Wasn’t that a beautiful weekend? Almost no rain! I spent my Saturday morning at Te Māhurehure Marae in Pt Chevalier, with a bunch of young journalism leaders, most of them people of colour. The event was called a wānanga, which on this occasion meant a session of inspiration and advice.
They were hearing from leaders in the creative sector: Specifically, in museums, theatre and dance, and fashion. I was listening in.
On Sunday afternoon, I went to the Go Media Stadium at Mt Smart, to hear Winston Peters launch the NZ First election campaign. Slogan: Let’s Take Back Our Country.
The two meetings could hardly have been more different.
Peters spoke to about 500 people, mainly older and mainly, it seemed, as grumpy as him. We’re “going backwards as a country”, he said at the start. It’s because of “woke extremism” and what we need is “unity, not separatism”.
These ideas recurred throughout his speech and he focused on them again at the end.
“We meet here on a mission to save our country,” he declared.
The threat to “our country” comes from “the rising tide of racism and separatism”, which Peters claimed is happening because “the Greens, Labour and the Māori Party have launched a full-scale attack on democracy”.
He gave a shout-out to the conspiratorial protest movement, saying he had been “prepared to go and listen to those protesters at Parliament when no one else would”.
He reinforced that when he outlined his party’s five priorities: Number one was “freedom and democracy”, including “racism and separatism”.
The cost of living, health and education, “rising crime” and “improving the lives of our seniors” rounded out his five-point list.
NZ First, Peters said, would “return New Zealand to what we once were: The greatest country on Earth”.
Even if the rhetoric does come from elsewhere.
At the Saturday wānanga, one participant said, “What we’re all about in this country is recognising that we all have to live together, so how do we weave our lives together?”
This was Tanemahuta Gray, who leads Taki Rua Productions, a Māori performance company based in Wellington. It’s a sentiment you’d think we’d hear more often from politicians.
There were some similarities between the two events. For one thing, the venue for both was a place of special importance to Māori – and where everyone was welcome.
Given the way “separatism” has been so often alleged, it seems worth mentioning.
There were also differences and they ran far deeper than the words spoken and the people in attendance.
Despite the party slogan, those in the room with Peters have not had their country stolen from them and they do not need to “take it back”. Most grew up at a time when state-house construction was booming. There were very good child benefits and free and low-cost education. Relative to wages, a typical house cost a third of what it does now, so most people could reasonably expect they would be able to buy one.
Since then, many who did have turned their home ownership into considerable wealth, by leveraging their property to buy more.
They are the generation who have enjoyed more expanded life choices than any other in history. Their superannuation is universal and not under threat.
And thanks to Peters – credit where it’s due – their Gold Cards help them participate in society every day. They don’t need to take back their country because it hasn’t gone away.
They used to be good with change, too. They are the children who rebelled against the restricted old world of their parents because they believed they could build a better, freer, more fun one instead.
And yet they are grumpy.
Most of the young people I was with on Saturday morning can look forward to little of that. They have steep student loans, difficult career prospects and a limited chance at home ownership. They know that health, education, housing, transport, water services, welfare, environmental protections and more suffer disturbing levels of dysfunction.
They didn’t cause any of that. They inherited a social crisis from their parents and grandparents, who built their new and better world while insisting on low tax and public debt, which led to decades of underfunding.
They also know there’s a good chance the world will become catastrophically dangerous in their lifetimes, because of the climate crisis. They didn’t cause this either, and they didn’t spend the past 30 years refusing to acknowledge it, but they will have to deal with it.
And for many of them, simply by virtue of their race, they and their families are likely to earn less money, become ill across almost every health indicator including mental health, be arrested and go to prison, be excluded from home ownership and career promotion. And die younger.
In their own country.
If you want to talk about people whose country is no longer theirs, it’s Māori. If you want to put it in generational terms, it’s young people.
But on Saturday morning, they weren’t grumpy or bitter or angry. Love was in the air, because manaakitanga – the mutually reinforcing expression of care – buoyed everyone there.
The event began and ended with karakia. Not because everyone was religious or being forced to pretend they were, but because a karakia is a way to invite the kaupapa of respect. It reminds us we are part of something bigger. It asks that we bring our humble and best selves to the place and the occasion.
Wānanga, I learned, means “time to listen”. The word asks you to open your mind and your heart.
Somebody said, that morning, that Te Tiriti is a partnership. Peters disputes that. He told his audience the next afternoon there are four “woke” claims about the Treaty that are untrue. One is that it gives iwi partnership with the Crown.
Two of the others are that Māori didn’t cede sovereignty and the Treaty enshrines co-governance.
The fourth is that Māori lived in “a garden of Eden” until Pākehā arrived. Actually, I don’t think anyone believes that.
I know there are historians and legal scholars who debate all these issues with sometimes mind-bending intricacy. I know the legal and cultural implications are important. But I come at it a little differently and I think the Peters argument is a distraction.
I’m with Tanemahuta Gray. I think the challenge is to work out how to weave our lives together and Te Tiriti gives us the opportunity.
We can bring our best selves to this debate if we assume the signatories brought their own best selves. And even if that isn’t completely true, I don’t really care. We can do it anyway.
Weaving together is the opposite of “separatism”: You have to join up. And it doesn’t mean one side giving up who they are for the sake of the other. That’s what Pākehā used to demand from Māori and it’s what so many Māori object to now.
It means all of us learning from each other, respecting each other, inspiring each other.
But it can’t happen if the rallying cry on one side is to “take back our country”. That’s your separatism. That’s what breeds race hatred.
At Go Media Stadium, at the top of the north bank, there’s a building painted with a large green sign. “Wharepaku”, it says. Tāne are directed to the left and Wāhine to the right.
It doesn’t cause a fuss. It doesn’t confuse anyone. The Warriors fans who use the building don’t all speak te reo Māori, but either they like it the way it is or they don’t mind. In my view, most of us live in a country where that’s true.
Peters said something else on Sunday: That on October 14 we face “the most critical election in our lifetime”. Most other party leaders have said the same. The stakes are very high on both sides.
It’s still too early to say which side will win, but it’s obvious there will be a great deal of anger and despair among supporters of whoever loses. Rhetoric that stokes resentment is the last thing we need.
Simon Wilson is an award-winning senior writer covering politics, the climate crisis, transport, housing, urban design and social issues, with a focus on Auckland. He joined the Herald in 2018.