Brash at Waitangi: Where to now?

Tena koutou ki a koutou a Ngapuhi, E hari ana taku ngakau ki te mihi atu ki a koutou, He iwi kotahi tatou, No reira tena koutou.

Can I begin my comments today by saying how much I appreciate your invitation?  I have no doubt that some of you see me as a racist of the worst kind.  It is a great tribute to you that you are nevertheless willing to have me here today, at this place of great importance in our history, even though you may disagree with me on a whole raft of fundamental issues. 

Perhaps we are continuing a tradition which dates back to 1840, to the Treaty which we remember this week, when people with very different views met and reached an agreement which affects all our lives to this day.

So I thank you for inviting me to speak.

When Rueben Taipari invited me, he suggested I touch briefly on my own background – he had recently read my autobiography, and suggested that there were aspects of my life which most people are not aware of. 

And he suggested I should comment on how Ngapuhi, and perhaps Maori New Zealanders generally, can best improve their economic status.  I’m willing to do that, though I will do so with great trepidation.  I don’t know nearly enough about the circumstances of your iwi and hapu to do that with confidence, so my observations will be tentative.

Before I do either of those things, let me briefly comment on my views on Te Reo.  You will have heard, and perhaps been surprised, that I began today with a mihi.  Yes, I can, when properly coached by a Ngapuhi chief, say a few words in Te Reo!

And to be perfectly clear, I was enthusiastic to do so in this context.

I have absolutely nothing against the Maori language and for many New Zealanders it is a vital part of who they are. 

What I have objected to is two things.

First, the use of the Maori language where almost nobody can understand it seems to me to be totally inappropriate.  When I was young – and that’s quite a few years ago now! – if anyone spoke in Maori in an environment where at best a tiny minority understood it they immediately translated.  I thank the organisers of events this year for providing simultaneous translation earpieces to those of us who don’t speak Te Reo.  

I first made a comment on this issue in relation to the use of Te Reo on Radio New Zealand, or RNZ as they now prefer to be called.  I came across the same issue two weeks ago when I was briefly in China.  I had reason to call the New Zealand embassy in Beijing, and was astonished to find that the phone was answered with a message in Te Reo, followed by one in English, and followed finally by one in Mandarin.  I would guess that not one person in a thousand calling the New Zealand embassy in Beijing understands Te Reo.

Secondly, I have spoken out strongly against making the teaching of Te Reo mandatory, as some politicians and others now advocate.  I am entirely comfortable with taxpayers providing funding to teach Te Reo to those who want to learn it, and to fund Maori TV and a number of Maori language radio stations – it is a valuable treasure to many New Zealanders.

But it seems to me that for most New Zealanders it has no practical value.  As you might expect from a person with an economics training, I look at the cost of every new proposal – and by cost I don’t just mean the dollar cost, but the opportunity cost.  What do we have to drop from the school curriculum in order to make time to teach Te Reo?  Do we have less maths, less history, less science, less physical education?  Something would have to be dropped to make space to teach Te Reo.

Without question the most important language for all New Zealanders to speak, read and write fluently is English – not just because it is the predominant language of this country but also because it is the only truly international language.

Chinese is the most widely spoken first language in the world, followed in turn by Spanish and then by English.

But the total of those who speak English exceeds that of any other language.

When I was Governor of the Reserve Bank, I used to attend annual meetings of the central bank governors from the entire Asian region – from Mongolia in the north, through East Asia, South-East Asia, Australia and New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Iran – a huge sweep of mankind.  Every meeting was conducted in English, with no translation provided.  It was just assumed that everybody who had reached the status of central bank governor could speak English.

English is the language of international commerce and of science.  It is the language of aviation.  When a Lufthansa plane, with a German pilot, lands in Frankfurt, the pilot speaks to ground control in English.  Legislation in India is in English.  In Singapore, it is compulsory for everybody to learn English.

Tragically, too many New Zealanders don’t have the strong knowledge of English they need to prosper in the modern economy.  I have never forgotten being told by the manager of a small company in Hawke’s Bay that he couldn’t hire most of those who applied for a job as a forklift truck driver because they couldn’t read well enough – couldn’t read labels on the pallets, couldn’t read the safety instructions.

It was for good reason that in decades past some Maori parents insisted that their children learn English: English was the passport to the modern world.  It still is, and it probably will be for the next century at least.

As I’ve mentioned, in inviting me to speak today Rueben Taipari said that he had recently read my autobiography.  He said it showed a side of Don Brash that most people are not aware of.

So let me briefly, and in the Maori tradition, explain where I’ve come from.

I called my book “Incredible Luck”.  And I called it that because I’ve been extremely lucky in many different ways. 

