Leave the Kahui whanau alone
We still don't know who killed the Kahui twins, but we do know the forces responsible for the destruction of the mana of the Kahui family. Journalists and politicians have devoted tens of thousands of words and hundreds of hours to the demonisation of a poor South Auckland family which had already suffered more than most Kiwi families could endure.
Even before the bodies of their children were cold, the Kahuis were being subjected to a campaign of harrassment by journalists and the police. Reporters staked out two family homes, and gatecrashed the tangi held last week for the twins. When the Kahuis understandably declined to talk to them, the journalists decided to interview their keyboards instead, and produced a string of inflammatory and highly speculative 'revelations' about the family. We were told that family members were raging alcoholics, because a few beer cans were lying about outside their home in Mangere; we were informed that they were child abusers, because a dirty nappy was found in their front yard; and we were told that they were 'the tip of an iceberg' of 'Maori abuse' because, well, they were Maori. Reports of the grief the twins' parents and grandfather had shown in Starship Hospital were quietly forgotten in the rush to demonise the Kahuis as vicious drunks.
Not wanting to be outdone by the journos, the police did their bit to make the lives of this bereaved family hellish. They bullied the father of the twins, who was still in a state of shock and consequently quite incoherent, into taking part in a long interview without any legal representative shortly after the death of his kids. When the Kahuis hired the young man a lawyer and demanded access to the tape of his interview, the police refused to hand it over, preferring to make dark hints about its contents. When, in response to this blatant attempt at intimidation, the Kahuis refused to talk further with the police, the cops fed journalists and politicians stories about a 'conspiracy of silence' and a family determined to 'get away with murder'.
Politicians have flocked to the Kahui 'story' like flies to a dungheap. In parliament, in the Beehive and on talkback radio around the country, we have heard them condemning the Kahui family and calling child abuse a 'Maori problem'. Of course, this sort of behaviour is par for the course for a certain section of New Zealand's political elite. National leaders have always been keen on Maori-bashing, and the seabed and foreshore crisis of 2003 showed that Labour could play the same game with aplomb. This time, though, some Maori leaders and politicians of the 'left' have chosen to jump on the anti-Maori bandwagon. The Maori Party has outdone even the Nats in the viciousness with which it has attacked the Kahui family. Maori Party MP Pita Sharples has emerged as the chief tormentor of the Kahuis, appearing on TV and radio to bag the family using the most derogatory of terms.
Shortly after the death of the twins, Sharples barged into the Kahui home at seven in the morning, and was shocked to discover a family member asleep on the living room couch after drinking a few beers. For this dreadful crime alone, Sharples deemed the whole Kahui family as 'dysfunctional'. Does Sharples not think that the scene he witnessed could not have been witnessed in countless thousands of Kiwi households the morning he visited the Kahuis? Will he be making dawn raids on other homes - the townhouses and apartments in wealthier suburbs of Auckland, for example - and then 'outing' their inhabitants if he finds evidence of alcohol consumption, or is the sort of humiliation he has visited upon the Kahuis only intended for poor Maori families who have recently lost children in tragic circumstances? Did it never occur to Sharples that somebody who has suffered such a loss might have very good reasons to take solace in alcohol, especially when he is being harrassed by scores of journalists and police? Did it occur to him that, in the grossly overcrowded Kahui home, somebody might be sleeping on the couch as a matter of necessity, not because he'd passed out there?
Sharples' friend Matt McCarten used his column in the Herald on Sunday to twist the knife in the Kahui family's back. McCarten is a high-profile member of New Zealand's trade union movement and a supposed leftist, but he used his precious column space to regurgitate the crudest, most violent right-wing caricatures of the Kahuis. It was no surprise to hear that the Kahuis received a death threat the day after McCarten's column appeared.
There is a real danger that the hysteria about the Kahuis and about Maori child abuse will be used as an excuse for attacks on the most vulnerable sections of the Maori population. There are clear parallels between the current outcry and the response in Australia to the revelations of child abuse in isolated Aboriginal communities last May. The Howard government and its friends in the media have used the issue of child abuse to demand that Aboriginal people renounce campaigns for justice over land theft and the 'stolen generation' of children and instead blame themselves for their problems. Instead of recognising that Aboriginals are the victims of over two hundred years of racist policies that have robbed them of their land and imperilled their cultures, the Australian government has cast them as victims of their own 'lack of values'. Instead of returning stolen land and resources and paying to improve public services like health and education in Aboriginal areas, the Howard government demands that Aboriginals simply 'get their act together' and magically overcome two centuries of genocidal state policies.
The Howard approach to indigenous peoples requires a caste of compliant, 'Uncle Tom' indigenous 'representatives' prepared to echo the state's criticisms of their own peoples and help the state administer and discipline their peoples. In Australia, these Uncle Toms include the likes of Noel Pearson, who praises Howard's plans to cut welfare for Aboriginals and dismisses the stolen generation and the theft of land as irrelevancies. Like Howard, Pearson favours drastic cuts in Aboriginal welfare entitlements and in government spending on Aboriginal communities.
In Aotearoa, Pita Sharples and his fellow Maori Party MPs are candidates for the same role as Pearson. Since its formation in the aftermath of the great seabed and foreshore hikoi of 2003, the Maori Party has moved steadily to the right, voting in parliament against the Civil Unions Bill and for National's anti-union 90 Day Probation Bill, and establishing close ties with the Act Party. Instead of making party policy around burning issues for Maori like poor housing, low wages, and stolen land, Sharples and his mates have focused on promoting the same sort of individualistic pseudo-solutions to indigenous problems as Howard offers in Australia. Maori Party MP Hone Harawira's campaign to criminalise smoking is a good example of the individualistic, 'blame the victim' approach of the right to the problems of indigenous people. Instead of pressing the Labour government over its failure to reduce hospital waiting lists and to provide better health services in the isolated parts of his electorate, Harawira is attacking Maori smokers, making them scapegoats for health problems that have their roots in racism and economic inequality.
The attacks on the Kahui whanau are only one example of a growing tendency to blame the most vulnerable and desperate people in society for their circumstances. To the media and to bigmouth politicians like Matt McCarten and Pita Sharples we should say: leave the Kahui whanau alone!