On opposition to Helen Clark’s UN bid

I was thirteen years old when Helen Clark pinched my land. She told the country my family were ‘haters and wreckers’.

I suppose this is another way of saying, it’s personal. Clark, New Zealand’s second-longest-serving Labour Prime Minister and apparently Australia’s choice for the next United Nations Secretary-General, is at the centre of a national tantrum after Marama Fox, the co-leader of the centrist Māori Party, told media that her party ‘cannot support [Clark’s] nomination [for Secretary-General]’.

‘TREASON,’ roared Duncan Garner, a talkback radio host, television anchor and newspaper columnist. Fox and her party should ‘grow up’, he added. Winston Peters, the leader of New Zealand First, a nationalist party with informal links to UKIP, took to print accusing Fox of ‘treachery’. Twitter’s pundit class went all in, many of them condemning Fox for her ‘petty’ politics.

At this point, we’re in the twilight zone and the looking glass is in a thousand pieces. Accusing a Māori woman of treason isn’t neutral. The subtext here is clear: Indigenous people should put the national interest (and the national ego) before their own. This trick functions in two parts. On one level, it’s an invitation to assimilation – ‘Indigenous people should just identify with the national interest and back Clark’ – but it also works as a tool of exclusion, implying that Indigenous interests aren’t part of the national interest (‘there they go special pleading again’).

But let’s reframe that: what is Clark doing to earn Indigenous support? Labour leftists find the question offensive. This is, after all, the prime minister responsible for establishing a state-owned bank and a national superannuation fund, lifting the minimum wage and introducing tax credits and paid parental leave for working people. At one point, the governor-general, the PM, the speaker of the house and the chief justice were all women.

This is what progress looks like, apparently, and means leftists should support Clark as a matter of course, or something like that. But while Clark and her government were shattering gender norms and tinkering with neoliberalism at its edges, they were also responsible for enacting the most dramatic land confiscation in more than a century. I’ll concede that Clark’s an effective social democrat, even, perhaps, a prime minister who left the country in better shape than she found it, but she isn’t a champion for human rights.

‘TREASON!’ I can hear the accusations crashing against my door.

But Clark is the prime minister responsible for preventing Māori from establishing customary title to the country’s foreshore and seabed, a land confiscation in process if not name. As if the psychic harm of ‘nationalising the beaches’ were not enough, owners with private title to the foreshore and seabed could continue business as usual. It’s an exhausted truism, but property rights for some are property rights for none.

There are so many things that hurt here: the double standard between possible owners of Māori customary title and owners of private titles; blocking access to the courts, another breach of natural justice for Māori; but the moment that survives in my memory, almost twelve years later, is how Clark condemned the law’s opponents as ‘haters and wreckers’. Again, this isn’t neutral – the unspoken context is that Māori hate and plan to wreck the nation.

This distinction between ‘them’ and ‘us’, between Māori and the nation, is more than hypothetical. Māori activist and writer Tim Selwyn, who threw an axe through Clark’s electorate office window in the middle of the night as a symbolic act of dissent against the foreshore and seabed law, was convicted on a charge of sedition. Understood in this context, the accusation that Marama Fox is a ‘traitor’ takes on a sinister edge.

If racism is a private act, then Helen Clark is no racist. But if racism is a public act, something that happens through institutions and manifests in power relations, then perhaps she is. Racism works like a virus, infecting progressive and conservative hosts. Politicians, especially prime ministers, often make racist choices, whether they mean to or not. Clark’s foreshore and seabed law may lack racist intent, but its racist impact is clear: one standard for Māori customary owners, another for private – most likely overwhelmingly white – owners.

I’m sorry, but your progressive fav is problematic. #ImWithMarama


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Morgan Godfery

Morgan Godfery (Te Pahipoto, Sāmoa) is a writer and trade unionist. He lives in Dunedin and works at the University of Otago.

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  1. An interesting article, thank you for publishing. I must be of a similar age to Morgan as I was also a young teenager when the Seabed & Foreshore issue dominated the New Zealand national debate, and memories of what could be considered “the other side” came flooding back as I read: The fear of what customary title could bring, exclusion, unfettered commercialisation, pay-per-access. For an island nation of not that many people (compared to other nations of similar land size) the ramifications could have been devastating.

    This isn’t to say that the issue won’t be decided on again by another generation and customary title might one day be recognised to the traditional owners, but like all political decisions it’s too easy to blame “racism” as the reason for a loss. If I’ve learnt anything as the years have gone by it’s that if the majority feel like they might have something taken away from them they aren’t going to support that action – no matter how morally right it might be. Those leading for establishing customary title didn’t do enough to elevate the worry of the non Maori as to what would happen.

    1. ALL media forms at the time of the Foreshore and Seabed confiscations, were inundating the public with scare-mongering propaganda, fed to them by the then Clarke government. This achieved what it had set out to achieve. A non-Maori populace terrified of losing access to beaches, all the while forever after protecting and enjoying their untouched private titles.
      I’m in full support of the Māori Party stance.

  2. Tihei Mauri Or!! we are hear but they do not hear our cry. Just as they ignored my Tupuna’s cries, do we exist in these peoples eye’s or are we being manipulated into a Secular Revolt where we will be labeled as TERRORIST?
    Where our Kainga will be demolished our children murdered our old people dying and us adults fighting a battle that can be avoided if only they would not only hear but also understand my cry. for I cry the tears of my Tupuna

  3. Kei te tika ta Godfrey raua ko Marama.
    Racism at its best or worst from an indigenous perspective…it just looks like something else. Hats off to Marama for having the fortitude to make the call. Pity the populous whose ministers have that narrow view, my god that is the majority of the ministers.
    Today’s media outrage…”there go those people again…how dare they NOT support one of New Zealand’s most esteemed former leaders, champion for women in politics.” Food for the bloody minded redneck faction. Indigenous struggle that never ends!

  4. Good commentry Morgan although a little harsh on Winston Peters. Just read a bio on Helen clark by J Romanous describing Clarks govt as criticised for being too accommodating to Maori and pandering to beneficiaries.Ironically the Maori party was formed in reaction to the FSASB which was failed leglislation. I do believe that Helen would be a force for good for the world including assisting minorities and diffusing conflict.Different views,many Maori support her bid does that make them misguided .It is good to be Maori right now and battles continue to rage but hitch the Waka onto the ones that are positive and matter instead of the personal,negative and pertulant.

  5. The best writing on this topic I’ve seen yet. The foreshore legislation was one of several nails in the coffin of my Labour Party membership. It was as racist as can be. Thank you.

  6. Tau Kē Morgan. Loved this piece, well said. This holds her and the party accountable for their actions…and then they want the support of the people they deliberately in some cases oppress…Im with you. Tautoko!!!

  7. Agree. But just to be 100% accurate, wasn’t the wreckers and haters comment directed at the Harawiras and not the whole of Maoridom (while she was in New York)? I still have yet to see in NZ a sensible discussion of the merits of the other candidates. So Clarke may well be least worst. Fox changed her tune too from initial support a few weeks ago, no?

  8. Kia Ora Morgan, A thought provoking and insightful commentary. I remember the foreshore discussion/commentary and echo earlier comments- what we needed was debate and understanding. Marama Fox taught my son at school, she opened a world of language and understanding he didn’t have and I will always be grateful to her. As a NZ’er I was horrified to hear the media define her as a traitor! Shameful and quite traitorous themselves.

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