It is often said that politics is the art of the possible. The election campaign over the last few weeks provided ample evidence of that mantra as politicians argued about what they believe is possible with varying degrees of persuasiveness.
They all agreed, however, that whether something is possible depends upon its cost, and much of the debate descended into claims, counter-claims, and sometimes outright lies about the economics of various policies. What was possible in fact became a zero-sum game of economics and a disappointing stilted version of what was “realistic”.
In many ways, it seemed sadly and unimaginatively predictable, yet the idea that politics is only a matter of economically-determined possibilities is relatively recent and culturally-specific.
It was brought to this land as part of the Westminster constitutional system which was shaped by the particular cultural and social circumstances of English history, where wealth had become the measure of human worth as well as political possibility, and ownership had become enshrined in the strangely named “sanctity” of property rights.
Parliament became the site of power where those interests were mediated or protected as part of state sovereignty — and democracy itself became a party-based system in which it was felt that the people were best represented through political conflict between the government and the “opposition”.
There have always been other ways of doing politics, however, and there have certainly always been other ways of defining democracy. The original idea of democracy that was developed in Greece had no notion of political parties, and neither did it have any concept of a supreme sovereign exercising authority in a parliament.
What it did have was a clear understanding about giving voice to the will of the people — and over time every culture developed its own institutional ways in which that might occur.
Sometimes the “people” did not include women or the poor — as in England and the rest of Europe until comparatively recently — and sometimes their will was manipulated by those who believed their position was ordained by some god or gods.
But the idea of a power vesting in the people was, and is, a deeply felt human imperative that is often expressed as the right to self-determination, which is included in such documents as The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
As part of their self-determination, Indigenous nations naturally developed their own politics and their own ways of democratically giving expression to the will of their people.
Māori were no different. The Tūhoe rangatira John Rangihau once stated that the exercise of mana or rangatiratanga was fundamentally democratic because it was “people bestowed”.
But in colonisation, those different systems were dismissed as inferior and even anti-democratic while those in Europe were regarded as universal constructs which needed to be imposed on so-called primitive peoples in order to civilise and bring them to the light of true democracy.
There is a kind of verbal gymnastics in that assertion because colonisation, with its violent and racist need to dispossess, is itself inherently undemocratic. The imposition of the Westminster system denied the will of those being dispossessed except on its own terms, and one of its cherished ideals about majority rule was regularly abandoned whenever colonisers claimed the right to rule in places where they were clearly a minority.
That was the situation in Aotearoa in 1840, but because logical consistency was less important in colonisation than the usurping of power, it was simply assumed that the Westminster system could be imposed even though iwi and hapū already had their own political institutions.
They were simply redefined as a form of “petty” authority and from that moment on parliamentary politics were to be the only reality.
In a sense, the election, with its arguments and misrepresentations and even the occasionally ennobling aspirations of many of its candidates, was caught in that same misguided universalism. It was the only apparent reality.
Yet, as Irihapeti Ramsden reminded us: “Experience teaches the wary observer that ideas of truth, justice, and civil and human rights are human in origin. Shaped to suit the times.
Questions must be asked. How have we arrived at these truths? Are these truths for everyone? What is real?”
Perhaps amid all the current post-mortems about winning and losing the election, it may be timely to re-imagine what is “real” and to reflect on what kind of a different reality might be created.
To question how electioneering about “law and order”, for example, might cease to be a race-based auction about who can be tougher on crime, or how poverty and homelessness might be understood as simple affronts to human dignity, rather than issues caught up in sterile debates about what is economically possible.
For the Treaty of Waitangi did envisage something different. Contrary to what the Crown has always said, it did not admit either a cession of Māori sovereignty or a vesting of power solely in a political system brought here from somewhere else.
Rather, it suggested something that could be unique to this land — a constitutional framework which allowed for what the Waitangi Tribunal has called different “spheres of influence”, in which the will of Māori and the will of those who have come after 1840 could be expressed in a new and relational way.
That has always been the challenge and promise of the Treaty which this country has yet to honour, a reality which has yet to come to pass.
It is always difficult to change what is seen as the reality, especially when it is experienced as an entrenchment and privileging of power and wealth.
But, while Māori have constantly had to adapt since 1840, that adaptation has never meant acquiescence to the authority which the colonisers have imposed. In fact, iwi and hapū have always tried to ensure a respectful and equal constitutional relationship with the Crown as promised in the Treaty.
Whether it was the establishment of Kotahitanga or the Kingitanga, or the discussions prior to the first sitting of the Māori Parliament at Waipatu in 1892, or even the establishment of the Māori Congress nearly a century later, the idea of a different constitutional arrangement as a way of doing politics differently has always been present.
Over the years it has been framed in different ways, but in a very real sense it has been a search for what is a just and fair exercise of rangatiratanga as an expression of self-determination. Like all human rights, it inheres in people because they are human, and it is not diminished by disagreement or doubt or the passage of time.
It is certainly not diminished because it has been denied by others or by the fact that the challenge to exercise it seems too hard or unrealistic. Instead, it is the imaginative and very real hope for something different that has remained alive like the flickering flame of ahi kaa.
That hope was especially apparent during the work of Matike Mai, the Independent Iwi Working Group on Constitutional Transformation which met between 2011 and 2015.
The report of the Working Group was released on Waitangi Day last year and summarised the proceedings of 252 hui throughout the country as well as 70 rangatahi wānanga. It outlined the need for a different political and constitutional reality that was articulated not as some pious dream, but as a realistic Treaty expectation in which both the current constitutional model and the way of understanding politics and democracy might be rethought.
In many ways, the ideas presented to the Working Group were a sincere attempt to ask what is real or what might become a new reality.
Perhaps most importantly, the discussions at every hui stressed the need for a new values-based conception of politics. During the wānanga held with rangatahi, most of the discussion actually centred on values and the need to have a political and constitutional system that enabled respectful relationships.
Some of the most common values that were identified related to the equality provided for in the Treaty and the sense of belonging which it reaffirmed for Māori and offered to others.
Others included the need for a meaningful equality between men and women and the wellbeing of every mokopuna. All of them were linked to the land and the belief that caring for the land (manaaki whenua) would lead to caring for the people (manaaki tangata) in a more humane and considerate society.
This in turn was highlighted in the frequently expressed view that different values would promote a different sort of politics based upon a respect for the worth of all peoples according to what some called “kotahi aroha”.
There was a heartening openness in those discussions which some might dismiss as unrealistic or merely wishful thinking, but they underscored a genuine desire for something that was both better and different. The discussions in that sense were consistent with those of the past and were very tikanga as well as Treaty-driven.
Above all they indicated an understanding of how politics might evolve from just being the art of the possible, to an artful courage which imagines and seeks to do what might currently seem impossible.
Since the report was published, that imagined possibility has been explored by many Pākehā as well as Māori. Often it has been born of frustration with what seems the petty points-scoring of current political behaviour. But it has also arisen from an increasing desire to see what the Treaty relationship might really mean.
Many young people especially are now considering the idea of kotahi aroha and what thinkers such as Max Harris describe as a new politics of love. There is surely some cause for hope in that slow but ongoing dialogue.
The elections, though, have passed in the same old certainty that there is no other reality. And no doubt economics will continue to be important but hopefully not in its current neoliberal acquisitiveness.
The thought of what is possible will always be in a constant state of flux, and redefinition too, but maybe others in the future will heed the words that Sir James Henare once addressed to Māori: “We have come too far not to go further. We have done too much not to do more.”
Thinking, discussing, imagining, and doing more about a different politics is surely part of that further journey.
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