New Zealand/Aotearoa: Imperialism, racism and resistance

Labour appeals to “national unity” while waging war on workers at home and abroad

These days, many NZ politicians are wrapping themselves up in the New Zealand flag in order to try and gain support for unpopular economic policies among the general public. For some time now, Prime Minister Helen Clark, and her colleagues in the New Labour government, has enthusiastically supporting colonial adventures in Afghanistan, the Solomon Islands and post-invasion Iraq.

Ostensibly, this is done on the basis that “our” (NZ’s) participation will help to ensure standards of democracy and human rights are upheld in these countries. In reality, of course, NZ’s involvement has only added legitimacy to the so-called ‘Bush doctrine’ of armed intervention in the affairs of other sovereign countries, so as to contain a “terrorist threat” which may or may not emerge at some point.

Now, in the wake of the foreshore and seabed debate (over the question of Maori rights) and the 20,000 strong hikoi, or protest march, on the issue, to parliament, Labour is again stoking the fires of Kiwi (NZ) nationalism. This is a bid to divert attention away from the problems of low pay and lack of access to basic services, such as health and education, which are keenly felt among the working class population of NZ/Aotearoa.

Maori living in rural areas, such as Potaka on the East Cape, where there is widespread unemployment, have tried to support themselves by setting up marine farms in the coastal waters bordering their tribal lands – and for this Labour has vigorously persecuted them through the Environment Court and the Resource Management Act.

Instead of doing something about the lack of infrastructure and employment in a region which is certainly not short of natural economic resources, the government prefers to hide behind empty rhetoric about “protecting access to the foreshore and seabed for all New Zealanders”. But what exactly does this guarantee of public access mean? It means the ‘right’ of the state to prevent working people from trying to gain access to the means of their own economic subsistence (which the government itself refuses to provide).

Unlike Labour, the people of Potaka Marae have repeatedly declared their willingness to share in the harvest of kai moana with all the people – both Maori and Pakeha. But the capitalist politicians (along with their allies within ‘Maoridom’, such as Sir Tipene O’Reagan and Shane Jones) cannot conceive of a system of resource allocation, which is based on the right of all people to enjoy use of the foreshore and seabed subject to the overall planning and direction of the local community.

What Labour and much of the Pakeha left (including the Alliance Party and even some ostensibly revolutionary socialist groups) have not grasped is that nationalising the foreshore and seabed under capitalist state control will not be a real solution (the capitalist state allowed the looting of NZ’s forestry, electricity and rail transport industries by government-appointed corporate advisors and financial consultants). The idea of the state as a neutral and benevolent force in NZ society is fundamentally flawed, as even a cursory glance at our history will show.

Rise of a labour aristocracy

The policies of “state socialism” introduced under the first Liberal Government (1891-1911), and so admired today by reformist political and trade union leaders – including votes for women, the 8-hour day and compulsory arbitration in industrial disputes – were made possible only on the basis of super-profits derived from a thorough-going imperialist policy towards both Maori and the other peoples of the Pacific and due to the threat from the working class.

The first and most essential precondition for the establishment of British imperialism in Aotearoa was the separation of the indigenous people or tangata whenua from the land – creating a ready supply of cheap land and raw materials for white settlers, as well as a reserve army of indigenous labour which could be drawn upon to fill the low-status or low-paid jobs. Therefore it should come as no surprise that the leaders of the early European labour movement in Aotearoa were racist.

One of the principal demands which the trade union leaders successfully lobbied for during the 1880s was the so-called “White New Zealand” immigration policy directed mainly against Chinese workers who had begun to arrive with the opening up of the Otago and West Coast goldfields two decades earlier.

The tremendous returns generated by the wealthy pastoralists and dairy farmers at the expense of Maori eviction from their tribal lands created a large economic surplus which was then used to influence a substantial section of the Pakeha working class. Rather than making common cause with their Polynesian brothers and sisters in the struggle against British imperialism this section of the better off working class allied themselves to it. Thus the Fabian socialist, William Pember Reeves, rose to become a cabinet minister under the Lib-Lab administration of Richard (‘King Dick’) Seddon, who tried on numerous occasions to annex Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and even Hawaii on behalf of New Zealand.

Multi-lateral imperialism

Just like Labour government today, however, Seddon and the Liberals never advocated unilateral action as a means of furthering New Zealand’s imperialist ambitions. Instead they sought to exercise power and influence through broader international bodies. In Seddon’s case this took the form of a grand project for an ‘Imperial Federation’ in which white settler colonies, such as New Zealand, would be able to exercise a vote on British foreign and defence policy, as well as taking responsibility for administering parts of the Empire.

