Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

< Columns

Who is a Maori?


As cabinet ministers traipse around the country, feverishly talking up Budget largesse in the hope it will help their re-election, they inadvertently let slip what Labour's key priorities are. A recent senior citizens' meeting was told that grants to Maori are top priority. Pasifika come in a distant second, with disadvantaged youth somewhat further behind. Ordinary Europeans, Indians, Chinese and others, who together make up a big majority of our population, don't get much of a look in.

So, let's examine the legal definition of this government's favourite citizens. Who is a Maori? Right up until passage of the Maori Affairs Amendment Act 1974, a Maori was anyone who had half Maori ethnicity or more. A half Maori could choose to be classified as a Maori or a non-Maori. Less than half, and the law said one could not legally claim to be Maori. But, from the earliest days of settlement, there was a pattern of Pakeha men marrying Maori women. Significantly more men than women were amongst the early settlers, and many married Maori women. Intermarriage within a generation reduced the number of people who could legally claim to be Maori. Some will tell you that it was disease that carried off many Maori. It did. But inter-marriage also kept reducing their numbers. The rate increased when Maori moved to the cities from the 1940s. By the 1970s, those who could claim to be Maori were fast disappearing. Skin colour at any gathering with Maori had become noticeably lighter. One rarely saw anyone with a tattoo or a moko. Maori electoral rolls contained many fewer names than the general rolls. Some Maori leaders were worried.

In 1974 Norman Kirk's government re-defined a Maori as "a person of the Maori race, and any descendant". The National Party's then spokesperson on Maori Affairs, Allan McCready, complained in Parliament - a little extravagantly - that the definition was now so wide that "anyone who rides past a marae on a pushbike can claim to be a Maori". He noted that any special privileges available to a Maori would now be available to a much wider section of the community. At the time, other MPs scoffed, but McCready turned out to be right. From 1995 the birth and deaths office collected ethnicity data based on self-identification rather than their DNA. The numbers defining themselves as Maori rose from roughly 8% of the total population in 1974 to 17% at the last census, and might exceed that if Maori have remembered to return their recent census forms.

There are now no full-blooded Maori alive, and few, if any, half Maori. The 17% of New Zealand's population who claim to be Maori all have more DNA from non-Maori ancestors. In most cases, much more. In other words, if we went back fifty years to the 1973 definition, there would be no Maori left. However, governments these days are willing to bestow special favours on all those with a Maori ancestor, no matter how far back, if they wish to be classified as a Maori. Many aren't interested; while others perceive a chance to jump ahead of people of other ethnicities in New Zealand and access the largesse being distributed by recent governments to Maori. In the newspapers and on TV, older New Zealanders keep noticing that people with little or no visible signs of being Maori claim to be Maori. New forms of self-identification are becoming common; for women a chin moko; for men a tattoo of some kind.

Because Maori numbers had declined over several generations, few spoke Te Reo. As late as 1990 the Maori dictionary was a very slender volume. The Maori Language Commission is extraordinarily busy these days churning out new words. Much so-called Te Reo that children are being taught consists of newly-created words. Instead of learning better English, Spanish or Chinese, the major languages of the modern world, they are learning a newly-created artificial language of no use anywhere else than New Zealand. Much Maori culture these days is of recent creation, not an ancient historic culture. It's being made up as they go along.

The current craze for privileging the Maori world view is being driven by the Maori elite who use it to justify themselves and their status. The Labour Party hasn't explained why the party which once prided itself on its international connections has decided instead to make the promotion of a newly-created culture with no international standing its prime reason for existence. Nor has it explained why it isn't requiring those same aristocrats to spend more of the money they receive and have pocketed over the years from the Kiwi taxpayer on promoting the health, welfare and livelihoods of the Maori people as a whole.

All my life I have viewed Maori as an integral part of New Zealand society, fully deserving of equal treatment. I protested against the decision to send the All Blacks without any Maori to South Africa in 1960; cheered Kirk's decision to withhold visas to a white-only Springbok tour coming to New Zealand in 1973; and as an MP marched against Robert Muldoon's sanctioning of a whites-only Springbok Tour in 1981. I served on the Waitangi Tribunal for a decade judging Maori claims, supporting some, rejecting others. Maori are New Zealanders like the rest of us. However, the current Labour government seems determined to drive a racial wedge into our society by constantly favouring one ethnicity and the outlandish claims about the superiority of its culture over all others. If you think there's something wrong about this government's priorities, you aren't alone. What about joining the rest of us who would like to return to a colour-blind New Zealand where members of all cultures have equal rights and equal responsibilities?