Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

< Columns

Kelvin Davis exposes the flaws in Labour's Maori Policy


When Kelvin Davis addressed a conference of indigenous Australians yesterday it is doubtful whether the Minister for Maori Crown Relations intended to damage the credibility of his government's Maori policies, but that's what he did. If the New Zealand Herald is to be believed, first, he used an incorrect translation of the Treaty of Waitangi instead of the Sir Hugh Kawharu translation that the previous Labour government celebrated at the 150th anniversary of its signing in 1990. Davis claimed that Article Three of the Treaty guaranteed Maori "the same rights and privileges of British subjects". In fact, Article Three guarantees Maori "the same rights and duties of citizenship". Small difference in wording, I agree, but the mention of "duties" is significant when it comes to Maori rights. These days all too many Maori spokespeople prefer to interpret the Treaty as promising Maori an armchair ride to prosperity rather than something they have to work for, like other New Zealanders.

Davis is one of them. In his speech he went on to explain that under the Treaty Maori had 'the right to an education that led to outcomes as good as those of any other New Zealander, and the right to a health system that allowed Maori to live as long as any other New Zealander. The focus had to be on equity of outcomes, not just equality". Where on earth did Davis get these ideas? The thought that Queen Victoria's representative in 1840 was promising such a life to Maori at a time when their average life expectancy was about 30 years and almost none could read or write is preposterous. What the Treaty did promise was the same opportunities for Maori as for British people. Early Maori leaders like Sir James Carroll, Sir Apirana Ngata, Sir Peter Buck and Sir Maui Pomare understood this. Ngata often told his Maori supporters that if they worked and adapted the knowledge gleaned from the British to their own customs they, too, would thrive. He was always sceptical about welfare for Maori, believing that easy money would sap their initiative. Carroll was acting Prime Minister for lengthy periods in the first decade of the Twentieth Century. Ngata was the first Maori graduate in law; Buck and Pomare in medicine. Collectively, they kept reminding Maori they could achieve just like Pakeha. Kelvin Davis, who was once a school principal, could be preaching the same message. But he isn't. He prefers to follow the welfare route; his vision seems to be that Maori will get ahead if governments shower them with special privileges.

Davis is telling Maori that they can continue to produce babies outside stable family environments; have disproportionally high numbers of fetal-alcohol syndrome babies; fail to vaccinate them; make less use of free medical services for children; smoke more than Pakeha; have high "Did Not Show" statistics for specialist appointments at public hospitals; continue to tolerate a world where more than 50% of Maori children truant from school each day; and be over-represented amongst the ram-raiders and the Hawke's Bay burglars; and still get ahead. Despite evidence of manifold failures to avail themselves of the opportunities available to them, Davis' government will "focus on equity of outcomes, not just equality". I suspect that Ngata, Buck and Pomare would swiftly tell him he was on a hiding to nowhere, and that Maori leaders like him who fail to stress the need for effort and hard work are guilty of gross dereliction of duty. And they'd be right. Kelvin Davis is deliberately misleading his people. In fact, life wasn't meant to be easy; everyone needs to put in effort.

Where has Davis got the notion from that it is possible to guarantee any people "equity of outcomes" no matter what choices they personally make in life? No other country has such a policy for the very basic reason that it just can't work. Any scientist worth her salt will tell him that people aren't born with equal talents. Equal rights? Yes. But not equal talents. Their success in life depends on what their parents did with their opportunities, and how much nurturing the children got from both their parents.

Sadly, Davis is one of the blunter knives in this government's drawer. By continuing to recite that unattainable mantra he also calls into question his ministry's preoccupation with promoting co-governance. How can our country recover the ground lost in the pandemic and in the storms if significant numbers of the decision-makers' only qualification to be in charge is their ethnic make-up? We know of course that many Maori have made an effort and have succeeded in life. Good. That means they can qualify for roles in governance on the grounds of their ability, not their ethnicity. Then in governing roles they are just as accountable to the wider public as non-Maori. Just what Article Three of the Treaty envisaged.