Sunday, August 15, 2004

What Aussies are reading about our seabed and foreshore

Well, a few hundred of them, anyway. This article was commissioned by two members of the Aussie Freedom Socialist Party when they visited Auckland early this year, and appears in a lightly edited form in the latest issue of the Freedom Socialist Bulletin. The Aussie FSP doesn't seem to have a website, but its American cousins can be found here

In June 2003, the New Zealand’s Court of Appeal ruled that the customary title of Maori (Aotearoa/New Zealand’s indigenous people) to the seabed and foreshore had never been legally extinguished, and that cases relating to it could therefore be heard by the Maori Land Court. The Labour government reacted to this decision by introducing legislation to place the ownership of the foreshore and seabed in the hands of the Crown. At hui (meetings) around the country, Maori almost unanimously rejected the government’s proposals. In May of this year, Maori from all parts of Aotearoa converged on Wellington in a massive hikoi (march) timed to coincide with the passage of Labour’s legislation.

Maori saw Labour’s law as an attack on their democratic rights and on their prospects for economic advancement. By ignoring the opposition of the Maori Land Court, the Waitangi Tribunal, and dissident Maori MPs, Labour seemed to be junking institutions which many Maori still see as their best avenues for the redress of wrongs. Maori also saw Labour’s legislation as a blow to their chances of establishing fish farms and tourist resorts in their tribal areas. Maori feared that Labour’s legislation would force them to compete with multinational companies for licenses to establish fish farms and resorts on their own coasts.

Many Maori see the establishment of tribal businesses as the key to their economic future. The reasons for their identification with Maori capitalism are not hard to find.As an oppressed people, Maori have a natural tendency to identify collectively across classes against their oppressors.Labour and National smashed Aotearoa’s labour movement in the 80s and 90s, but they chose to co-opt rather than confront Maori organisations. Both parties used the so-called ‘Treaty process’ to get Maori off the streets and into the courtroom, where they were tied up in red tape. A tiny minority of Maori became ‘corporate warriors’, administering Treaty payouts as the CEOs of corporate-style tribal organisations.

The process of co-option temporarily ended the militant protests that had markedthe 70s and early 80s, but it had the longer-term effect of actually raising Maoriexpectations and strengthening Maori organisation, so that Maori have a much lower threshold of disillusionment with Labour than Pakeha (non-Maori) workers, who remain weak and demoralised. The hikoi was initially ignored or belittled by much of the media and by the political establishment. The day before the marchers reached AucklandTelevision New Zealand claimed that they would muster only sixty people to cross the city’s harbour bridge.

Despite strong winds and heavy rain, eighty times that number made the journey, walking in the footsteps of the great Land March of 1975. The hikoi to grow in size, and the final rally of 25,000 in Wellington represented Aotearoa’s biggest political demonstration in nearly a quarter of a century. By the time it had reached Wellington, the hikoi was drawing increasing support from a vocal minority of Pakeha. Contingents of Pakeha marched down Lambton Quay behind the banners of left-liberal groups like the Green Party and the Peace Movement Foundation of Aotearoa.

More importantly, the hikoi had attracted some real sympathy within sections of the trade union movement. The Service and Food Workers, Manufacturing and Construction and National Distribution Unions all backed the march. Arguments raged inside other unions, as bureaucrats fought to dampen down rank and file calls for solidarity with the hikoi. Amalgamated Workers Union leader Ray Bianchi faced a rank and file revolt over his refusal to back the hikoi.

Awestruck by the sheer scale of the last stage of the hikoi, some in the media swapped insults for saccharine pseudo-compliments. Nauseating ‘broadcaster to the nation’ Paul Holmes had rubbished the hikoi and called one of its leaders a ‘ball of lard’, but by the evening of the hikoi’s arrival in Wellington he claimed that the marchers made him feel ‘love and pride’.‘Love and pride’ did not mean much in practice. The political establishment remained united against Maori, and Labour refused to call back its legislation. But the mana (prestige) of the hikoi put huge pressure on Labour’s Maori MPs, and two of them crossed the floor of parliament, forcing Labour to stitch up a last-minute deal with the right-wing New Zealand First Party to pass its legislation.