When this eventually fell through the New Zealand government sought instead to channel its foreign policy through the League of Nations, obtaining a mandate for the former German colony of Western Samoa after the conclusion of World War I.

Here the New Zealand capitalists showed themselves to be every bit as ruthless as their more powerful British and North American cousins. From the mid-1920s onwards, the colonial authorities in Western Samoa were faced with a powerful independence movement known as the Samoa League or ‘O le Mau’.

The Mau adopted the slogan of ‘Samoa mo Samoa’ – Samoa for the Samoans – and led boycotts of New Zealand-owned stores, as well as refusing to pay taxes or to help with the harvest of copra, the colony’s main export crop. The independence movement came to head when in 1929 New Zealand military police opened fire on an unarmed demonstration in the Samoan capital Apia, killing 8 and wounding dozens of others.

Some 70 years after the event, Helen Clark’s Labour government issued an official apology to the Samoan people over the 1929 massacre. But then Clarke showed how sincere they were by refusing to rescind the 1982 law introduced by the conservative Muldoon government, which deprived over 100,000 Samoans of their claims to New Zealand citizenship.

This is the real logic at work behind Labour’s recent deployment of military forces to Afghanistan and Iraq, under the auspices of the United Nations. Far from safeguarding human rights and democracy, the real reason for New Zealand becoming involved in these conflicts is to try and obtain multinational support for imperialist expansion in its own backyard – the Pacific. In conjunction with Australia the NZ Labour government has been trying for some time now to impose greater control over the economies of the Pacific Island states through a mixture of fiscal and military measures.

Promoting illusions in Kiwi nationalism

Regrettably, the leadership of the left-wing and workers’ movements in Aotearoa today still remain wedded to the idea that New Zealand is a country which does not oppress other nations or peoples and staunchly adheres to the “great Kiwi values” of mutual co-operation and ‘fair play’. This is how the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions (NZCTU) is framing its campaign to support Labour’s proposed Employment Relations Law Reform Bill. This Bill would bring in some modest improvements, protecting vulnerable workers from contracting out and making it harder for employers to undermine collective agreements by passing on the same terms and conditions to non-union members.

Instead of critically supporting the legislation as a step towards the re-introduction of the closed shop, and the setting of national awards for minimum industry wages and conditions, the NZCTU has launched itself into an orgy of flag-waving patriotism proclaiming its desire to help find solutions for raising New Zealand’s economic competitiveness in partnership with the government and big business. With only one or two honourable exceptions, the NZCTU affiliates have completely failed to oppose Labour’s foreshore and seabed legislation, which is designed to cut the working class out of any effective use of a vital economic resource.

Even the Green Party, which makes a great show of opposing NZ involvement in the imperialist occupation of Iraq, has failed to consistently oppose imperialism nearer to home (for instance, in the case of the Solomon Islands invasion and now over the foreshore and seabed issue). While correctly opposing the government’s foreshore legislation, the Greens based their opposition entirely on the so-called “principles of the Treaty of Waitangi”, which they interpret as a partnership or shared sovereignty between the British Crown and the Maori tribes or iwi.

These kinds of constitutional objections only help to obscure the real history of imperialism in Aotearoa, in which the Treaty of Waitangi merely played the part of a clever deception to mask the British settlers’ real motives. Moreover, the idea that the two signatories to the Treaty – the British Crown and the Maori chiefs or rangatira – are today capable of representing the interests of workers (Maori and non-Maori) is totally false. Unfortunately, even some socialist groups, who should know better, have joined the Greens in treating the Maori protest movement as a single homogenous and progressive entity.

A clear class approach is even more important given the new Maori political party established by former Labour MP Tariana Turia. It is vital to draw a clear class line between the capitalist leadership, which includes such figures as Anglican clergyman Professor Whatarangi Winiata, and the well known corporate lawyer Donna Hall, and the masses of working class Maori, who will undoubtedly support it as an alternative to the right wing economic policies of both Labour and the National (Tories).

For a united workers’ resistance against capitalism and imperialism

In order to consistently oppose imperialism, both at home and abroad, the left in Aotearoa needs not only to oppose imperialist policies but also to challenge the right of capitalist politicians to make these policy decisions. In the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, this means calling not only for the withdrawal of NZ troops but also upholding the right of worker’s and peasants in those countries take up arms in self defence – against both the coalition forces and the Islamic reactionaries.

In Aotearoa, the anti-imperialist programme takes the form of mobilising trade union and grass roots community support for working class Maori to take back control of vital economic resources, such as the foreshore and seabed, and to place them under democratic workers’ control. We also need to construct a genuine socialist organisation to co-ordinate these struggles, and to combat the ideology of racism and nationalism within the broader working class and progressive movements.

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June 2004