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Old King Log, New King Stork. Trump’s lesson for Aotearoa.

Old King Log, New King Stork. Trump’s lesson for Aotearoa.


I remember waking up one morning last year, lying awake for a moment, feeling contented and normal. Then memory and grief kicked in; my mother was dead, and my world had changed forever.

My anaesthesia had worn off.

I had a similar moment on Thursday morning when I remembered Trump had won the US presidential elections. Of course my adult brain then took over from those primal feelings and I began to reason with myself: “don’t be so ridiculous! How bad could it really be; it is just another day; democracy has not died, and neither have you, sunshine.It’s not the end of the bloody world, toughen up. Who cares anyway? Maybe he’ll be just the kind of orange change-agent that could really cut through the smug Washington bubble…”

Oh who am I kidding. I was afraid. I’m still afraid. I’m not really afraid of Trump’s racism, sexism, narcissism or any other of his other charming personal qualities; really it is his permission-giving that is problematic. Maybe tyranny is in all of us; we just need someone to give us permission to give in to it. Social media and mainstream media is swarming with accounts of Trump-loving idiots carrying out hate-based attacks (some accounts have been made up, some not so). Those things are awful, but in a way, I don’t feel viscerally afraid about them, as many US residents now do. Maybe I am just too removed.

I am scared that our planet is screwed because a climate denier is in the White House. I’m scared that more wars will come because the significant geopolitical shifts that might happen because of the isolationist in the White House. Whatever you believe about ISIL, and the cancerous instability of the Middle East being all the fault of US foreign policy, the world is a less violent and less war-riven place than it ever has been. (Read this if you don’t believe me). Much of that has to do with trade, and the US role in geopolitics. (The UN too, but that’s another story..) As American writer and blogger Ryan Bohl puts it:

Consider how many old rivalries U.S. alliances have put to rest.  Japan and Korea are now bound under the American aegis: so too are Germany and France, Greece and Turkey, Poland and Germany, Italy and Austria, to name just a few.  While Europe was once the world’s most warlike continent, today it is the most peaceful (Ukraine notwithstanding).  That is entirely because the U.S. has secured Europe in a way that Europe never could.


Planet Earth is considerably safer with the United States as the dominant power precisely because it keeps vast swathes of humanity disarmed.  It isn’t so much a matter of it being the United States as the geopolitical system being dominated by a single power that has already reached the natural limits of expansion – that last part being key because a rising power that hasn’t yet learned when to stop conquering is quite dangerous.  The U.S. is out of the empire building business; its best leaders are those who tend to its network of alliances and trade deals with an eye for stability.

So that has been interesting. I had never thought of myself as a fan of US interventionism at all. It is only my fear of the forthcoming change that exposes me. Better the devil we know. Or maybe I’m just a doom-saying fraidy-cat, who needs more geo-political education. Quite true, I’m sure. And yet.

So what do we take from this new set of realities for us here in Aotearoa? Our politicians are uniformly dismayed about the rise of Trump. On the other hand, many Māori are probably happy, no doubt, that TPPA is dead.

I tweeted on Wednesday night about how happy I was to be here in NZ. It was the silver lining to my night. But.  Are we at risk of the rise of the Trump-style demagogue here? There are two main bulwarks, or defences, against it that immediately come to mind. One is our level of electoral participation. And perhaps there is a lesson in here for Māori, Pākehā and tauiwi alike. I firmly believe that Trump was not voted in by a pack of racist, sexist xenophobes. That’s just too glib. I think what happened is yet to be fully explained over the coming weeks and months, but one thing is clear: Trump became possible because 10 million Obama supporters decided not to vote at all, compared to 2008. In fact, only 56.9% of eligible voters cast a ballot at all in this US election. This compares with 77.9% of NZ registered voters turning out in NZ’s last general election in 2014. This includes 67.59% of Māori eligible voters. So, while Māori voter apathy is a real problem, perspective is interesting; US voter apathy can lead to a failed change-agent such as Obama and an ignorant strong-man like Trump come to power on the back of resentment of “the elites” and a yearning for revolution; a yearning for someone who promises what they simply cannot deliver. So what happens in our country as far as the housing crisis, growing discontent and income inequality is concerned matters from this perspective too. The danger is not just that people who are powerless and angry vote for someone like Trump; the danger is they don’t vote at all.