Cabinet Minister Tariana Turia resigned from Labour altogether, and was hailed as a hero when she joined the hikoi and announced the formation of a Maori Party designed to destroy the career’s of Labour’s loyal Maori MPs. Turia has insisted that the Maori Party will be open to coalition arrangements withthe right-wing National Party, and she has welcomed the support of right-wing Maori. It seems likely her party will try to play Labour and National off against each other, in an effort to win increased funding for Maori social services and businesses.

Why has the Labour Party been prepared to forsake a big chunk of its support base, by pushing through legislation in the face of such enormous opposition? To answer this question we need to understand the pressure that US imperialism is directly and indirectly exerting on the Labour government. Labour is desperate to get a free trade deal with the US, and is determined to remove barriers to foreign investment. Aotearoa’s long and beautiful coastline presents a tempting prospect to US investors keen on making a buck from sea farming or luxury resorts.

Maori correctly believe that nationalisation of the seabed and foreshore is a prelude to leases and ultimately sales to US investors. Maori and many Pakeha remember that Helen Clark was a Minister in the Labour government that privatised dozens of public assets in the 80s, including the railways and Telecom.Because of the need to remove obstacles to investment, Labour’s ‘red tape’ strategy of the 80s is no longer a feasible way of countering Maori dissent. Labour wants to roll back the already-derisory powers of Maori-focused legal structures like the Land Court and the Waitangi Tribunal, in case they end up creating red tape for US investors.

Labour’s task is complicated by the fact that New Zealand’s bourgeoisie has installed Don Brash in the leadership of its National Party. Brash has launched an aggressive campaign on behalf of US imperialism and the US’s friends in Australia. Brash is very close to right-wingers in Australia, and his political strategy resembles John Howard’s – like Howard, Brash hides a neoliberal economic agenda inside the ‘Trojan horse’ of appeals to social conservatism and national chauvinism.

By scaremongering about the privatisation of the beaches by Maori capitalists, Brash has managed to win the support of a chunk of Labour’s white working class base. Brash plays on bad memories of the neoliberal privatisation programme of the 80s and 90s, but he would recommence that programme ifhe were elected. The core reason for Brash’s ability to manipulate Pakeha workers is not simple ignorance, but the defeat of the union movement in the 80s and 90s, and the resultant widespread loss of class consciousness.

Like Howard, Brash plays on the fears of an atomised, vulnerable electorate. Labour has begun implementing some of Brash’s policies as ‘pre-emptive strikes’ against his election campaign. Labour is prepared to sacrifice its Maori support for its larger white constituency, and in any case is unable to reconcile the interests of Maori capitalism and its commitment to the continued internationalisation of the economy.

Many Maori are aware of the imperialist monster lurking behind Labour’s confiscation legislation.Speakers at hui have compared the dispossession of the Maori to the fate of Iraqis under US occupation. On the hikoi, some of the most militant protesters wore Palestinian scarves, to show their solidarity with another people oppressed by imperialism. But in the absence of strong support from the Pakeha working class, most Maori are understandably sympathetic to Tariana Turia’s new bourgeois nationalist party.

The left could have been a bridge between Maori and the Pakeha working class, but its organisations failed to intervene effectively in the hikoi. Even in the big cities like Auckland and Wellington, the vast majority of marchers would never have seen a banner or placard with a left-wing slogan on it, or read a piece of socialist literature. The left also failed to mobilise enough of the small but significant minority of Pakeha trade unionists who were opposed to Labour’s legislation.

Many Pakeha-dominated left groups were slow to understand the extent of Maori anger about the seabed and foreshore, and those groups which did grapple with the issue often failed to deal with the contradictions of the movement. On the one hand, groups like the Green Party and the Stalinist Socialist Party of Aotearoa took a completely uncritical line towards the leadership of the Maori struggle, arguing that the development of Maori capitalism was something that both Pakeha and Maori workers should unreservedly support.

