Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

< Columns

Our Media in Election Year


When the media went cap in hand to Jacinda Ardern's government with sad tales about their declining financial position, ministers responded with the Public Interest Journalism Fund (PIJF). Newspaper editors realized there was a risk that people would think that upwards of $50 million of taxpayers' money would be used to buy pro-Labour stories, especially in election year. The editors at the New Zealand Herald gave solemn undertakings to their readers that such would never be the case. However, any objective scrutiny of the Herald's conduct since then would conclude they long since decided to throw caution to the winds. A couple of their in-house journalists often appear to be mouthpieces for current ministers, while the paper's cartoonists might as well be on Labour's payroll.

This has been even more evident since the recent change in Prime Ministers. Journalists fawned over Jacinda Ardern and never highlighted her well-documented capacity to say one thing ("He Puapua hasn't been to Cabinet") while her ministers were busy implementing its recommendations. When the change came, journalists were happy to accept Chris Hipkins and laud his past achievements without being too specific about what they were. It was left to others to point out that under his watch as Minister of Education 50% of Kiwi kids were now wagging school. It's noticeable also that no journalist has questioned some of the new Prime Minister's priorities, like his rush to the wake, then the funeral of Titiwhai Harawira. At best, her record was a very mixed bag. Promoter of Te Reo; self-appointed Ngapuhi guardian of the annual Waitangi commemorations; jailed for nine months for assault and for what the judge called "arrogant and frightening abuse of her authority and power" at the Carrington mental health unit in the late 1990s; the subject of multiple shop-lifting convictions.... Didn't it occur to any journalist to question whether adulating Titiwhai might be passing the wrong message to today's young people? And what about the Prime Minister's minders? Why did they fail to remind him that his solicitude for the old stirrer might be misunderstood by those who respect law and order? Not to have been more careful surely runs the risk that Hipkins will be seen as favouring one standard of conduct for everyone else, and a lower one for Maori? An early lapse of judgement on Hipkins' part that could easily have been avoided and was a subject worth writing about?

Nor has any media outlet that I've seen probed the new Prime Minister's confusing early utterances on co-governance. Yes, journalists informed us that neither Ardern nor Hipkins seemed to know the three short clauses of the Treaty of Waitangi, something in itself I'd have thought warranted comment? Hipkins tells us that he thinks co-governance hasn't been explained adequately to the wider public who find the concept confusing. One might therefore have expected journalists to delve into what, precisely, the government meant when ministers incorporated this "misunderstood" concept into lots of Acts of Parliament over recent years? It might well have carried different meanings in different Acts. How will we ever know?

Some Maori leaders are happy to contemplate other words for co-governance. One or two hanker after using the word "partnership" for governing. Their belief comes from the erroneous notion that Queen Victoria entered into a "partnership" with Maori in 1840 rather than the reality, that by any sane reading of the Treaty, Maori surrendered sovereignty of New Zealand to her. Tainui's Tuku Morgan thinks the words "mahi tahi" which he translates as "working together" would better express what co-governance is about. Hipkins tells us he likes the term.

But of course, if the term "co-governance" can't be adequately understood by the wider public, how on earth can "mahi tahi"? Constant use of improperly translated Maori words for everyday concepts in a world where only 3% of the overall population can speak Maori fluently lies near the heart of the public's current unease with this government. The rush to re-name government departments, health facilities, universities with Maori names that almost nobody understands, not to mention the errors of fact that lie behind much of the New Zealand history curriculum signed off by Chris Hipkins as Minister of Education, and now taught in schools, is deeply worrying. People have a right to be able to comprehend the world in which they live and pay taxes. The nuts and bolts of co-governance must be spelled out by Labour's ministers. In their recent comments to journalists Maori leaders like Tuku Morgan and Ngati Whatua's Ngarimu Blair seem to prefer obfuscation of detail, hoping thereby to make off with more than Maori's fair share of authority and the government's money. In the Herald on 3 February Blair leaves us in no doubt that he is also seeking a property grab; he wants a declaration of Maori ownership of all water, and won't be happy with Maori just co-managing it. The longer this government is in power Maori demands keep ratcheting up. A clear explanation of co-governance is urgently needed. It is the responsibility of the Prime Minister to provide that. It shouldn't be left to the unelected Judiciary. Nor can it be left to interested parties to provide their own versions.

What is becoming clear is that this Labour government is swimming out of its depth. In their determination to empower Maori with legislative authority and resources beyond what their population warrants, the wider public sees a growth of racial division throughout the land. Even if the new Prime Minister manages to redefine what he means by co-governance he won't succeed in convincing 83% of the population of New Zealand that enhancing the rights of a small minority of the population over the rights of everyone else will do anything more than keep irritating the political scene. The reality is that Maori, Europeans, Pacific Islanders, Asians and those from other parts have equal rights if they are citizens of New Zealand. Article 3 of the Treaty that neither Ardern nor Hipkins seems to have read guarantees "the same rights and duties of citizenship" to all.

As they go about their jobs, media editors would be wise to remember that they owe a greater loyalty to the words of the Treaty than to the Labour government that is paying them out of the Public Interest Journalism Fund. It is public money, not a party political handout. Keep on behaving as you are and you guarantee that the PIJF will soon come to an end.