Tūhoe and the Crown in Te Urewera.
Notably, though, NZ First was opposed. Seymour knows there are votes to win among the grumpy folk who don't want to hear the word "Aotearoa", so he's happy to stoke the fires of a culture war.
Laura Clarke, the outgoing British High Commissioner, made a comment relevant to all this yesterday. She was talking about whether New Zealand might ever become a republic, and referred to the "statement of regret" she made in 2019 on behalf of the British Government to Māori in Gisborne. It was the 250th anniversary of James Cook's first arrival, an occasion when his men killed nine Māori.
"For me, it's about always holding true to what actually matters in a relationship, and that's those people-to-people connections and the lived experience. It's not what's going on in constitutional terms."
Perhaps we need to celebrate Matariki all year round.