Should it be 'Wanganui' or 'Whanganui'? This was the crucial question that was taxing the minds of politicians, media commentators and talkback callers for most of this week.

What was so irritating about this issue was that, despite the torrent of words, the real issues that underscored the debate got ignored.

This debate largely allowed the Maori elite, represented by the likes of the Maori Party and media commentators like John Tamihere and Willie Jackson and activists like Ken Mair, to portray themselves as the true voices of Maori, seeking to 'liberate' their people from yet another symbol of white oppression.

It was predictable that middle class white liberals all wheeled in behind the Maori elite - the very same Maori elite that have attacked, over time, trade unions, the welfare state and the environmental movement - among other groups. These are the same liberals who think of themselves as 'left wing' or 'progressive' while still supporting the neoliberal Labour Party. The lack of real critical thinking was sorely apparent. Just the mention of anything Maori and white liberals start wringing their hands in guilt.

My three readers will know that I am impressed by the work of Professor Elizabeth Rata from the University of Auckland.

Her research has identified what is essentially a new Maori capitalism. Professor Rata refers to this as a 'neotribal capitalist regime of accumulation.' Writes Professor Rata:

Under neotribal capitalism, this access to what paltry resources have been returned to Maori is effectively exclusively controlled by the new tribal capitalist elite. Even if ownership of resources is nominally owned by the whole tribe (the corporate tribe, and not an individual, is the legal owner), and even if iwi members have a shareholding in the business, the undemocratic nature of neotribal capitalist business ensures that working class iwi do not have any real say in the corporate iwi head office.

It was the fourth Labour Government that began the process of co-opting the newly-emerging Maori elite into the capitalist structure and the official policy of biculturalism has resulted in a dramatic expansion of opportunities for middle class professional Maori, in the state apparatus, education system, health and the media.

These are the very same Maori, the John Tamihere's and Tariana Turia's, who have been campaigning on the basis of what is commonly referred to as cultural nationalism - an emphasis on Maori culture and identity.

But the focus on Maori culture has been at the cost of any real struggle for real economic and social change. Indeed the cultural nationalism of the Maori Party actively discourages any struggle for real change and implicitly reinforces the status quo.

This destructive emphasis on Maori identity and culture is of no threat at all to New Zealand capitalism which has easily absorbed it into the political system.

In 2007 Bryce Edwards, a Political Science lecturer at the University of Otago, observed:

New Zealand has now had 20 years of politically-correct state biculturalism. What has it achieved? Far from resolving the social crisis confronting Maori, the process has helped widen the social gulf between rich and poor. State-organised 'bi-culturalism' and the Waitangi settlements process has created a small but relatively wealthy and influential Maori elite which boasts assets worth $NZ25 billion. At the same time, Maori workers, like the rest of the working class, have suffered the consequences of two decades of economic restructuring that have produced especially high levels of unemployment and poverty and gutted public welfare, education and health services. After two decades of official biculturalism Maori deprivation remains as entrenched as ever. Unemployment among Maori is officially 10 percent, 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.

Its a pity that the mainstream media didn't go to someone like Professor Rata or Dr Edwards to put the Wanganui debate into some kind of context. I guess they thought that the largely emotional and less than coherent views of Michael Laws, the Wanganui mayor, would make a 'better' spectacle on television.

Then again, left wing viewpoints get shut out of most debates so its just par for the course.

But the media's dishonesty allows the wealthy and conservative Maori elite to present themselves as 'liberators' when they are nothing of the sort. It lets the likes of John Tamihere, strongly anti-left wing and hostile to the welfare state, to portray themselves as authentic representatives for all Maori. It's a con job.

But its worse than that.

By reducing the struggle for equality to just a fight against prejudice, the fight is reduced to a fight against institutions and individuals and not the system that perpetuates that oppression. It suggests- wrongly -that the fundamental cause of Maori inequality and racism against Maori can be reduced to a clash of cultures.

The danger with this of course, is that Pakeha and Pakeha culture becomes the enemy and not the system itself. Is it little wonder then someone like Michael Laws can whip up resentment among the white working class who feel they are under attack?

But the strategy of cultural nationalism has been adopted by the wealthy and upwardly mobile Maori elite because it allows them to present Maori as one homogenous group with the same interests and concerns. But what has the Maori woman signing up on the dole in South Auckland got in common with millionaire Willie Jackson? Nothing.

Her interests, and the interests of the ordinary Maori, lie in forging an alliance with the white working class against the system that exploits both ordinary Maori and Pakeha.

The cultural nationalism of the Maori elite has not only done nothing to improve the economic position of ordinary Maori, it leaves them trapped in a political cul-de-sac. Meanwhile the Maori elite continue to line their pockets while, at the same time, continuing to support the neoliberal economic policies of government.


  1. I would be very wary of Rata's work, which makes use of concepts based in a very mechanical, economistic version of Marxism to score right-wing points. Her whole intellectual project derives from personal animus, and her book, which only uses a couple of case studies to back its generalisations, has been questioned on empirical as well as methodological grounds by many Maori scholars.