First, like everybody else, I’m lucky to be alive.  When you think about how many things had to happen for each of us to be born – for our parents to meet, for our grandparents to meet, for our great-grandparents to meet, and so on back through thousands of generations – the odds against being born who we are are absolutely extraordinary. 

Second, like all of us here, I was born into the most extraordinary time and place in human history.   When your ancestors arrived in this country centuries ago, it was by means of a dangerous sea voyage which lasted weeks if not months.  When my ancestors arrived here in the 19th century, they too would have endured months of difficult and unpleasant travel.  Today, we take safe and fast air travel for granted; we take for granted being able to communicate without cost with people on the other side of the world – I was coached on the mihi with which I began my speech today by a Ngapuhi chief talking from the other side of the world while he was visiting Beijing.  We take for granted that we can watch events on the other side of the globe from the comfort of our homes.  It never occurs to us that we might die of a tooth infection.  Just a century ago, a tooth infection could be fatal.

And while New Zealand is a long way from being perfect, it is nevertheless a place where all children are provided with almost free education, where healthcare is highly subsidized, where our daughters have the same opportunities as our sons, where nobody is jailed for criticizing the Prime Minister.  It’s a country ranked by the Legatum Institute in London as the second most prosperous country on the planet, behind only Norway.  (That is not to say our per capita income is the second highest on the planet – the assessment included a range of other factors measuring the quality of life, what the Prime Minister might describe as “wellbeing”.)

Indeed, when Jeremy Clarkson, the star of Top Gear, visited New Zealand a few years ago, he said that visiting our country made him question the wisdom of God.  If God really did have perfect knowledge and perfect foresight, why would he have his only son born in a lousy place like Bethlehem, when he could have been born in Palmerston North? 

Your ancestors no doubt signed the Treaty for a variety of reasons, but none of those who signed 179 years ago could have imagined the vast improvements in the status of women, the enormous improvements in healthcare and life expectancy, or the benefits which modern science has conferred on all of us.  Yes, some of us have benefited to a greater extent than others, but all of us are vastly better off today than our ancestors were in 1840.

But third, I have been lucky because of the parents I had.  They were not wealthy.  My father was a Presbyterian minister on a very modest salary; my mother was trained as a milliner and, until well into mid-life, had only a single year of high school education.  Until I was at high school, most of my clothes were made by my mother.  Every week we had one or two meatless days – allegedly because that was good for our health, but in retrospect I realise that that was at least in part because we couldn’t afford meat every day.  And I regard that background as one of my huge advantages: I learnt that nobody owed me a living.

Rueben pointed out to me that my autobiography also admitted to failures in my life, and yes, I’ve had many of those. 

I structured most of my book around a metaphor.  In the 1960s, the US Air Force developed an experimental aircraft called the Bell X-15, designed to test the strength of various alloys at very high speeds.  The Bell X-15 still holds the record for the fastest manned flight ever.  It reached an altitude of 100 kilometres – some ten times the altitude at which commercial jets typically fly – and speeds of 7,000 kilometres per hour.

But it only reached that altitude, and reached those speeds, because it was launched by being dropped from another aircraft at 40,000 feet.   I felt that, by being born in New Zealand with the parents I had, I had the advantage of being launched from 40,000 feet, and I analysed my life into what I regarded as successful “flights”, partially successful “flights”, and dismal failures.  I won’t recount those failures now, but there were plenty of them!  I console myself with the thought that those who’ve never made mistakes haven’t been brave enough!

So much for my personal story.  Rueben suggested that as Ngapuhi wait, and wait, for their turn at settling with the Crown, I should make some observations about how to improve the economic status of Maori New Zealanders, and Ngapuhi in particular.  As I’ve said, I’m willing to do that, though I do so with great trepidation. 

The first observation I want to make, however, I make with some confidence.  Most Maori New Zealanders will never become economically prosperous through Treaty settlements. 

Nobody knows at this stage what the total of all Treaty settlements will be.  But let’s suppose it’s $5 billion – five times the original so-called “fiscal envelope” that Jim Bolger envisaged back in the nineties.  Let’s assume also that that total is invested to yield an average of 5% per annum in perpetuity.  And finally let’s assume that 15% of New Zealanders, or some 750,000 people, are entitled to a share of that.  That would increase the annual income of each Maori New Zealander by the grand total of just $333 – better than a kick in the pants but certainly not enough to transform the economic status of Maori New Zealanders.   (Incidentally, I owe this insight to Ngati Porou leader Sir Rob McLeod.)

So waiting around for a Treaty settlement would be a tragic mistake.  Of course, for some Maori the Treaty settlements have been the source of considerable income – they are the directors of the companies established to manage the assets received in Treaty settlements and their legal advisers (both Maori and non-Maori). 

