Labour can’t keep blaming critics for reacting to their Māori co-governance plans. The changes are now so significant they warrant a proper debate. For that to happen, Labour needs to grow up and stop hinting its opponents are racist.
Up to now, Labour’s got away with suggesting Act and National are the ones responsible for stirring up racial angst. For a while, that felt true, with Judith Collins touring National Party regional conferences giving speeches on a document no one had really heard of.
But this week Labour’s blame shifting started to fall flat.
He Puapua is no longer a conspiracy theory trotted out by the opposition parties. It is now on the agenda. Labour has put it there.
The document went to Cabinet last month, and on Thursday, Māori Development Minister Willie Jackson gave a speech dealing with it publicly. He announced He Puapua is not government policy, but the recommendations could be, depending on whether we want it to be. He won’t rule out anything in the report: a separate Māori Parliament, separate Māori courts, Māori governance over fisheries, and so on.
Obviously some of that will not fly politically, but his refusal to rule anything out means everything’s up for debate.
Within hours of that speech, voters then became aware of a new Cabinet rule for government agencies: 5 per cent of their contracts need to go to Māori business. A Māori business is any business with 50 per cent Māori ownership, or one classified as a Māori authority.
The target was agreed by Cabinet in December. In the past few weeks, government agencies started emailing contractors asking if they qualify as Māori businesses. These agencies include the Defence Force and Waka Kotahi.
This stuff is almost certainly going to anger people. It’s hardly going to lead to a more cohesive society, which is apparently the aim of the proposed hate speech laws.
But, how cohesive will society become if a Pākeha business owner (or one of any other ethnicity frankly) suspects they’ve lost a long-standing contract with a government agency because the agency needs to hire a Māori business to meet a target. Instead of putting it down to fair competition and enterprise, race suddenly becomes a suspicion.
In any case, you have to wonder what the point is? Preferring Māori-owned businesses is unlikely to help people out of poverty given those people are unlikely to be the ones running businesses contracted to the government.
Probably the most important piece written about Labour’s reasonably radical push on race relations also appeared this week. In a piece for the Democracy Project, Auckland University Professor Elizabeth Rata warned we are at a crossroads. We must decide whether we want New Zealand to remain a democratic-nationalist country or become an ethno-nationalist one. In the former, there is only one political category of people: citizens. We all have the same entitlements as each other. In the latter, there are separate political categories of people based on ethnicity. And in that future, not everyone is treated the same. Some groups – or just the one group – are given special entitlements not available to others, maybe for the reason that they got here first.
Professor Rata warns that if we adopt the recommendations of He Puapua – and establish separate Māori systems – we are choosing the latter. We are politicising ethnicity. We are deciding some groups are allowed to have things and powers that others aren’t allowed to.
Arguably, we are already well down that path. That’s obvious from the fact that it was hardly controversial for many that the Government announced it will set up a separate Māori Health Authority with veto power over the national health system.
Professor Rata has done has us a huge service. She’s explained in simple terms what it is that we are debating in He Puapua and what our choices will lead to.
But now Labour needs to allow that debate without branding or even suggesting that critics are racist. They are not. Carrying out the document’s recommendations will lead to significant constitutional change and finally end the pretence of equality between all ethnicities.
In fact, Labour might want to reflect on whether the Act Party is right to accuse Labour of being the ones to create ethnic division.
If Labour finds the reaction to its proposals unsettling, it might want to reflect on how unsettling its proposals are.
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