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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