But for far too many Maori the Treaty settlements have delivered little or nothing – just walk down the main street of Huntly to see what I mean, despite the very substantial settlements which Tainui has received.   

And to the extent that some Maori New Zealanders have been lulled into the false notion that their prosperity will be assured once the Treaty settlement has been made, the long-drawn-out settlement process has almost certainly done lasting damage to the economic well-being of Maori.

That was one of the two reasons why, when I was National Party leader last decade, I committed the next National Party Government to a policy involving one further year to lodge a grievance and a maximum of five further years to resolve all outstanding grievances.  I believed it was crucial for Maori that the process was hastened, because as long as too many Maori retained the false notion that their economic prosperity would be assured once the settlement had been made, there was a risk that too many Maori would remain passive, waiting around for their Treaty settlement, and that would be totally contrary to the interests of Maori.

(The other reason why I wanted to put a finite deadline on the settlement process was because I knew that the longer the process dragged on, the more impatient the Pakeha community would become, wrongly believing that a high proportion of all tax revenue would be devoted to compensation.)

More generally, there must be at least serious doubt whether the positive discrimination intended by successive governments over the last half century to assist the economic status of Maori New Zealanders has actually worked as intended.

More than a year ago, The Economist magazine had an article about the effects of positive discrimination in favour of Malays in Malaysia.  The article noted that the positive discrimination had been introduced with the very best of intentions, to improve the lot of Malays as compared with other Malaysians, mainly Chinese and Indians.  But the effect had been to benefit a small minority of Malays, while leaving most of the Malay population not much better off.

And that experience is surely directly relevant to New Zealand, with more and more special programmes reserved for those who chance to have a Maori ancestor. These include:

  • different entry standards to medical school and some law faculties,
  • appointments to local government committees without democratic process,
  • required representation on every government board or agency,
  • separate government funding for Maori tourism,
  • exemption from corporate tax for the businesses arising out of Treaty settlements,
  • taxpayer funding for customary marine title claims,
  • a legal requirement that Maori have special entitlement to be consulted on environmental planning laws, and
  • mandatory respect for Maori spiritual rites and process despite New Zealand’s officially being a secular society.

As in Malaysia, these benefits were originally intended to lift the incomes of Maori New Zealanders, which on average lagged behind those of other New Zealanders.  But they have now come to be regarded by a great many Maori as privileges to which they are entitled by virtue of landing in New Zealand prior to European and other settlers.

And who benefits from these race-based entitlements?  Assuredly not most ordinary Maori. 

Not only have most Maori not benefited at all from this growing affirmative action, many have been positively harmed by it. 

Why?  Because it has led many Maori to assume that other taxpayers owe them a living, and that in due course other taxpayers will have to discharge that obligation. 

What on earth could be more demotivating than to be told, again and again, that your poor education, your poor housing, your low income or inability to get a job is not your responsibility at all – it’s the fault of a grossly unfair system arising from injustices done to some of your great-grandparents by some of your other great-grandparents? 

It is surely not in the least surprising that too many people with a Maori ancestor are unemployed and poorly educated – the present environment positively encourages helplessness.

It is significant that Maori New Zealanders who migrate to Australia often do much better than those they leave behind.  To some extent, that is because those who have the courage and the initiative to take themselves off to a new country are almost by definition those with “get up and go”, and so more likely to succeed wherever they end up. 

But I suspect that part of the reason why Maori New Zealanders in Australia seem to be more economically successful than those they leave behind is that those who migrate know they can’t look to anybody but themselves for their success: the Australian government doesn’t owe them anything more than it owes any other immigrants.

I have always believed that government should lend a helping hand to those who are down on their luck, those who are sick and those who are otherwise unable to help themselves – hopefully in a manner that doesn’t demotivate the recipients of that help.  But I believe it is absolutely fundamental that that help should be based on need, and not on ethnicity.

It is a huge tragedy for all New Zealanders that we appear to be on the same destructive path that Malaysia is on.  Unless we move decisively to a new path, it will not end well for most Maori.

Not only does positive discrimination create a demotivating sense of entitlement, it is also patronising – it appears to imply that without such positive discrimination Maori New Zealanders can’t quite make it, that they’re not as capable as other citizens.  If I were Maori, I would find this grossly insulting.  We know, from the huge success of many Maori in New Zealand and internationally, that they are as capable as any other New Zealanders.  Just look at how many political leaders in Parliament are Maori – a quarter of the total, including the leaders, deputy leaders, or co-leaders of every party in Parliament!  Constantly suggesting that Maori need special assistance to compete with others is insulting and demotivating.

Moreover, as one Maori elder pointed out to me recently, we know from history that those who succeed most spectacularly are often those who, far from being the beneficiaries of special entitlements, are the victims of political persecution and discrimination – think of the enormous success of the Jewish people, in science, in banking, in retailing, in technology and in economics.  They didn’t achieve those things through positive discrimination – they achieved them despite being the victims of widespread anti-Jewish sentiment and sometimes violent persecution.

