Moana Jackson (Photo Unity Books)

Most commentators from both sides of the separatism debate have missed the wider context, writes Moana Jackson. “The whole debate has been a reminder of the need for decolonisation and an honest accounting with how this country came to be.”


A lot has already been written and said about the latest political race-baiting. The leader of the opposition’s claim that Māori and the Crown are introducing “separatism by stealth” has evoked familiar reactions. 

Some have seen it as mere political points scoring. Others have described it as an uncomfortable truth that raises serious questions about the very idea of state sovereignty.

Most commentary, though, misses the wider context within which any race-based discussion of Māori needs to take place. 

For political race-baiting is not a new phenomenon. It has its origins in the centuries that European states designed a culture of colonisation to take over the lands, lives, and power of Indigenous Peoples. It was based on an illogical and destructive set of assumptions about power and righteousness then — and it remains so today.

The latest dispute bears all the sordid hallmarks of that history and practice. 

Indeed, the allegation that separatism underpins the proposed Māori Health Authority and He Puapua, the report of the independent working group on the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, is drearily familiar. 

It is also pathetically predictable, logically flawed, and factually inaccurate — as all racist attacks are. 

As always in such cases, it has caused real hurt to many Māori to have to endure another attack on the place and rights of iwi and hapū. The hurt is not an unfortunate by-product of the allegations but a deliberate part of the process. The criticisms may be directed at the government in a politically-motivated attack, but those most directly affected are vulnerable Māori who have no equivalent platform to respond. Instead, they are rendered powerless while the race-baiting reaffirms the privileged power of the colonising state.

The working group report is a considered document sourced in international law as well as the Treaty of Waitangi. Like the proposal for the Māori Health Authority, it is the result of years of work to ensure some effective recognition of tino rangatiratanga and the need to begin meaningful conversations about what that might mean in practice.

It has been heartening that the leader of the opposition’s attacks have been criticised in many quarters, and even more heartening perhaps that they have not given her party the expected boost in the polls. It has been as simplistic and offensive as Don Brash’s Ōrewa speech in 2004, but it has not delivered the same level of overtly raucous support.

Some commentators have suggested that this is because the country has “matured” since 2004. Certainly, the changes in understanding about our shared history and the importance of the Treaty and the place of Māori as tangata whenua have been genuine and far reaching. 

However, they’re often accompanied by a quiet smugness which elides how much more still needs to be done to honour the Treaty and create the Treaty-based society it envisaged.

It’s therefore regrettable that some of the criticism of the leader of the opposition’s comments were cloaked in the same smug, almost self-satisfied, air of complacency. As a result, their rush to correct her often ignored or missed the same important points that she chose to ignore. 

For the attacks — and often the arguments against them — were actually derived from the same colonising imperative that has always been used to justify the dispossession of Māori and the history of colonisation. They also draw on the same erroneous assumptions that have dogged the understanding of the Treaty of Waitangi since 1840. They are part of the often repeated illusion that colonisation was somehow better here than anywhere else.

They are therefore caught in the dangerous mythtakes of New Zealand history that both the supporters and most critics of the speech have chosen to accept as truths.

All history is really just a story telling, usually an “our story”, and each society tells its stories in its own way. Sometimes they recite the facts, often they interpret the facts in particular ways, and at other times, they rhyme questions and imagination together to comfort people through the unknown or mysterious. In that case, they become myths that can be told as parables that might eventually get debunked or be tolerated because they do no real harm. 

Sometimes, though, the “our-story” can be a quite different narrative that either sustains a falsehood or records events to redefine the purpose and consequence of what has happened. In those cases, the “our-story” becomes a misremembering where facts are framed in misleading assumptions or untruths.

When that occurs, the our-stories become mythtakes. They replace honest historicism with self-serving justifications that pose as reason, or with excuses for actions that might normally be viewed as morally and legally inexcusable. 

They are deceits more than parables, and they are more resistant to change because they typically deal with oppression and other anxious antagonisms which require constant reinforcement. They may start as a mere guess or a doctrinaire assertion of a right, but they get credibility through repetition or violence and the untrammelled exercise of power.    

Societies founded in colonisation have more mythtakes than any other because colonisers always redefine their acquisition of someone else’s authority as some kind of justifiable or even noble act. 

They misremember what happens with mythtaken origin stories where a pretence of honour and legality obscures the fact that colonisation has no real visions of justice or freedom except for the colonisers themselves. 

Like the “inventions” that the wanna-be coloniser Benito Mussolini once claimed were “more useful than truth”, they serve the colonisers’ interest in power so well that people end up not even thinking about why or when they were first created. 

Instead, they simply accept them as the facts of the “imagined community” they have constructed in someone else’s land. They are reassuring in their repetitive falsity. They are lies posing as truth.

The late Ojibway writer John Moore once wrote of the colonisers:

When they massacred our people,
They told lies.
When they promised to honour our treaties,
They told lies.
When they took away our babies,
They told lies.
When they said we were their inferiors
They told lies.
When they stole our land,
They told lies.
Now the lies they told
Still shape the lie of the land.

