At the core of his speech, Phil Goff makes a number of relatively leftwing criticisms of the Maori and National parties. Most controversially, he said that National’s deal with the Maori Party over the Emission Trading Scheme privileges the Maori iwi elite over the Maori working class who will be disadvantaged. To secure the Maori Party’s support for a piece of legislation that the party opposed, National threw in a promise to hand over 35,000 acres of public land and some $25-50 million to the Maori corporate elite.
Exposing the fact that ‘Maori elites’ will benefit from the Emission Trading Scheme at the expense of ordinary Maori is not race-baiting, but actually the expression of a basic class analysis. Many will be rightly skeptical of Goff flirting with a class analysis to critique the Maori and National parties. However, a careful reading of his speech shows that it not only centres on class as opposed to race, but is also constructed in such a way to appeal to disenfranchised Maori as well as working class pakeha.
Goff’s defence of coastal nationalisation
In his speech, Goff also defended the Foreshore and Seabed legislation – effectively winding back Labour’s more recent capitulation to the possibilities of iwi being able to assert private property rights over various beach areas. As argued on this blog at the time, Labour’s Foreshore and Seabed Act was actually a fairly progressive and leftwing piece of legislation to be defended – see: Nationalise the Foreshore and Seabed. The legislation effectively nationalised a resource whose ownership had become slightly ambiguous. By contrast, calls for Maori ownership of the foreshore were never progressive in any sense, and the bulk of Maori would not actually be any better off with iwi ownership of the foreshore. After all, the call for iwi ownership of the foreshore was never a call for resources to be given to Maori in state houses in Porirua and Wainoni, but would in fact be a further corporatisation of land, which is what has happened with Ngai Tahu land ownership in the South Island. Today’s iwi are more like capitalist business enterprises than they are like the iwi of classical Maori society before capitalism. Therefore, liberal and the left opposition to the Foreshore and Seabed legislation strengthens the case for the commercialisation and privatisation of, what is for now, a public resource.
The inhibiting role of the ‘race card’ cliché
There is a problem with the whole concept of a politician ‘playing the race card’. This increasingly frequent allegation – usually made by identity politics liberals – is thrown around when politicians raise critical questions or arguments concerning issues of the Treaty, race relations, and the Maori Party. Liberals equate criticizing the Maori Party and any criticism of deals for iwi with racism and ‘playing the race card’. The logical conclusion of this world view is to place Maori political and economic actors as being above criticism.
There seems to be an implicit assumption that such ‘Maori’ issues are sacred cows and that to question them is beyond the pale in New Zealand politics. Thus, debates are closed down by the ‘race card’ allegation. This prohibition is highly problematic for those of us that are interested in grappling with issues of inequality in New Zealand society and the contemporary putative solutions for this inequality. Sadly, it narrows down the discussion around possible alternative solutions for inequality – including more radical ones.
The prohibition approach relates to the ‘political correctness’ concept that has been central to liberal identity politics since the early 1990s. This political correctness phenomenon is an attempt to say that there is only one perspective or truth about what is ‘progressive’, and that any such violations of this ‘truth’ need to be highlighted, suppressed or corrected. Such a censorious orientation inhibits debate on questions that are in vital need of discussion. Instead of taking on the challenge of debating different points of view, the political correctness approach is to simply invalidate different opinions and rule them out of bounds.
In their class-blind way, what liberals fail utterly to understand is that not all of Maori share their liberal identity politics worldview. Although it’s totally incomprehensible to the liberals, a significant portion of Maori do not buy into identity politics, Maori nationalism, or Treaty politics. Working class Maori are not always so enamoured by the so-called progress in ‘closing the gaps’ via the trickle-down Treaty process whereby neo-tribal capitalist iwi are enriched, and ordinary Maori continue to be relatively impoverished. Nor does the culturalist model of directing Maori to embrace their ‘traditions’ always resonate with Maori.
This lack of interest or support from a significant sector of Maori for the liberal identity politics programme relates to the fact that such an approach has not actually borne fruit for ordinary Maori. After all, New Zealand has now had 25 years of the dual neoliberal and culturalist model. But what, by 2009, has it achieved? Far from resolving the social crisis, the gulf between rich and poor has actually been widened by the process. The culturalist model has created a relatively wealthy and influential Maori elite. Yet the majority of Maori have suffered the consequences of economic restructuring that has produced high levels of unemployment and poverty, as well as reducing public welfare, education and health services.
Maori disadvantage remains as entrenched as ever. Unemployment among Maori continues at twice the national average, while Maori continue to figure disproportionately in every social statistic relating to low household income, poor health, low levels of education and high levels of crime. In fact the number of those in poverty increased significantly after 1999 (when Labour was in power and continuing to push the liberal identity politics model). This was the finding of a government report that comprises the most comprehensive study ever into New Zealand living standards. The Ministry of Social Development (2007) carried out their research in 2000 – shortly after Labour was elected to government, and again in 2004. ‘Severe hardship' amongst Maori had risen from 7% to 17% in Labour’s first four years in office. If widened to the more general category of living standards, 40% of Maori were deemed by the Ministry to be experiencing hardship.
The beneficiaries of the culturalist model have clearly not been working class Maori, and in fact the culturalist project has politically disenfranchised most Maori due to their disconnection from iwi organisations. Like all forms of identity politics, the Treaty-culturalist model has proven to be a dead-end.
Hence, a large proportion of Maori actually supported Labour’s Foreshore and Seabed legislation (see this opinion poll, for example), a significant number oppose the elite of Maoridom, and in reality only a minority support the Maori Party. Furthermore, significant proportions of Maori once supported Winston Peters and the New Zealand First party, partly because of the opposition that Peters showed to liberal Treaty politics and biculturalism. Let’s not forget that New Zealand First, during its heyday, won all of the Maori seats off Labour at a time when Peters was campaigning for the abolition of the Treaty of Waitangi industry and generally against Treaty politics, in a not-too-dissimilar way to Goff is now railing against the cynical ETS deal.
Thus Goff is actually aiming to win the support of such Maori with his attacks on liberal identity politics. Rather than playing to the ‘redneck blue collar workers’ as the liberals in the blogosphere would have it, Goff seems to be aiming to win the support of working class Maori voters. This goes to help illustrate that Goff is not actually ‘bashing Maori’ and playing the so-called ‘race card’.