The second bulwark against Trump NZ is ongoing connection between our ‘elites’; our educated, liberal, politically engaged, high-income urbanites and the rest of us. I came across this article today, with Andrew Sullivan, an English writer and blogger cautioning against the wholesale jettison of the elites in a mature democracy:

The freedom in that democracy has to be experienced to be believed — with shame and privilege in particular emerging over time as anathema. But it is inherently unstable. As the authority of elites fades, as Establishment values cede to popular ones, views and identities can become so magnificently diverse as to be mutually uncomprehending. And when all the barriers to equality, formal and informal, have been removed; when everyone is equal; when elites are despised and full license is established to do “whatever one wants,” you arrive at what might be called late-stage democracy. There is no kowtowing to authority here, let alone to political experience or expertise.

But maybe we are already there. There are arguably growing gaps between Māori elites and the rest of us; just as there is growing mutual incomprehension between Pākehā elites and the rest of the Pākehā population.  If this trajectory continues, we too will, one day throw the baby out with the bathwater in a fit of mutual self loathing, and surrender to demagoguery.

So what to do? For one thing, depending on where we sit on the spectrum, we have to resist the temptation to heap scorn and contempt on those we perceive to be different (culturally, socio-economically, politically) from us. For another; engage with those selfsame people. Talk to the people you loathe the most. Whanaungatanga.  Our future depends on it.

Let me finish with an ancient story; one of Aesop’s fables.

According to the story, a group of frogs lived happily and peacefully in a pond. Over time, however, they became discontented with their way of life, and thought they should have a mighty king to rule over them. They called out to the great god Zeus to send them a king.

Zeus was amused by the frogs’ request, and cast a large log down into their pond, saying “Behold, your king!” At first, the frogs were terrified of the huge log, but after seeing that it did not move, they began to climb upon it. Once they realized the log would not move, they called out again to Zeus to send them a real king, one that moved.

Annoyed by the frogs, Zeus said, “Very well, here is your new king,” and sent a large stork to the pond. The stork began devouring frogs. In terror, frogs called out to Zeus to save them. Zeus refused, saying the frogs now had what they’d wanted, and had to face the consequences.

As the US is learning…be careful what you wish for. Or even – be careful of what you can’t be bothered wishing for.

[Please note: a slightly edited version of this piece has been posted on E-Tangata]




Waitangi & the Unsung Virtue of Uncertainty

Waitangi & the Unsung Virtue of Uncertainty

It’s never very far from my memory; the time in 1988 I took a taxi to Jupiter’s Casino on the Gold Coast with a couple of army friends of mine. All I can really recall is shrinking down into the back seat, between my companions, in bemused horror as the taxi driver proceeded to tell us all about how the Tasmanian Aborigines were exterminated, and that, on the mainland “they should have finished the job”. I was 18 and working at Expo 88 in Brisbane at the time, in a year of bicentennial celebrations of the European settlement of Australia. I was doing my bit back then to contribute to Australian patriotism and until that moment I had never really given the other side of the story another thought.

If you are a social media type with a New Zealand Facebook account you will likely have had a few interesting or disturbing posts on your feed in the lead up to Australia Day on 26 January, marking the arrival of the First Fleet of 11 convict ships to Sydney Cove in 1788. This Day is intended to be a celebratory one:

On Australia Day we come together as a nation to celebrate what’s great about Australia and being Australian. It’s the day to reflect on what we have achieved and what we can be proud of in our great nation. It’s the day for us to re-commit to making Australia an even better place for the future.

In my case the social media posts I saw were less than celebratory (see here and here for examples), and largely consisted of withering criticism of Australia’s treatment of Aborigines. Invasion Day provided another view of a day intended to celebrate the formation of Australia as a nation. In truth, I shared the odd post myself.

At times like this New Zealand discussions about race relations between the majority populations of Australia and New Zealand and their respective indigenous communities takes on a competitive tinge. We New Zealanders are just SO much better than Australians at ‘dealing with’ indigenous peoples, and every year Australia Day gives us that lovely frisson that comes from revelling, for a moment, in the feeling of a job well done. There is, after all, some evidence to suggest that our race relations are better (such a quaint term that, ‘race relations’ a time when we rarely talk of ‘race’ anymore). Smugness is sterile though; each country has quite a different political, cultural and social history, not to mention a vastly different linguistic and demographic landscape.

