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Racism and Equality

Some of the dust has settled, the election is over and we will have a new government soon. But how much will we remember of the many promises and warnings we heard during the campaign? 

Requests by some leaders for an end to what they call “race baiting” by candidates in the lead up to the general election need to be taken seriously if we are to avoid even more serious social divisions than we already have. 

New Zealand is not a racist country in the true sense of the term but, like most nations, we have always had racism, religious bigotry, white supremacy, anti-immigration and many other philosophies from the far right, the far left and almost every position in between. Most form an insidious background to everyday life to the point where it has become the norm in many clubs, pubs and workplaces to denigrate minority groups, particularly immigrants of all colours and creeds, usually in their absence.

Those underlying attitudes bubbled to the surface when the Labour government, under the well-intentioned, if somewhat idealistic, leadership of Jacina Ardern introduced co-governance and treaty partnerships into legislation when those matters had not been included in their manifesto prior to the previous election. Whether they were the right or wrong thing to do is a separate debate but there was no public debate or clear mandate for them and that was guaranteed to create resentment. It was also guaranteed to exacerbate the issue of racism, particularly among those who already held racist opinions.       

It should also be noted that racism is not the exclusive preserve of Pakeha or European New Zealanders. All our ethnic groups can be, and have been, as intolerant of other ethnic groups as anyone else. There are already serious divisions within the Maori academic community on the issue of Maori discrimination against “white immigration” to New Zealand, particularly from South Africa and America, as they brought attitudes of superiority which were damaging to Maori. Were those comments racist in the true sense of the word or a reflection of reality? Given the history of both nations it is probably not an unreasonable assumption to make but do they address the issue of racism or add fuel to the fire?  

We like to tell the international community that we don’t practice racial discrimination in New Zealand but that is an ill-informed delusion at best. While today we don’t have the blatant discrimination seen in the southern states of USA of the 1960s, in my long-ago teen years, Maori were barred from a picture theatre in Pukekohe and told not to apply for certain jobs or apply to rent houses in that same community. That was racism at it’s ugly worst. 

In today’s politics the race card has become a very easy card to play and a very difficult card to trump or refute. Once the race issue has been raised the debate very quickly becomes pointlessly personal so we need to know exactly what racism is and what it is not. 

Racism is the belief or philosophy that a particular race of people is inferior to others. It is often used to justify ill-treatment, unfair discrimination, hostility and even violence. Coupled with religious intolerance it leads to the tragedy unfolding in Israel. It is also often very subtle in its application but none-the less damaging.     

However opposition to, or support for, co-governance, particularly in local government and other statutory bodies is not in itself racism or anything like it. If we oppose, or prevent, the inclusion of Maori, or any other group, from participation in societal affairs simply because of their ethnicity that is clearly racist, unacceptable, and indeed unlawful. 

If on the other hand we oppose those inclusions because they have been appointed instead of being traditionally elected as all other representatives are, as was the case with Environment Canterbury, that is a very different matter. That is a matter of true democracy as we have understood it since the Magna Carta of 1215. Confusing the two is easy and in some cases deliberate.

We can legislate against racism in its various forms, we can restructure local government to include Maori in decision making positions without election but we cannot force people, Maori or Pakeha, politician or not, to change the way they think about democracy and equality. All that requires is a genuine willingness by all people to treat each other with the utmost courtesy, honesty and respect. When our governments fail that test we clearly have some way to go.  


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