Issues surrounding the Treaty of Waitangi have been long debated in New Zealand. Supporters of Maori land claims have looked as the Treaty as a vehicle to fulfill past injustices. But has the treaty benefited all Maori or just a strata of Maori society? And should socialists continue to uncritically support all Maori claims under the Treaty?
For a generation now, many on the left have seen the politics of the Treaty of Waitangi as a vehicle for addressing the social inequalities Maori have faced. In no small measure, this dominant view, particularly popular amongst liberals, has been the logical conclusion of identity politics. That is the belief that race, gender and class are equal factors in understanding oppression, rather than class relations being fundamental.
Understanding the history of the Treaty as instrumental in establishing colonial rule is fundamental to socialists' view of Maori struggle today.
The Treaty was not primarily an agreement between ethnic groups, but ruling circles that were, and are, viewed as legal entities- the confederation of northern chiefs and representatives of the British ruling class. The Treaty was worthless from the moment it was signed, with colonial powers waging war against tribes, stealing land and terrorising Maori. As has been noted elsewhere 'The Treaty's colonial motive was understood by Maori radicals in the 1960's and 1970's when they called the Treaty a fraud.' A number of Maori chiefs at the time refused to sign the document, well aware of intentions of the British that would 'reduce Maori to breaking stones for the road.' In the course of the land seizures the new colonial powers also ensured that newly arrived working class immigrants could not secure land independently. There was nothing honourable in the signing of the Treaty.
Since the 1980's, the state has been compensating Maori tribes for land stolen by the colonial powers, and subsequent local governments. The New Zealand ruling class saw in the Treaty process an opportunity to buy off a section of Maori radicals, and in so doing, curb Maori radicalism. A newly created Maori middle class began to form. An aspiring layer of Maori lawyers, bureaucrats, entrepreneurs, political leaders and union leaders fed off the hundreds of millions of dollars paid to tribal entities. These individuals carved out a niche for themselves in business and politics while claiming to speak for the Maori as a whole. Twenty years of Treaty settlements have seen a small but relatively wealthy and influential Maori elite with assets valued at $25NZ billion. This new and previously unseen stratum of Maori society began to repay its debt to the NZ ruling class by beginning to police Maori workers and youth.
At the same time there has been a Maori cultural renaissance and a state sponsored biculturalism that has done nothing to benefit working class and impoverished Maori. It should be noted that it is no coincidence that successive governments promoted biculturalism and encouraged Maori cultural development at the very same time that they embarked on a radical restructuring of the economy that further disadvantaged working class Maori and Pakeha. Official Maori unemployment is twice the national average, with Maori disproportionately represented in every social statistic - low household income, poor health, low level of education and high levels of crime. Social Development Ministry figures reveal that of 18 key social indicators seven showed the gap between Maori and the rest of the population widening, six recorded no change and five 'no clear trend.'
The foreshore and seabed claim debate needs to be seen in this class context. Uncritical reporting by some sections of the Australian left of the recent large march and debate on this issue isn't uncommon, particularly among the Greens and liberals. Let's look first at who is supporting Maori claims to seabed and foreshore. The centre right ACT party, known for its anti-immigration stance recognises granting Maori claims to private property gives a layer of Maori a stake in the system. So does the Business Roundtable, arguing that property rights should be protected. Budding iwi entrepreneurs have much to gain from seeing off legislative attempts to protect public access and ownership of the foreshore. If past experience is anything to go on, little of the fiscal benefits that iwi will receive from seeing the claim through will flow to those areas of desperate Maori need, Porirua, South Auckland, etc. Indeed, Ngai Tahu is the biggest corporate landowner in the South Island, has several hundreds of millions of dollars in assets. The average Maori income in the South Island is $14,000 p.a. Revealingly, a little publicised recent study by Massey University found a majority of Maori favour public ownership of the foreshore and seabed.
The foreshore and seabed should be in public hands. It should be nationalised, to ensure access for all, and the guaranteed protection of Maori sacred sites and customary use. Nationalisation would halt the commercial use of seabed and foreshore by iwi capitalists, and protect against sell offs by shady developers. Of course the type of nationalisation will be a reflection of the balance of class forces. Ideally, the left should be campaigning for a nationalisation that extends to current privately owned foreshore, and protect against future sell offs to any private interests, domestic or foreign, Maori or Pakeha. This is something ACT and the Business Roundtable could only strenuously oppose.
The slogan of land nationalisation is one that can raise the issues of socialism working class unity, against racism, economic exploitation by a wealthy and self-interested elite. Socialists and radicals in New Zealand, and their supporters in Australia, need to argue against the redistribution of resources to a small, wealthy elite, regardless of ethnic background. It's such redistribution that has contributed to the ongoing impoverishment of Maori, and Pakeha, for far too long.
By Bryan Sketchley, with thanks to Huw Jarvis for some material from an Anti Capitalist Alliance forum held recently in Wellington.