And any little sense of complacency we might have been lured into by way of Australia Day on Jan 26 is soon obliterated by our own tortured anxieties (for some, at least) about Waitangi Day on Feb 6.  Usually there is some issue or take that demands protest and attention, for which Waitangi Day becomes a kind of cultural and political lightening rod. This year it is the approaching local signing of the TPPA (Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement). Some Māori have promised protest at Waitangi, while the John Key proclaims  his normal state of resolute relaxation about any such protests.

And, on cue, a few weeks out, Pākehā Media Personality Angst Against Waitangi (PMPAAW) kicks in. In 2012 it was Paul Holmes who delivered up an absolute doozy against which the Press Council upheld complaints. Paul spluttered:

I wouldn’t take my three great uncles who died at Gallipoli and in France – Reuben, Mathew and Leonard – to Waitangi Day and expect them to believe this was our national day. I wouldn’t take my father, veteran of El Alamein and Cassino, there. Nor would I take my Uncle Ken who died in a Wellington bomber, then try and tell him Waitangi Day was anything but filth.

No, if Maori want Waitangi Day for themselves, let them have it. Let them go and raid a bit more kai moana than they need for the big, and feed themselves silly, speak of the injustices heaped upon them by the greedy Pakeha and work out new ways of bamboozling the Pakeha to come up with a few more millions.

The same year Richard Long had a go. in 2014 Cameron Slater jumped on the train, Peter Dunn reiterated calls for a New Zealand Day to replace Waitangi Day in 2011. This year, it was Mike Hosking’s turn, although on TV rather than in print. ‘An annual ritual of abuse, anger and ignorance’, in Mike’s view. Well, I’m not sure which ritual he was referring to, the one at the lower marae, or that perpetrated by PMPAW.

Snarkiness aside, I have never had any problems with dissent about Waitangi Day, from any quarter. These protests, complaints and flagellation are absolutely necessary. New Zealand must never, in my view succumb again to a comfortable view of itself. This uncertainty about our national identity and our connections between our communities is absolutely essential if we are to function well as a nation in the future.

The seeds of this uncertainty were sown in the years between 1835-1840 with the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the Treaty of Waitangi, and only in the past 40 or so years have those seeds begun to bear fruit more obviously in the public consciousness. But make no mistake, in regards to Crown-Māori relations uncertainty has been our national lifeblood. The Treaty of Waitangi is but only one agreement between the Crown and Māori among hundreds in our multi-textual legal history. These agreements included deeds of cession, confiscation agreements, and regional pre-emptive agreements each agreement opening up new relationships, new portals for negotiation, new sites of political uncertainty.

In fact, the single most enduring and salient feature of political constitutionalism in colonial NZ has been Maori insistence on treating any agreement with the Crown as never final, but, in the words of Mark Hickford, only as:

‘punctuated moments in conversations without end’.

Time and again, year after year, decade after decade Māori have insisted on negotiation, compromise, recognition and political space. Sometimes they have got it, oftentimes not.

So, from the perspective of what we could call political identity formation, or constitutionalism, the Treaty of Waitangi generates a kind of positive uncertainty. We don’t actually know what the future will bring in the relationship between Māori, the Crown, and the peoples of New Zealand. We cannot take solace in the presumption that what has been always will be. There are new settlements, new agreements, new cultural landscapes and new relationships forming and dissolving every year. None of this is comfortable.

I like comfort and moderation. So I have some sympathy with the call for the simplicity of a New Zealand Day, such as that called for many times by MP Peter Dunne:

“We have so many wonderful things about this country that we should be celebrating; we have achieved great things as a nation and continue to do so. We need to be proud of all of that and celebrate what it is to be a Kiwi.

“Waitangi Day is not doing that and has not for a long time.

Mr Dunne said Waitangi Day rarely leaves Kiwis feeling more “united, positive or upbeat”, and non-Maori avoid the day.


Dunne and those like him seem to wish for a simpler, more certain idea of what being a New Zealander is; something more like an Australian Day celebration (without the messy complications of stolen generations and drunk NRL players).

