WAI262 and the anti-historians
I had imagined that National Party and Act politicians and right-wing commentators would give WAI262 a cursory read and then dismiss the document, but I was wrong: the likes of Don Brash and Muriel Newman have condemned the text as a dangerous waste of money without having bothered to read even one of its thousands of pages. Her Majesty's 'opposition' has preferred to subject the Tribunal's report to what Italian communists used to call 'the critique of silence'. The Labour Party seems to think that its researchers are better employed chasing after trivialities like the costs of John Key's bodyguards than in reading one of the widest-ranging of all Waitangi reports.
Those politicians and commentators who have opened WAI262 seem to have skipped straight to the handful of passages where the various scholars involved in the project make recommendations for changes in Crown policy and practice. This sort of skim reading is not at all new: anyone who relied upon media reports and Hansard for their knowledge of the work the Waitangi Tribunal has done over the past thirty years could be forgiven for thinking that the body has spent its whole twenty-five year existence doing nothing but issuing a stream of instructions to government departments. In reality, the vast majority of the pages in almost every Waitangi Report are given over not to policy points but to scholarship. For me, at least, the real strength of the Tribunal's work lies in its scholarship, not in its recommendations, which have always been circumscribed by realpolitik and the nature of the New Zealand state.
Some of New Zealand's finest historians, legal scholars, and natural scientists, from Judith Binney to Geoff Park to David Williams, have worked for the Tribunal, and the reports issued by the body have added immensely to the resources available to anybody who wants to investigate the history of this country. Some of the Tribunal's texts, like the Te Urewera Report of 2010, bring previously-unknown oral traditions into the light, and thereby add another dimension to our understanding of the past; others, like the fat and fascinating Kaipara Interim Report of 2006, use piles of obscure written documents - property titles, court hearings, frayed maps - to reconstruct the contested history of their corner of the country; still others, like the Rekohu (Chatham Islands) Report of 2002, include mostly well-known primary material, but synthesise that material in a new way, by advancing new theories to explain the patterns of past events.
The tendency to read only the recommendations of the Waitangi Tribunal Reports reflects the instrumental attitude that New Zealand's political class takes toward the work of historians, and towards scholarship in general. Research is reduced to its ends, and historians and social scientists are supposed to supply facts and statistics and predictions which can be carried like props into theatres of debate like the parliamentary chamber or the press conference. The texts produced by the Waitangi Tribunal, with their frequently generous lengths, juxtapositions of different historical viewpoints, and complex historiographical syntheses, are ill-suited to the rituals of contemporary Kiwi politics. That is one of the many reasons why they should be read.
Footnote: In his initial response to WAI262, Maori blogger Morgan Godfrey observes that the recommendations at the end of the text 'relegate Maori to secondary partners' with the New Zealand state. For reasons which I can't quite discern, though, Godfrey argues glumly that Maori have to accept that 'we cannot be recognised on our terms'. The Samoans, Niueans and Cook Islanders didn't have to live with Pakeha colonialism; why, then, should Tuhoe, or Nga Puhi, or Whanau a Apanui?
The New Zealand state is a product of British and Pakeha capitalism, and many of its institutions, including its legal system, are tilted against most Pakeha, as well as against almost all Maori. The violence with which the state intervened on the side of employers against Pakeha workers during the Great Strike of 1913 and the Waterfront of Lockout of 1951 can be compared to violence of events like the invasion of Maungapohatu in 1916 and the attack on Parihaka in 1881. Both Te Whiti's followers and the 'Red Feds' who asserted themselves in 1913 found that the machinery of the state was being operated by the Pakeha capitalist class - by runholders, property speculators, and the owners of industry. The state serves the same class today, even if a small minority of that class now has brown skin.
It might be argued that an independent Maori state is not a viable prospect in New Zealand, because of the lack of a Maori majority over contiguous areas, but as Bolivia and Venezuela have shown over the past few years, it is possible to construct a 'multi-national' legal system and constitution within a single state.
Events in Venezuela, where the indigenous population is a tiny minority, suggest that such change can be supported by a non-indigenous majority, if it is shown that the minority and the majority have the same interests. In Venezuela landless non-indigenous peasants have repeatedly joined forces with indigenous peoples in battles against foreign-based agribusinesses like the British-owned Vestey cattle company and against mining companies. Both peasants and Amerindians have wanted to lay their hands on land that had in many cases either been appropriated or obtained for derisory amounts, and that was being either left to waste or despoiled. With the help of a sympathetic government, large areas of land have been won back from foreign businesses and shared out between the peasants and the Amerindians.
Of course, New Zealand is a very different place to Venezuela, and the Pakeha majority retains deeply conservative attitudes towards most Maori-related issues. But there have been a few instances in recent times where groups of Pakeha have identified their own interests with those of so-called 'Maori radicals'. The campaign against ironsand mining on the western Waikato and King Country coast, which has largely passed under the radar of the mainstream media, has brought together Maori nationalists with Pakeha surfers and boaties. In the eastern Bay of Plenty, Whanau a Apanui is apparently attracting some sympathy from local Pakeha for its campaign against oil exploration. In my local neighbourhood, a branch of Unite made up almost entirely of Pakeha low-paid workers and beneficiaries took to the streets to campaign for Hone Harawira during the recent byelection.
In Raglan and in the Bay of Plenty, Pakeha have been able to see that Maori nationalists are a much smaller threat to them than multinational corporations backed by the might of the New Zealand state; in West Auckland, Pakeha members of Unite understand that they have more in common with the unemployed and low-paid Maori workers of Moerewa and Kaitaia than they have with John Key and Don Brash. Given the intensification of the global financial crisis in recent weeks, the rightward trajectory of this National-Act government, and the mixture of socialist and Maori nationalist politics being advanced by the Mana Party, it is by no means impossible that larger groups of Pakeha might decide to follow the lead of the Waitemata branch of Unite.