The allegations of Māori “separatism” are the spawn of those mythtaken lies. They silence the fact that colonisation has always been a separatist process in which the colonising states imposed their own separate institutions in places that already had their own. 

The warfare and other acts of erasure that established state dominance then became a redefining in which the inherent divisiveness of colonisation was morphed into an innocent and unitary assumption of power that could not be threatened by any attempted “separateness” on the part of “the other”. 

The colonial order became the new assimilative reality. Māori claims to continued self-determination were disparaged as a dangerous separatism menacing the harmony of the new New Zealand state. In that context, allegations of Māori separatism became the handy mantra to dismiss any opposition to the lies that the colonising state wanted people to believe.

Part of that “wanting to believe” that is encapsulated in the current separatist attacks in fact depends upon and consolidates two of the most persistent and still promoted mythtakes — that Māori voluntarily ceded the sovereign authority to continue governing in this land, and that such a cession is some kind of proven fact, rather than a colonising point of view that has always been contested by Māori.

A former Minister of Treaty Settlements once summed up the Crown view with no evidence but the unashamed assertion that the Crown is in charge simply because “What is, is.” Others have followed suit by stating that a “revolutionary takeover of power” has vested authority in the Crown, as if dogmatism is proof of rightness and justice. 

In some cases, both the supporters and critics of the leader of the opposition made the same mythtake. They based their arguments on the same misreading of history.

Some journalists who supported the leader of the opposition fell into the same trap. Thus one columnist argued that the separatist agenda based on “treatyism” is an existential threat to the very idea of a liberal democracy that they claim colonisation established. 

However, colonisation is never liberal or democratic, because the killing and dispossession of innocent peoples are contrary to even their broadest definitions. The undemocratic and illiberal inequities in health and wealth that are still endured by Māori are a constant reminder of that fact. 

In the current race-baiting, the integrity of the UN Declaration has itself been challenged and diminished. At the time New Zealand finally agreed to sign the Declaration, the then prime minister attempted to cheapen its significance by claiming it was merely an “aspirational” document of “good intentions”. Ever since then, successive governments have strangely suggested that its adoption was never meant to imply obligations and enforcement.

Yet, human rights conventions are always aspirational. The Convention Against Torture is a set of aspirations that one day no person will be subjected to torture and the brutal exercise of state power. It has not stopped torture, but it has enshrined the hope of a torture-free world that the international community should work towards. 

The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is similar. Its reaffirmation of the right of Indigenous Peoples to self determination has not guaranteed its application in New Zealand or other colonising states. 

But its inclusion in the Declaration is an acknowledgement that Indigenous Peoples have the same rights as others, and that those rights must eventually be recognised in practical political and constitutional terms. That is the way of human rights — the hope for, and the spur to, action.

It’s unfortunate that the recommendations in He Puapua and the hopes invested in a Māori Health Authority have been so misrepresented in the facile claims of a “separatist agenda”. It is a slight on the honest endeavours of those who drafted He Puapua, and on those who have advocated for an end to the acknowledged racism in the health system. 

It also belittles the work of the thousands of Indigenous Peoples who participated in the Declaration’s drafting at the UN, some of whom were killed by their state governments for that participation.  

Their sacrifice, and the work of generations of Māori people and others of goodwill, is testament to the very human need to live with self-determined dignity. The separatist argument, which ignores the base divisiveness of colonisation, denies that need. 

The supporters and opponents of the separatist diatribes who argue from the mythtakes of this country’s history both unfortunately do the same.

In that sense, the whole debate has been much more than some self-satisfied party political spat or a clash between the reactionary and the woke. Instead, it has been a reminder of the need for decolonisation and for an honest accounting with how this country came to be — and an equally honest imagining of what it might yet become.

As long as politicians see some political advantage in race-baiting, and hope that attacks on Māori might revive their flagging political fortunes, so race-baiting will continue. 

There is no morality or honour in that fact, and only the promise of a different set of political and constitutional values will rescue this country from their pernicious effects.

The Treaty, and Declaration, offer that promise. So, too, do the words of poets and seers and the stories left in the land by generations of the ancestors. Anahera Gildea has written:

Healing comes with rhythm, dance,
The folds of the land
It matters how you tell a story . . .
To wrench hope from story
Is to seek where the trees have fallen
The provision of space
Kia punanī ai ngā kakano o te hau.
It is the feral and the ecstasy
That heals
The wildness and grief.

Some pundits suggest that the leader of the opposition may lose her job, and no doubt the government will continue to promote itself as the supporter of diversity and the Treaty partnership. 

But both sides still cling to the idea of a Treaty partnership in which iwi and hapū are the junior partner and tino rangatiratanga is a subordinate authority still trapped in the bounds of colonisation. 

That situation is a further breeding ground for racism and race-baiting. Māori and Pākehā alike deserve something better than that.


Moana Jackson is Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Porou, and Rongomaiwahine. He likes telling stories to, and for, his mokopuna and hopes they will grow up in a land where Te Tiriti is finally seen as the base for respectful political relationships. Then there will be other stories to tell.

© E-Tangata, 2021

Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.

If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.