On one hand, a number of socially-liberal reforms were initiated: discriminatory laws against gay males were partly removed, New Zealand declared itself a nuclear-free country, a Ministry of Women’s Affairs was established, Maori land grievances were given further recognition with the Waitangi Tribunal’s terms of references being extended back to 1840, and the ideology of biculturalism became infused throughout government departments and educational institutions. This paradigm shift was partly a response to the rise of the new social movements, together with the capitulation of the political left to ‘identity politics’.
Co-opting the new social movements
The more far-sighted elements of the New Zealand state, universities and the business class saw the need to deflect the potential dangers arising from the growth of new social movements, especially those with a Maori base. There was a conscious attempt to bring on board elements of these groups, to embrace and fuse identity politics into a new liberal Establishment, and to foster the growth of a ‘brown middle class’ and a ‘brown bourgeoisie’ (Ferguson, 2000, p. 34).
The election of the Fourth Labour Government in 1984 marked a conscious and dramatic shift in government policy regarding Maori, woman and various ‘minority’ groups. Feminism, biculturalism and identity politics were embraced and actively promoted by the state. This reconfiguring of the ideology and practice of the New Zealand state partly represented a synthesis of various forces. Elements of the New Zealand capitalist class, as well as state bureaucrats and intellectuals, recognised that the agitational, and at times violent, response of the previous National Government to elements of the new social movements, was a strategy that would only exacerbate divisions in New Zealand society.
Many of the aspirations of members of these new social movement could be met, at least in a superficial way but at times in a real and substantial way, without threatening or curtailing the profit accumulation abilities of business in New Zealand. Within the new social movements and the Maori nationalist movement was an ascending and conscious aspiring middle class. Many aspired to new ruling class status, and saw opportunities to use the leadership opportunities in organisations defined by feminist, Maori nationalism or gay politics as a base from which to rise within mainstream political and economic structures. The Fourth Labour Government was adept at uniting and transforming these various strands into a ‘new right’ synthesis of neoliberal economic restructuring and seemingly radical social reforms including homosexual law reform and the extending of the terms of the Treaty process.
The state embraces biculturalism
The new liberal social agenda promoted initially by the Fourth Labour Government and state bureaucracies went hand in hand with neoliberal polices. The need for the Establishment to deal with the problem of an increasingly radical Maori protest movement was especially apparent after the Maori Land March of 1975 and then the occupations at Bastion Point and Raglan in 1977-78. Labour justified biculturalism as being necessary to reduce social and economic disadvantage, promoting the view that the problems confronting ordinary Maori could be solved by a ‘return’ to Maori culture – especially by the new highly urbanised and de-tribalised Maori (Duncan and Cronin, 1997).
A significant number in left and liberal groups embraced the concept of tino rangatiratanga – or Maori sovereignty – as their guiding principle when formulating specific solutions to the problems confronting Maori New Zealanders. But the main instrument for implementing the culturalist model was the previously unused Treaty of Waitangi, which was now acknowledged as this country's ‘founding document’ (Ferguson, 2000). This was a relatively modern idea – the Treaty was signed in 1840 by the main Maori Chiefs and the British colonial governor to formally establish British rule in New Zealand. The Treaty was not between ethnic groups, but between elites of what were deemed to be legal entities.
It was not surprising that the culturalist model was also adopted by the National Party. Although initially critical of the culturalist model, National came to power in 1990 and spent nine years in government during which it became an enthusiastic advocate of Treaty settlements and ethnic-centred politics. Hence in the 1990s a political consensus around the culturalist model developed in mainstream politics.
Famously, this consensus was challenged for a short period of time by Don Brash, the leader of the National Party for three years between 2003 and 2006. Starting with his infamous ‘Orewa speech’, Brash challenged the entire culturalist project by campaigning in favour of a major change to the status of the Treaty of Waitangi, as well as arguing against ‘race-based’ programmes of funding in favour of ‘needs-based’ policies. Yet Brash’s challenge was always more rhetorical than real.
The problem in Brash’s approach was that despite his supposedly egalitarian demands, his parallel advocacy of the market neoliberalism made it clear he did not actually favour any sort of genuine equality. It was clear that National was never going to fund a genuine needs-based class approach. That would have meant reversing the entire economic direction that National and Labour have been committed to since the 1980s and would have required massively increasing state funding for public services and social welfare. Yet ironically, the traditional supporters of such an approach are the political left – a needs-based, and universalist, approach is a core left demand. A genuine needs-based approach by the state would actually deliver proportionately more for Maori – it would lift up the most disadvantaged Maori (who have entirely missed out due to the culturalist approach), unite Maori and pakeha, and improve the lives of all workers and poor (Edwards, 2007).
By 2010, New Zealand has had 26 years of the dual neoliberal and liberal identity politics model. But what has it achieved? The beneficiaries of the culturalist model have clearly not been ordinary Maori, but a small elite cultivated to blunt and further co-opt Maori radicalism. Maori in general have received no ‘special preferences’ at all, 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 culturalist model has proven to be a dead-end. It is time that the left began to seriously address the question of class instead. This is the best hope of offering some real solutions to the impoverishment of Maori and other groups.
Next blog post: How the liberal-left learned to love identity and ignore inequality