I think we can celebrate and be pissed off at each other. Why are these things mutually exclusive? They can’t be for me, my Pākehā and Māori ancestors collectively got me into my current situation as an urban born Māori who has had to learn what being Māori even means.

So, arguably, Waitangi Day has a far different function than a mere “National Day”, it is a reminder of uncertainty, and to be frank; a safety valve. As Tim Watkin observed in 2012:

I want to hear the anger, not least because silence leads to disenfranchisement and ultimately to violence. It’s when the shouting stops that the bomb-making begins, so let’s celebrate that our national day encourages citizens to speak their truths rather than kill for them.

So wherever I go and whatever I do this Waitangi Day (more likely to be blobbing rather than protesting) I will at some point take a moment to be grateful for our national uncertainty. The alternative is more frightening.

[Please note this post is available at E-Tangata in a slightly edited form.]



Derek Fox, and the mystery of the public dollar

It takes a special kind of bellicosity to both dissemble and attack Geoff Robinson on Morning Report in response to innocuous questions such as ‘Are there any life members on the Kōhanga Reo Trust?’, but Derek manages that kind of uncomfortable and unhelpful combination with unfortunate aplomb. My personal distaste for Derek’s style aside though, his question (and one also discussed on Paul Henry’s show last night, albeity briefly) of ‘when does a public dollar stop being a public dollar’ merits attention. But I’m not sure why it does. Probably because of its superficial (and deceptive)  simplicity. Derek challenged Geoff by saying (and I paraphrase): ‘When you go to the grocery store and pay for your groceries are you then spending public dollars?’ Geoff responded, “well of course not, that’s my money, I can do with it what I like’. ”Well, same diff!’ crowed Fox. (well, in more words than that, but you get my drift). Sorry Derek, that is just plain wrong, and worse, it is disingenuous. Let’s look at what Te Pātaka Ōhanga does. From some comments like Derek’s, you’d think they were purely contract service providers themselves, and so, you might be forgiven for thinking they are paid a contract price for their services, and just like an insurance company would receive payment for insurance taken out by some publicly funded agency, and then what they do with that money is their business and not open to public scrutiny. The lines are nowhere near as clearly drawn here. Look at the opening sentence on the TPO website: Te Pataka Ohanga Limited (TPO) is a wholly owned subsidiary company of Te Kohanga Reo National Trust and was formed to help manage the growth of Te Kohanga Reo and maximize the bargaining power through strategic partnerships with providers, allowing quality services and products at discounted rates. While the entity might be owned by Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust, clearly TPO does things for and behalf of Te Kohanga Reo. That impression is strengthened in the next sentence: Te Pataka Ohanga Ltd also manages a range of services, on behalf of Kohanga like insurance, mokopuna oranga pumau, scholarships, computers (Dell), Internet service providers (ICONZ), Fuel Cards and many more listed on this web site. According to Māori TV’s Maiki Sherman:

‘However, according to Te Pātaka Ohanga’s constitution, it was established solely to manage the economic activities of the National Trust. Also, all profits not reinvested in the company are transferred to Te Kōhanga Reo or an approved charity.

 Is Fox trying to argue that these functions are entirely private ones, not in any way connected with the public nature of the funding received by TPO in the first place? TPO is not analagous to the insurance company, nor is it analogous to the salaried public radio broadcaster buying his milk and bread with that salary. Geoff, in buying his milk and bread is carrying out a private function, and his salary was tagged for that purpose, and reported as such in the relevant financial reporting documents. Geoff is at the end of that process, and when the money is in his possession, there is no accountability back to his employer. TPO, by contrast, is intimately involved, and indeed responsible for the economic activities of the parent trust. TPO is not at end of the funding chain, and what they do with the money reflects on Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust, and don’t forget, the leftovers of that money goes back to TKRNT (or another nominated charity). I’ll bet Geoff doesn’t give his leftovers back to Radio New Zealand. 

Fox’s defensiveness doesn’t help Te Kōhanga Reo, although I understand entirely his desire to protect and defend what the Trust does. He should understand that he is helping to achieve the opposite. Kāore taea e te tipu e rea, mēnā kua ngaro a Tamanuiterā. 

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