Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

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Archbishop Desmond Tutu: His Message for Jacinda's Government


It was hard not to be moved by the death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu last week. The tributes to him captured the essentials of the man: his extraordinary energy, his infectious laugh, his unwavering message of equal rights for all people, his unfailing opposition to racial segregation in all its forms. He visited New Zealand in the early 1980s, and I had the privilege of meeting him and talking about apartheid in South Africa. As an MP I had recently visited the country, and I made two more visits, one in 1983 and another in 1990. I wanted to understand precisely how apartheid worked. Tutu gave me advice on what to look out for, which I took. Having lived in the American south in the early 1960s, I had seen the ways in which insidious rules, often referred to as "Jim Crow" rules, made opportunities unequal for people with black skins. Tutu's smile broadened as I outlined some of the things I'd seen in America, his head nodding vigorously.

What surprised me this last week was that some of the New Zealanders who spoke so warmly about his visit to New Zealand in the 1980s haven't said a word in criticism of the steps toward apartheid in this country that have been taken by Jacinda Ardern's government. Nanaia Mahuta directs the strategy, and cabinet ministers and caucus supporters fall into line. Laws that bestow privileges on groups of people on the basis of race, however slender their qualifying Maori DNA component might be, are just as offensive in principle as those introduced by South Africa's Dr Hendrik Verwoerd to privilege the white minority of that country. True, we haven't gone as far as Verwoerd yet, but we have started down the slippery slope towards racial separatism, and there is an urgent need to stop it before race relations become too polarized in New Zealand. If left unchecked, separatism will eventually lead to violence. It's a fair bet that had Archbishop Tutu read He Puapua, the Labour Government's undeclared road map towards separatism, he would have warned against it.

The year 2021 began with Mahuta's determination to ride over the top of local referenda that had rejected separate Maori wards for local government. Her Three Waters plans are to confiscate local authority assets and place them in entities drawn along tribal boundaries. With a strong wind behind them, Maori numbers reach 17% of our total population. They would be given equal voting rights over those assets with the 83% of the total population who aren't Maori. Plans are currently underway to erect two racially divided health systems in the country. One will govern for those with a Maori ancestor, the other for all the rest of us, but with a Maori veto in case things proposed for the 83% don't meet with approval by those in charge of the 17%. Already taxpayers' money is distributed to various Maori health groups according to rules that are much less rigorously monitored than those applied to everyone else.

A major part of the problem New Zealanders face is that there is only a relative handful of us who have actually seen racial segregation at close quarters. We all accept Article Three of the Treaty of Waitangi that promised Maori "the same rights and duties of citizenship as the people of England". Of course, the Treaty hasn't always been adhered to by all New Zealanders. Yes, Maori have suffered from racial discrimination. But in the past, whenever examples have been revealed publicly of racially-based actions against Maori, the public with the media in the vanguard, have shamed the racists into change. Think back to the hulabaloo when Dr Henry Rongomau Bennett, the superintendent of Tokanui Hospital, was refused a beer at a Papakura hotel in 1959 because he was a Maori. The Labour Prime Minister of the day, Walter Nash, stepped in and criticized the hotel which fell into line and served Maori. The New Zealand Herald played a major role in publicizing that issue. Ask the public, and it's a fair bet that most people have always believed in equal rights.

And yet today, Jacinda Ardern, Walter Nash's Labour successor, is happily tripping down the road towards racial discrimination in many areas. She tells us that He Puapua is not the government's official policy, but virtually everything her government does is in line with that document's aim to over-ride the principle of one-person-one-vote. Jacinda's goal is transparent for anyone who cares to read the document: the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders are to be subjected to rule by a largely un-elected Maori minority.

Where is the New Zealand Herald in all this? Forgetting its former role as part of the nation's conscience, and happily pocketing money from the Public Interest Journalism Fund, lionizing the Archbishop as a celebrity, but deaf to his message and principles.