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Canadian prelude?

29 June 2005

On 6 September 1995, at Ipperwash Provincial Park on the shores of Lake Huron, a tense stand-off between elements of the Chippewa nation and the Ontario provincial government came to a sudden and bloody end.

An unarmed Chippewa protester, Dudley George, was shot dead by Acting Sergeant Kenneth Deane of the Ontario Provincial Police.

The cause of the Ipperwash tragedy has a familiar ring to New Zealand ears.

The land, currently designated as a provincial park, was expropriated from the Chippewa Nation during World War II for an army base. It was supposed to have been returned to the Chippewa at the war's end but - much like the Raglan golf course - that part of the deal was forgotten by the federal Canadian authorities for more than 50 years.

Not surprisingly, Ipperwash became a cause célèbre for the Chippewa, who were determined to regain control of their land, especially the burial grounds of their ancestors.

The occupation of the park, essentially a blockade of the main access road by young protesters, began on 3 September 1995.

Such occupations/blockades were not unknown in Canada. Like New Zealand, it has an indigenous rights movement of considerable size and influence.

What was unusual about the Ipperwash stand-off was the provincial government's reaction.

Within hours, the newly elected premier of Ontario, Mike Harris, had prevailed upon the Ontario Provincial Police to dispatch 200 heavily-armed officers to the protest site.

In a series of tape recordings played to a public inquiry into the Ipperwash shooting in May this year, it is clear Harris's government, in spite of a decade's worth of denials to the contrary, was - to quote the report of Canadian journalist Lee Parsons - "intimately involved in directing the police and that the Premier and others in his administration helped instigate the use of excessive and lethal force" against the Chippewa protesters.

In a recorded conversation between the senior police officer on the scene and an officer whose role was to liaise between the provincial government and the "aboriginal" peoples, we learn the Premier will tolerate "no different treatment of people in this situation.

"In other words, native as opposed to non-native, and the bottom line is, [he] wants them out." Earlier in the same discussion, the clearly exasperated liaison officer tells the police commander that "we're dealing with a redneck government.

"They are fucking barrel suckers, they just are in love with guns.

"There's no question, they couldn't give a shit less about Indians."

Neither, it would seem, could a large number of Ontarians because Mike Harris and his "Commonsense Conservative" government were narrowly re-elected in 1999.

What is the likelihood a National-ACT-United Future government would react to an Ipperwash-style challenge in the same way as Mike Harris's Conservative administration?

The answer, based on the public policy releases of the three parties, would have to be "fairly high."

Though United Future's Peter Dunne first introduced the rhetoric of "commonsense conservatism" to New Zealand in the 2002 general election, it is now evident its underlying messages constitute the heart and soul of the radical Right's general assault on Helen Clark's Labour-led ministry.

According to nationmaster.com's on-line political encyclopaedia, "commonsense conservative" (CSC) movements are mostly confined to the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia.

CSCs are distinguishable from their "neo-conservative" allies by their preoccupation with domestic and fiscal - as opposed to foreign affairs and defence - issues.

Often associated with evangelical Christian movements, CSCs tend to emphasise "moral rules, rigid conformity, financial success, and retributive justice."

What most CSCs share, however, is an allegiance to the following set of economic themes:

* Tax cuts to promote economic growth, sometimes at the expense of public infrastructure or government services;

* Support for neo-liberalism and free trade;

* Privatisation of some infrastructure and government services based on the belief the private sector is not only more efficient but more effective at providing such services;

* Streamlining government and reducing regulation, usually in an effort to reduce barriers to business.

The radical implications of the CSC policy mix are often signalled by the use of insurrectionary rhetoric such as Mike Harris's invocation of a "Commonsense Revolution" in Ontario.

The same rhetorical themes turned up throughout the 1990s in campaigns as far apart as New Jersey and Australia.

A National-ACT-United Future government, especially one reliant on the critical support of NZ First, would take office in an atmosphere of heightened class and cultural tensions.

According to its critics, "deliberately stirring up conflict among opposing groups to clear the way for their reforms" is a common feature of CSC political campaigning.

In the case of National and ACT, highlighting "special treatment for Maori" would appear to be their favoured tactic for "stirring up conflict."

And they would be in no position to lay it aside after the election. Retaining the support of Winston Peters, who only last week launched his own assault on what he calls the "bro-reaucracy," would require strong and immediate action against "racial separatism" by the incoming government.

It is impossible to imagine that introducing legislation designed to abolish the Maori seats, remove all references to the Treaty of Waitangi from statutes, downgrade the status and powers of the Waitangi Tribunal, and shut down Te Puni Kokiri would not spark protests that would make the Chippewa blockade of the Ipperwash Provincial Park look like a Sunday school picnic.

I make this prediction with some confidence for the simple reason that, whereas indigenous peoples constitute a negligible fraction of Canada's population, the indigenous population of New Zealand includes somewhere between one in 10 and one in five New Zealanders.

Of even more potential concern than the sheer size of the indigenous minority is the disproportionate number of indigenous non-commissioned officers and private soldiers in the New Zealand Defence Force.

Were a National-ACT-United Future government, backed by NZ First, to send 200 armed police to evict hundreds of young Maori protesters from the Te Puni Kokiri building in downtown Wellington, and if even one of those protesters suffered the same fate as Dudley George at Ipperwash, the automatic loyalty of a substantial portion of the NZDF could easily be called into question.

Labour's response to a crisis of this magnitude is also - sadly - quite easy to predict.

All its history - from Peter Fraser's dismantling of the Maori War Effort Organisation in the late-1940s; to Bill Rowling's refusal to defend Samoans' right to New Zealand citizenship; to Helen Clark's pillorying of Tuku Morgan's sartorial extravagance, not to mention her vituperative dismissal of the 2004 hikoi organisers as "haters and wreckers" - points to the conclusion that the Labour caucus, whenever it is confronted with the choice of taking an unpopular stand in defence of racial equality, or bowing to the racist impulses of the Pakeha majority, will always side with the latter.

This is not to say a significant number of Labour Party members have not been - and would not be - horrified at such blatant repudiations of Labour principle.

But they have never been able to summon up either the numbers or the courage to over-rule their parliamentary leadership.

That being the case, it would be left to the Maori Party and the Greens, in alliance with the rest of the progressive movement, to make common cause with the Maori community's refusal to accept the government's "Common-sense Revolution" in race relations.

Given National and ACT's industrial relations policies, the group could possibly include the trade unions.

Would the outcome of this confrontation be the same as that of the Ipperwash tragedy in Ontario - the re-election of the "common sense conservative" government?

Maybe. Maybe not.

In my interview with David Slack for his latest book Civil War & Other Optimistic Predictions, I talked about how lucky New Zealand was in 1913, 1932, 1951 and 1981.

Notwithstanding the size and passion of these historic confrontations, nobody got killed.

In the general strike of 1913, for example: "Both sides, having at each other. Bullets flying in the darkness. Police firing, strikers firing. No one was killed. Because the bullets just kept on missing - and they kept on missing right through our history, and it's remarkable."

On the shores of Lake Huron, on 6 September 1995, the Chippewa were not so fortunate.

At Ipperwash, at least one policeman's bullet did not miss its mark.

Should this country, like Ontario, end up being governed by "common sense conservatives," we must hope New Zealand's remarkable run of luck does not run out.

Chris Trotter, editor of NZ Political Review
The Independent

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