When I left New Zealand for the first time in 1962
to study at Oxford University, I took with me an LP (yes, real vinyl!) of the St Joseph’s Maori Girls Choir.
I was amazed to discover over my years in Britain that the one thing guaranteed to make me homesick was playing that
Wiki Baker’s beautiful voice was only
part of the explanation. I realised that the sound of Maori music awoke in me unsuspected emotions –
as though I had throughout my early life picked up from the ether as part of my own heritage a cultural sensitivity to which
my emotional antennae, even 12,000 miles from home, were still attuned.
This was all the more surprising to me, since – while I had always got on well with my Maori classmates, and
recalled with pleasure the rivalry I had enjoyed with Johnny Tapiata when we contested the Oratory Prize at Tauranga College
– it had never occurred to me that Maori language and culture were still alive and (comparatively) well.
When I returned to live in New Zealand in 1994, however, I discovered
a country very different from the one I had left three decades earlier. There was a widespread recognition
that New Zealand was – in its foundations - a bicultural society and that Maori had an equal part to contribute to that
audacious enterprise. And I had the pleasure at Waikato University of working with Robert Mahuta in the
committed work he was doing to bring about a raupatu settlement for Tainui.
One element of that settlement was that Tainui became the owners of the University’s campus. There
were those who found this prospect disturbing – and it is true that a few days after the settlement was signed, an enthusiastic
young man arrived in my office and demanded a guided tour of the estate of which he was now part-owner!
But Tainui proved to be ideal landlords. They saw the relationship
with the University as a partnership, and substantial parts of the rent we paid each year found their way back to the University
in the form of scholarships and other help for disadvantaged students.
The University derived a further benefit; we became one of the few tertiary institutions in the country to have a
proper legal title (in the form of a perpetually renewable lease) to our own campus. Tainui, of course,
has gone on to become an economic powerhouse in the Waikato and beyond.
How, then, should pakeha regard this Maori resurgence? Is it a threat to be nipped in the bud
(assuming that to be possible) or is it an opportunity to be seized for the benefit of us all?
Let us first be clear about one thing. Maori and pakeha should
have no difficulty in treating each other with mutual respect. Our joint presence in this beautiful land
is the outcome of two of the bravest odysseys in human history; first, the great Polynesian navigation of the vast Pacific,
and secondly, the voyage undertaken by my forbears, when families from small rural communities who had never seen the sea
in their lives before boarded tiny sailing ships on a three-month journey to an unknown destination, the most distant point
I am proud of that achievement, as my Maori
compatriots are of theirs. The difference was that the Maori journey took place much earlier, so that knowledge
of the huge changes that had taken place in the rest of the world over a thousand years was denied to them. Pakeha
have little understanding of the huge adaptation that has been required of Maori over the last relatively short 180 years
It is greatly to the credit of both of us that
we are committed to creating out of these historical givens something new and wonderful. If we succeed,
we will have achieved something never before attempted – the synthesis of two very different cultures as the foundation
stone of a tolerant and inclusive society where difference is seen as a source of strength rather than conflict.
But we are still far from that achievement. We cannot
call it success when Maori – by virtue in most cases of just being Maori – have a less than a fair share of our
effort at partnership.
We pakeha cannot be happy when
a significant element in our country has worse health, poorer education and job prospects, and less chance of self-fulfilment
than the rest. If we want to build a strong and successful country, who do we prefer as partners –
a perpetually aggrieved, underprivileged, racially defined underclass or proud and successful brothers-in-arms, confident
in their own heritage and identity?
There are those,
of course, who say that it’s for Maori to get themselves to the starting-line, that they must take their chances like
everyone else in a market-based economy which rewards the strong and leaves the rest to fend for themselves. But
we can do better than that.
Yes, of course, there will
be extremists on both sides of the issue who claim more than is justified. But the best defence against
extremism is to recognise the justice of moderate claims.
is not the time to be fearful and mean-spirited. A divided society is a weaker society. We
should grab the chance to understand and value each other, to support each other, and to build together.
This article was published in the NZ Herald on 12 July.