On a smaller scale, the Quakers and the Huguenots had similar success despite, or perhaps even because of, the discrimination to which they were subjected.

A crutch may sometimes be essential, but becoming dependent on a crutch never enables its user to walk unaided, let alone to run.

Let me make one other point about the dangers of dependence.  Many years ago, at the advent of the modern welfare state, Sir Apirana Ngata, in my opinion one of New Zealand’s greatest Maori leaders – and a man I was privileged to put on New Zealand’s $50 bank note – warned of the serious damage which the welfare state would do to Maori society.  He believed that readily available welfare would erode the proud tradition of independence which most Maori had.  And I believe his warning has been amply borne out, with a disproportionately high proportion of those on the unemployment benefit, and on the single parent benefit, being Maori.

Decades after he gave that warning, when I was Governor of the Reserve Bank, I met with a prominent kuia at her request.  She wanted to talk about Maori unemployment.   After a very long discussion, I finally asked her what she would want me to do if by some chance I found myself in the position of a benevolent dictator.  Without hesitating she replied “Abolish the dole with effect from the first of January”. 

I thought at first she was joking, and asked her to explain herself.  She said that “Unfortunately too many of my people don’t have many skills.  They can’t live well on the dole but with three or four of them in the same house all getting the dole, and a few under the table cash jobs, they can live adequately on the dole, and that’s a disaster.”  She was deadly serious, and in a sense was simply echoing what Sir Apirana Ngata said 80 years ago.

I don’t believe New Zealand can abolish the dole, but I have a good deal of sympathy with politicians like Shane Jones who make it quite clear that one of his main objectives in politics is to “get the bro’s off the couch”.  And I suspect he wants to achieve that not to save money for taxpayers, though it would do that also, but rather because life on the dole is obviously leading nowhere, or at least nowhere good.  It’s a shameful waste of young Maori lives.

Today, I’ve suggested that Treaty settlements, no matter how generous, will not provide economic prosperity for most Maori.  I’ve suggested that positive discrimination may hurt more than it helps.

Well, what would help?  I hope that Ngapuhi can quickly reach agreement with Government on the terms of their Treaty settlement so that you can start looking ahead, not backwards.  I hope that we can all accept that Maori New Zealanders are every bit as competent as other New Zealanders, so that we can move to helping people on the basis of their need, not on the basis of who some of their ancestors were.

But beyond that, what would help?  I don’t think any outsider, no matter how well qualified, is able to suggest particular industries that you should invest in.  And I’m not qualified to comment, for example, on whether the law needs to be changed to enable Maori to make better use of communally-owned land, though the Government announcement of a few days ago, providing taxpayer money to Maori enterprises where banks are reluctant to lend, certainly suggests this is an urgent need.

But what I would say without any fear of being contradicted is that in the 21st century being well educated is an absolutely crucial ingredient to economic success.  That does not necessarily mean getting a tertiary qualification, but it does mean coming out of secondary school having a strong ability to read, to write, and to reason logically. 

And for that reason I think it is a matter of enormous regret that the current Government has been so strongly opposed to partnership schools – on the evidence to date, those schools provided enormous benefits to those pupils lucky enough to get into them, and that appeared to be especially true for those Maori pupils who were not well served by the traditional state schools.  (I seem to recall that the Member of Parliament for Northland, now Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, said he would resign if a Labour-led Government abolished partnership schools.)

Finally, let me make a few closing remarks about where we are as a country.

I think we are at quite a dangerous junction.  Many Maori New Zealanders feel they have been left behind by the rest of the country and perhaps that’s an especially strong feeling up here in Northland.  Too many Maori are unemployed; too many Maori are in prison; too many Maori are coming out of school unable to read and write; too many Maori are living in poverty.  Too much of what successive governments have tried to do to help hasn’t helped, and in some cases has positively hurt.

On the other hand, many non-Maori New Zealanders have become increasingly impatient with the never-ending Treaty settlement process, and more particularly impatient with the constitutional preferences which have increasingly been written into law.

A great many New Zealanders reject any notion that the Treaty of Waitangi created a “partnership” between Maori and the Crown, a partnership which has been described as absurd by politicians as different as David Lange and Winston Peters.  Yet this is the interpretation which is more and more taken as the foundation of Government policy.

At some point, hopefully soon, we will need to determine whether we really believe in Article III of the Treaty.  That affirmed the equality of political rights for all New Zealanders.  At that point we really will be able to say, with Governor Hobson, “he iwi tahi tatou”, “we are now one people”.

Don Brash, February 5, 2019