    The basic problem with the analysis you advance is not that it's wrong - it's not completely wrong - but that it's grossly simplistic. There is no single Maori elite, no single 'Treaty process', and no easily definable 'cultural nationalism' at work within Maoridom.

    I would look at Jane Kelsey (particularly her essay in Nga Patai) and Evan Poata-Smith rather than Rata or (!) Bryce Edwards for an account of the effects of the attempts to co-opt the Maori protest movement over the past 25 years. But it would better still to study one aspect of this complex process in detail, rather than rushing to generalisations that produce nice-sounding political soundbites but have very little analytic bite.

  2. Rata has looked at how policies that were intended to liberate indigenous peoples have actually led to the formation of wealthy elites.

    I note she has often been attacked by the academic and political elite that have promoted culturalism over the past two decades or so.

    To smear her arguments as 'right wing' is well wide of the mark.

    Similarly, Bryce Edwards has written at length on Maori politics and to dismiss his arguments as 'mechanistic Marxism' is also entirely wrong.

  3. Hi Steve,

    I'm not suggesting Bryce's work is necessarily anything - just doubting whether anybody (including himself) would consider him an authority on Maori society and politics.

    Rata's work certainly is informed by a very mechanical Marxism, and certainly has been appropriated by the right. Rata herself has facilitated this process, as her various op-ed pieces for the Herald have shown.

    Far from being an outsider titling against some academic elite, she has been very successful as an academic, is able to place articles in the MSM, and enjoys the ear of policy-makers in the National and Act parties.

    Getting back to the subject at hand, though - what I was trying to suggest (perhaps not very eloquently) was that you have failed to engage with the specifics of the situation in Whanganui. Here we have a group of people - undeniably amongst the poorest and most marginalised in the country - who have been campaigning for at least one hundred and seven years (council records show them presenting an argument in 1902) against what they see as a racist attack on their history and culture.

    Wouldn't it be worth trying to understand why these people feel so strongly about this issue, rather than simply telling them that they oughtn't be bothered, and are in some way the tools of Tariana Turia and Ken Mair? There is a real material base for the sense of oppression and difference that Maori in areas like Whanganui feel, and this can't simply be dismissed with calls to class unity.

    My own view is here:

    Some interesting replies in the comments boxes.

  4. I didn't intend to write about the specifics of the Wanganui issue rather the cultural nationalism and 'identity politics' that seemed to inform much of the debate.

    I'm also not trying to tell anyone anything but it is also quite clear that the beneficiaries of 'biculturalism' has been a small elite of Maori business people, politicians and civil servants. I'm sure you wouldn't deny that?

    Maori nationalism and 'identity politics' is a political dead end for ordinary working class Maori.

    That was my main point.

  5. I don't see that all campaigns involving Maori cultural grievances and demands have been a dead-end: to take an obvious example, who would now argue against the 1987 Maori Language Act, or the kohanga reo movement, both of which grew out of decisions by the Waitangi Tribunal? Without the 1987 Act the Maori language would probably now be in a very bad state.

    I have met many Maori people, none of them wealthy, who have been very happy that they or their tamariki or mokopuna have been able to access an education in a language that was repressed for a long time. The 1987 Act and the free education which children and adults can receive in Maori would not have happened without a long-running campaign.

    There are many other products of campaigns based around cultural grievances that have been beneficial to ordinary Maori: one that I am familiar with is the struggle to reclaim taonga appropriated by museums, and to gain a say in the management of mseums and other similar institutions, so that they do not distort history and misuse artefacts.

    Maori from Whanganui tell me that they remember the killings and expropriations of the nineteenth century and the institutionalised racism of the twentieth century every time they hear the name of their home mispronounced. I can understand why they want the name changed.

    Obviously, I don't think that campaigns based around cultural grievances and demands are the only solution to Maori problems.
    I'm not sure who would hold such a peculiar view. Certainly Syd Jackson, who helped kickstart the long campaign for language rights, wouldn't: he was a socialist and a trade unionist.

    Political unity between ordinary Maori and Pakeha in bitterly divided communities like W(h)anganui can surely only come if the Pakeha majority begins to acknowledge longstanding Maori oppression and makes space for the Maori as well as the Pakeha history and culture in the public spaces of the area.

  6. The point remains - over two decades of official biculturalism has not improved the economic conditions of Maori. Like working class Pakeha they have suffered under the neoliberal economic policies of both both Labour and National governments.

    The only Maori to have benefited has been a small elite - who, not surprisingly, support these economic policies.

    There's nothing 'complex' about this.

  7. But there isn't a necessary causal connection between the economic situation you cite and things like the Maori Language Act of 1987, is there? I fail to see how you think progressive pieces of legislation like this are part of neo-liberalism. You might as well argue that the Homosexual Law Reform Bill or feminist-inspired legislation of the '80s were part of neo-liberalism.

    Why can't campaigning based around cultural grievances and human rights be combined with a left-wing approach to economic matters? As I say, most of the people who pushed the language rights movement were lefties.

    And you ignore my point that many Maori have benefited from policies designed to rectify injustices of the past - eg, the Maori Language Act and the kohanga reo and free education in Maori it has led to. I think that in this day and age free education for adults is something very progressive.


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