New Zealand/Aotearoa: Opposition National party leads polls against Labour government

Brash plays the race card as Labour fails Maori and working class

How could it have happened? Don Brash the former World Bank economist and Reserve Bank governor has suddenly started parading as champion of egalitarianism and taken the opposition National Party to a shock lead over Labour in the polls.

Brash’s Agenda

Brash’s concept of “equality” is, of course, extremely superficial, and extends only about as far as the slogan “one law for all” – which is basically the main underlying principle of so-called free market economics.

Brash wants to get rid of Article 2 of the Treaty of Waitangi in which the Crown pledged to safeguard Maori ownership of their lands and fisheries. This is anathema to Brash and the New Right ideologues, because in the past it has resulted in obstacles being placed in the path of trying to sell off state-owned assets, such as the North Island forestry to overseas multinationals like Carter Holt Harvey. In the case of the fisheries, and Maori control over the foreshore and seabed, Brash and National are opposed because recognition of any residual Maori title would jeopardise international free-trade agreements, such as the pro-privatisation GATS (General Agreement on Trade and Services) agreement.

As for Brash’s opposition to “race-based” funding in areas such as education, this is purely a cynical vote-catching ploy (just like his promised tax cuts for low and middle income earners). Even if the ethnic criterion for school funding were scrapped, only 0.7% of schools would see their level of government funding change. A similar result would be obtained if the ethnic weighting for funding the new Primary Health Organisations were removed, because there is such a high incidence of poverty among Maori (who have a life expectancy on average 8-9 years shorter than that of NZ Europeans).

Target government under-funding, not Maori!

However, many working class people will be asking why the Labour government felt the need to establish so-called “race-based” funding when Maori should already qualify for government assistance by virtue of being over-represented in all the official statistics (including, making up 33% of registered unemployed, and only 4% graduating high school with an A or B bursary equivalent).

Of course, this is the argument that Don Brash employs but his purpose is to cut funding for health, education etc. Socialists would argue that all workers and beneficiaries – both Maori and non-Maori – who, after all, have suffered the most from 20 years of declining real wages, privatisations and cuts to public services – should be entitled to a far greater share of Aotearoa’s wealth and resources. In areas such as health, socialists argue that all working class communities should be given access to Primary Health Organisations. These should offer free healthcare that would be integrated into the existing public health service, instead of being run by private groups of GPs, as is currently the case.

Labour abandons working class Maori, co-opts Maori corporate elite

To understand Labour’s reluctance to base its Maori policy around a struggle for genuine social and economic equality, we have to also recognise that Labour has long since ceased to be a party with a working class base and pro-capitalist leadership and has instead become a capitalist party, through-and-through.

Between 1972 and 1975, the third Labour government faced a militant and growing Maori protest movement. Its leaders were influenced by the ideas of black revolutionaries, such as Malcolm X and Franz Fanon. With the continuing alienation of Maori from their tribal lands by 1980 80% of Maori lived in urban cities, the overwhelming majority going to swell the most poorly paid and victimised sections of the working class. As a result, members of Maori protest groups, like Nga Tamatoa (the ‘Young Warriors’), saw their fight as a dual struggle to overthrow both racism and capitalism.

From 1973-1978, which saw land marches and occupations, Maori radicals coined the slogan “the Treaty is a fraud”. This was because, unlike much of the liberal left today, they saw the Treaty of Waitangi clearly for what it was – not a binding document negotiated in good faith between two equal partners – but a necessary deception to allow the peaceful introduction of British imperialism into Aotearoa.

The Labour leaders were frightened by this growing revolutionary tendency within the Maori protest movement. When they returned to power in 1984, the Labour leaders immediately set about enshrining the Treaty of Waitangi, with its emphasis on tribes or iwi (i.e. excluding most urban Maori) and property rights. They used the process of tribal land compensation payments to buy-off the emerging Maori capitalist elite. They incorporated the principle of “biculturalism” into the mainstream establishment, so as to deflect attention away from the material roots of Maori oppression and to focus, instead, on the racist ideas and actions of individual Pakeha.

The attitude of the new Maori class of “corporate warriors” was summed up by Te Maire Tau, one of the senior advisors on the board of the South Island iwi Ngai Tahu, in a recent interview published in the NZ Listener. Asked if there was any difference between Ngai Tahu and a large business corporation, Tau responded by saying that “…the challenge for us is to synthesise the traditional tribal values with corporate capitalist values…In my wildest dreams, the tribe in 50 years should be a global corporate.”

But what about Don Brash’s proposal to abolish separate Maori seats in parliament and on local councils? No problem! Tau believes “…the Treaty is all about property rights” and only members of tribal iwi (i.e. not the majority of working-class Maori) should be entitled to separate political representation.

However, Labour’s alliance with the Maori capitalist elite has foundered recently on the issue of Maori claims to the foreshore and seabed. Faced with the demand contained in the Paeroa Declaration for iwi to be awarded customary title, Labour has only been able to put forward a weak compromise solution conceding some vague meaningless notion of “customary rights” but maintaining the foreshore and seabed in Crown ownership. This is because as Auckland University professor and anti-globalisation activist, Jane Kelsey, has pointed out, Labour is worried about the reaction of overseas investors and, in particular, the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Working class solution needed

The attitude of socialists to the foreshore and seabed controversy is to reject the positions of both the Labour government and the tribal capitalist elite. Instead, we advocate united action at a grass-roots level between workers, both Maori and non-Maori, to take control of Aotearoa’s economic resources and ensure their sustainable and equitable use. This should include trade union support for land occupations and community initiatives such as the (illegal) construction of a marine farm by local Maori at Potaka Marae on East Cape, an area of intense socio-economic depravation.

On a broader scale, we call for the formation of a new mass workers’ party to cut across the racist appeal of politicians like Don Brash, as well as the hypocrisy of Labour. A new workers’ party would advocate a programme of jobs for all, combined with a massive spending boost for public services, such as health and education. At the same time, we also invite all working class people and youth to join with us in building a strong Marxist current within the wider labour and progressive movements, so as to carry forward the ideas and programme that we need to finally put an end the capitalist system – the ultimate source of all racial division and economic inequality.

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April 2004