A small minority of leftists went to the opposite extreme, and refused to give any support at all to the hikoi because of its cross-class nature.A small number of socialists tried to combine support for the struggle against the theft of the seabed and foreshore with opposition to the pro-capitalist perspectives of some hikoi leaders. Trade unionist and long-time Maori activist Justin Taua was a focus for some of these socialists. At hui up and down the North Island Justin argued that a capitalist Maori Party was a dead end, and that the only way to defeat the government’s legislation was through direct action.

Along with other members of the Communist Workers Group, Justin argued that Maori should seize contested coastal sites throughout the country, and invite working class Pakeha to support them. Justin argued that any sea farming businesses should be run by workers, and pointed to the occupied factories movement in Argentina as an example to Maori. Justin’s message resonated with a number of the younger, more militant members of the hikoi, but lack ofresources prevented that support being translated into an organisational challenge to the political leadership of the hikoi.

I marched with the hikoi through Hamilton, a city of 100,000 people built in the middle of rich plain lands confiscated from Maori after the Waikato war of 1863-64. Pakeha watched from the footpaths as the huge crowd marched slowly toward the city square, singing and chanting in Maori and flying tribal flags. Homemade placards announced large contingents from isolated rural communities like Marokopa and Mokau. Hundreds of local iwi members waiting in the square welcomed the march with adeafening but perfectly choreographed haka. The All Blacks have nothing over the boys from the Waikato!

The square overflowed with protesters, but I felt a sense of sadness when I noticed how few of them had white faces. A reporter for a local Maori radio station approached me, and asked me why a Pakeha like myself had joined the hikoi. I replied that all working class New Zealanders should be concerned about the theft of the seabed and foreshore, and that Pakeha trade unionists like myself had to get involved in the hikoi. The reporter listened sympathetically, and then asked me where all the Pakeha trade unionists were hiding. I could see his point.

A speaker in the square recalled the battle of Orakau, which was fought south of Hamilton during the Waikato war. The crowd responded by chanting the words of Rewi Maniapoto, the chief who led Maori forces at Orakau: ‘Ka whawhai tonu matou, Ake! Ake! Ake!’ Rewi’s words translate as ‘We will never surrender, we will fight forever and forever!’, but Rewi wasn’t able to fight forever – he was forced to retreat from the rich lands around Hamilton into the hinterland of the North Island, and his people eventually had to do a deal with the government which saw them lose their independence and most of their land.

Rewi’s heroism was not enough to defeat the might of imperialism, and the heroism of the great seabed and foreshore hikoi was not enough to defeat the might of twenty-first century imperialism. Without the support for a strong union movement able to hit capitalism where it hurts, the great movement against imperialism’s new confiscation has for the moment been diverted onto the path of compromise.

But the conditions that produced the hikoi will not go away, and they affect Pakeha as well as Maori workers. A month or so after the end of the hikoi I stood on a picket line outside Sky City casino, in downtown Auckland, and got a glimpse of the future of the struggle against racism in Aotearoa. I work for the Service and Food Workers Union, whose Sky City members were on strike demanding better wages and conditions and increased union rights. Sky City’s US owners made record profits last year – specify – yet they pay their employees a starting rate of only $10.61 an hour, and make them work in buildings infested with fleas.

Looking about the huge picket, I was struck by the way that Sky City workers mixed ethnic diversity with class solidarity. Maori, Samoan, Tongan, European, Asian and African workers all stood together on the picket line, chanting against the bosses who had tried to divide them with individual contracts and anti-union scare mongering.At Sky City, a dynamic and militant union has been built from scratch in a few short years, in the face of unfriendly labour laws and bosses’ harassment. It is no coincidence that the Sky City workers’ union is one of the few which officially supported the Maori struggle against the seabed and foreshore. Sky City’s workers know what Maori are up against.

A common enemy demands a common struggle, and the job of socialists should be to unite Maori and Pakeha workers against the imperialist carve-up of Aotearoa. We need to take the fighting spirit of the Sky City picket line onto the foreshore of Aotearoa.

Kirsty

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