'Race', 'Privilege', and 'The Treaty'   |   Foreshore and seabed information

Brash old white men are not our future

1 February 2004

If ever we needed evidence of the gulf between men who understand money and people who understand life, we got it last week. I expect National's leader Don Brash thought he'd get a standing ovation for his speech on race relations. As a long-time governor of the Reserve Bank, he'd have been used to impressing people with his measured utterances.

Somewhere along the line it must also have been only natural for him to accept the world of money as the planet's single engine. Understand it and you have the key to everything: Fail to understand it and you're a failure. Nothing could be simpler.

It's a hard world, the world of financial cut and thrust and it's a simplistic one. It's all about profit and loss; it is measurable; it can be taught. People either succeed or fail in it and those who do well in the world of money believe they are succeeding at life. They believe, too, that they are the favoured children of destiny.

And so they can wear panama hats to Ratana without any consciousness of the figure they cut, and tell Maori they do not deserve special consideration; they can talk of one standard of citizenship without knowing they are endorsing entrenched privilege.

The problem with Maori, as Brash's admirers would have it, is they fail. They drink too much, commit too many crimes, maltreat their children, don't thrive in school, join gangs and are poor. Fate does not smile on them because of these inherent faults, which are caused by their being lazy, or not trying hard enough. It may, they mutter behind closed doors, just have something to do with their Maoriness, the wilful difference that makes them want to cling to a language with no financial worth. And it's the same maddening Maoriness that makes Maori see something special in their tribal lands and cling to cultural practices that have limited potential for tourist dollars.

The measure of Maori failure, as money men would have it, is a drain on the economy that can be quantified in dollars and cents. Linked with that idea is a sense of moral and cultural superiority that flicks aside possible underlying causes of the problem because they are too abstract. Ignorance is helpful - it doesn't pay to read too widely about Maori beliefs and traditions because more understanding might blur your confidence.

I can't imagine Maori have a use in the world of finance - other than in land ownership or their willingness to work at poorly paid jobs as dispensable statistics when profits fall. It's been that way since this country was colonised; we snatched what Maori would not sell and set about destroying a natural world unsuitable for growing grass to feed sheep and cattle, animals we introduced. That world had grown Maori but we could not think of a way of harvesting them for cash. Now Brash tells us, in effect, that today's Maori are imposters because none of them are full-blooded; even their right to identity must be measured in fractions.

Brash probably doesn't know it, but few of us, after the great reforms and financial crashes of the '80s, deeply admire the present-day successors to the old millionaire run-holders, the corporate successes he no doubt dines comfortably among. It has brought us the destruction of the career public service of the past. Because it made such sound financial sense, we now have former businessmen running branches of the public service. Where once they lived high on shareholders' profits, they now seem to do the same to taxpayers. This behaviour is not violent crime, or educational failure, or neglect of children; it's just bottom line anti-social contempt for all of us.

There is no one standard of citizenship and there never can be: not while there are private schools and old money; not while wealth is passed from one generation of a family to the next; not while the trust-funded children of the middle class dominate educational success; not while some people retain overseas passports and others are forced to stay here; not while some people earn inflated incomes while others - the mentally ill, the sick, unemployed refugees - struggle for bare necessities. But what we can all have equally are those financially valueless things, hope and good faith.

The inheritors of the social policy Brash so derides, young Maori, were recently found to be the most optimistic group in New Zealand society. Nothing on the business pages has ever pleased me as much as that news: They are our future, you see, not old white men.

Rosemary McLeod,
Sunday Star Times
© Fairfax New Zealand Limited 2004

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