The New Equation: Racial Preference = Unearned Privilege

Peter-Shirtcliffe22_1469534287_480X532_c_c_0_0.jpgKiwis have always disliked and distrusted Unearned Privilege. Our collective psyche tolerates individual success, and, if decently handled by that individual, it will get respect and even quiet admiration. But the essential Kiwi commitment to fairness and equality is never far below the surface. It is underpinned by a belief that if a breach occurs, there are remedies. Either the “tall poppy” syndrome, or the democratic process, or both, kick in.

These attitudes are at the heart of our success in developing the multi-faceted society we have. There is tolerance and respect for a huge range of cultural and racial backgrounds. We have always been able to absorb this diversity, and give it the chance to contribute to the social and economic environments of which we are rightly proud.  There are no barriers to maintaining cultural traditions, and keeping alive such social or other structures as people see fit. Generally, those seeking  to live in this setting do not claim any special treatment based on their cultural background – they pretty quickly learn that if they take the opportunities available (especially education), work hard, and lead decent and caring lives,  things will usually work out pretty well.

On 6 February 1840 a document called the Treaty of Waitangi was signed by a representative of Queen Victoria on the one hand, and tribal representatives of the Maori people on the other, which ceded sovereignty over New Zealand, completely and forever.

Subsequently, there were serious breaches by the Crown of some of its undertakings, and quite properly a settlement process was set up. This is now nearly complete.

The transfer of sovereignty involved all citizens, regardless of racial or other background, submitting to the British principles of property rights and governance. Since 1840, these have changed in some of their detail, but not in the underlying issues of equality before the law, and in how we are governed. There may be imperfections in our system, but broadly it delivers well on the principles of Democratic Capitalism. Were it otherwise, we would not enjoy the attractive and secure lifestyle which is the envy of so many. Life no longer has the brutality and brevity of 1840, and far-sighted Maori foresaw this prospect when they sought the protection of the British Crown.

Regrettably, there is a numerically small but vocal group of Maori leaders who have worked hard over many years to use their cultural background to argue for racially-based preference in economic and governance matters. Some of the arguments put up are not only unrelated to any common-sense interpretation of the Treaty document, but are based on pure mumbo-jumbo. This is dangerous stuff – preference granted on the basis of race, religion or other cultural affiliation leads to unearned privilege, unearned status, unearned profits and corruption.

Nowhere, directly or indirectly did the 1840 agreement envisage long-term race-based preference in either property rights or the way we are governed. In these areas, the concept of “Partnership” was nowhere to be seen. To the extent that a Court of Appeal decision many years ago canvassed this theme, the term “partnership” was used in the common law sense of requiring that the parties act reasonably and in good faith towards each other. There was, I suggest, no intention to introduce anything which would lead to Unearned Privilege. Descendants of the Maori who signed the Treaty document have seized on the word partnership and imputed to it two aspects – firstly that it has commercial characteristics, and secondly, that it involves a 50/50 approach to decision-making.

These are serious misrepresentations, which ignore three realities:

(1) A partnership need not have commercial purpose. If it does, it certainly does not automatically involve a 50/50 sharing in its economic or governance provisions. It can be 99/1.

(2)The parties to any type of partnership need definition.

(3)After 175 years, the wisdom of Solomon would not solve (2)

There are increasing political forces at work pushing a racial agenda in our economic and governance environment. The RMA proposals, including vital issues such as how we deal with freshwater come readily to mind. The Government is being lily-livered in not dealing openly with this preference issue. In the case of fresh water, it would like to devolve the responsibility for dealing with race-based water claims to Local Authorities, who are ill-equipped to deal with well-orchestrated tribal grabs for Unearned Privilege.

The recently-deceased USA Supreme Court Justice Scalia, widely acknowledged for his legal skills and wisdom had this to say about racial preferences in the awarding of Federal contracts: “To pursue the concept of racial entitlement – even for the most admirable and benign purposes – is to reinforce and preserve for future mischief the way of thinking that produced race slavery, race privilege and race hatred. In the eyes of government, we are just one race here. It is American.” We should ponder these words.

The phrase “Unearned Privilege” needs to be used like a piece of litmus paper whenever there is a suspicion of racial preference.

Peter Shirtcliffe


First published: NZCPR February 28, 2016