Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns

Current Difficulties


Many modern political questions defy easy answers. Nor do they lend themselves to widespread public debate. Some require difficult choices. It's an unfortunate fact of life that most New Zealanders spend few waking hours thinking about political issues. They elect central and local representatives to run things, and jealously guard the three-year election cycle so that they can reject them if they disappoint. In the meantime they sound off. It isn't always a pretty sight.

Last week two issues where people made visceral rather than informed judgements dominated the news. The foreshore and seabed is the most obvious recent victim of an ill-informed public. In a convoluted judgement on 19 June 2003 that most of the Appeal Court judges probably now wish they had expressed more cogently, they found that Maori title to the foreshore and seabed might not have been entirely extinguished in the nineteenth century despite a public perception amongst all Pakeha and most Maori that it had been. Maori were told they possessed a right to argue individual cases before the Maori Land Court, but that this would be difficult. The number of Maori or Pakeha who read the Court's ruling could be fitted into a very small room. Instead, an over-blown sense of entitlement that has been fostered during 30 years of apologetic government and Treaty-related policies convinced many Maori that the court had instantly awarded them title to the seabed and foreshore, and that the Labour government which has been extraordinarily generous to them over four years, planned to steal it back. After months of expostulation, endless hui where ministers were abused up hill and down dale, and with the opportunity still to make submissions on the Bill, 15,000 people calling themselves Maori paraded through Wellington shouting, threatening and spitting at ministers and the general public. In reality, Maori gain more from the Bill than they lose. It's everyone else who has cause to feel aggrieved.

Yet, one of the hikoi leaders told a journalist that the issue could have been solved if only the government had "talked the issue through". Who with? Neither he, nor any other Maori, nor any group of them, enjoys a mandate to negotiate anything. As a group they seem to have mastered only the art of shouting "No!" Confusing utterances from those on the hikoi told me that the majority were there for the rumble, not for rational debate. Sadly, the younger, better-educated Maori leaders thrust up by the urbanising process - people like John Tamihere, Shane Jones and Te Maire Tau - have been sidelined by the tribal approach to Maori issues fostered since the 1980s. Well-informed Maori leadership has been pitifully absent from the foreshore debate. Until incentives exist for Maori to fashion a leadership structure with which rational, binding negotiations can occur, last week's futile gesture will recur, and the country will be the poorer. Maybe a new Maori party could provide that leadership? But it will take time.

Not that last week's other issue - National's proposal to prise open the issue of American ship visits - showed other New Zealanders in a better light. Labour ministers tried to ridicule National's report, using the same sleight of hand as Maori on the hikoi. The days when Robert Muldoon invited American nukes into our waters in order to benefit politically from resulting protests are long gone. The nuclear weapons on American surface vessels also went in 1991. American naval ships are now coming on stream that aren't nuclear powered either, and even the older ones that still have nuclear power are less of a threat than we all believed twenty years ago. Our own extensive study undertaken by Mr Justice Somers in 1992 showed there were many more threats to life and limb within everyday Auckland and Wellington. But a distressingly large number of Pakeha are no more prepared to accept the reality that our 1987 legislation against nuclear ships has passed its sell-by date, than Maori are willing to acknowledge their gross exaggeration on the foreshore.

New Zealanders can be a mentally slothful lot. In between elections debate is frequently left to the strident and the unruly. Futility will greet Maori until they work carefully through issues; and our country as a whole won't be taken seriously anywhere in the world until we realise that new developments over time require us constantly to re-assess policies. Democracy, after all, will only survive if it is based upon informed consent.