October 14 is shaping up to be a flashpoint in race relations, both here and in Australia, with vast implications for our social stability, writes Tina Ngata.
In Australia, the Voice referendum culminates on October 14. It’s a referendum where the Australian general public will indicate its endorsement (or not) of constitutionally protected representation in parliament for the Indigenous population.
For a nation with such a brutal (and enduring) colonial experience, it could be argued that the Voice referendum is a milestone of sorts, and certainly one which is being promoted as an opportunity to demonstrate harmonious racial unity in Australia.
Australian progressive liberals are running a strong campaign to, naturally, vote yes. The campaign comes replete with a Johnny Farnham anthem from the 1980s and emotional imagery of, presumably, “everyday” (i.e. white) Australians having a moment as they endorse granting basic human rights to people who were never given a choice about the arrival of others on their land in the first place.
Naturally, many of our Indigenous brothers and sisters support a “yes” vote. Now that the referendum is in place, it’s hard to argue against that — the implications of a “no” vote could result in a protracted compounding of the racism they already experience, as Meriki Onus points out. Many of them also view this as a genuine and important opportunity to take up for the progression of Blak rights.
Still others have taken the position of the “Blak no”, arguing that the offer is a distraction from the core issue of illegal colonial occupation. They maintain that Blak rights should never be up for a vote by non-Blak people. This too is hard to argue against, because the defining thing about human rights (if indeed that is what will even be achieved by the current offer, which activist leaders like Chelsea Watego argue is doubtful), is that they are not determined by vote. For these “no” whānau, the referendum itself is an expression of racist privilege, and one to which they are principally opposed.
There is, naturally, also a racist, colonial anti-Voice campaign. Those who deny the baked-in racial inequity of colonialism, and believe that endorsing these rights amounts to a kind of “reverse racism”.
Among all of this, public figures, especially Aboriginal female leaders such as Senator Lidia Thorpe, are being viciously targeted, threatened, and abused as racial tensions heighten.
If, in Aotearoa, you’re tempted to look across at Australia and ponder the mess that colonialism has made there, perhaps take a moment to reflect on our own situation. For, on the same day, we too will have an opportunity to express our attitude towards the human rights of Māori.
The 2023 New Zealand elections have arguably been the most racialised in our nation’s history. While every New Zealand election is customarily (and also unacceptably) characterised by race-baiting politics and the throwing of whānau Māori under the colonial bus for the sake of majority votes, this year we’ve seen multiple lines crossed that indicate a mainstreaming of extreme, violent anti-Māori rhetoric .
This is not a domestic phenomenon. Around the world there is a coordinated campaign by the conservative far right to regress the progression of rights over the past 60 years. In short, the far right have had enough of the march toward justice, and are using every means at their disposal to put an end to it. Their methods include the infiltration of adjacent interests (such as women’s rights or middle-class farming interest groups) to gradually co-opt and then weaponise them against the most marginalised in our society, typically through the politics of fear.
Online networks and social media have paved the way for the rapid spread of these ideas. Where historically our geographic isolation provided something of a communicative buffer, now the cross-pollination of harmful ideas from global regions to New Zealand is almost instantaneous. Indeed, a crossover between the racist anti-Voice campaign and the racist anti-co-governance networks in Aotearoa has already been identified by disinformation watchdogs. The result is a mutual galvanising of hate.
Politically, this manufactured hate and fear has been treated as an opportunity by parties like New Zealand First and Act to reclaim and retain political relevance. Not only have they endorsed a number of these ideas through rhetoric and policy, but they’ve also harboured unabashed conspiracy theorists on their party lists.
The National Party has also predictably ridden this hateful tide — promoting policies that will undoubtedly wind back equity by decades. The campaign trail for these parties alone has become a super-highway for the spreading of racist, misogynistic, transphobic narratives into every township of our country.
Throughout the 2023 electoral campaign, we’ve seen:
- An escalation of race-baiting
- Racialised political smear campaigns
- A national roadshow, protected by police, that endorses militarised uprisings against Māori and seeks to justify “civil war”
- David Seymour making jokes about bombing the Ministry for Pacific Peoples
- Commitments by David Seymour and Act to remove ministries and institutions dedicated to the protection and advancement of Māori, women’s, ethnic, and human rights
- Policies by National, Act and New Zealand First that will predictably:
- increase Māori homelessness
- increase Māori poverty
- restore systemic drivers of high Māori mortality rates
- accelerate Māori hyper-incarceration
- Further commitments by David Seymour to erase statutory commitments to Te Tiriti o Waitangi
- Erasure of the Indigenous status of Māori by Winston Peters and Shane Jones.
Most troublingly, we’ve seen violence aimed at wāhine Māori politicians, culminating in the threats against Te Pāti Māori candidate Hana-Rāwhiti Maipi-Clarke. The response? Inaction by the police and flat-out denial and gaslighting by far-right parties.
This escalation is not out-of-the-blue. In fact, in recent years, a number of us (myself included) have written to MPs and Prime Minister Ardern expressing great concern for the direction our race relations is taking. We pointed out the apparent inefficacy of our system settings to curtail a descent towards racialised, bigoted violence.
Everything we’re seeing now was also highlighted in a 2019 report by Mary Laylor, the United Nations rapporteur on the rights of human rights defenders. She identified the pre-conditions for political acts of violence. The response was, essentially, that they had it all under control, and a commitment to work closely together, and that someone from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet would be in touch. Nobody ever was.
While there are clear differences between our context and Australia’s — such as the fact that we are ostensibly, if not effectively, a treaty-based nation — we are, nonetheless, still a nation where systemic settings enable anti-Indigenous hate and violence.
Not only are we systemically set towards it but, if the polls are to be believed, we are also socially set towards anti-Indigenous hate and violence too. The far right have continued to poll highly in spite of their clear intention to visit further harm upon Māori.
Importantly, the Māori electorates are polling in favour of a centre-left government made up of Labour, the Greens and Te Pāti Māori. It is the general roll that apparently supports, or at the very least is willing to ignore, what is clearly hateful and harmful intent towards Māori.
This election is not just a battle of policies. On one level, this is our own Voice referendum. It’s our own opportunity as a nation to reject the politics of anti-Māori hate.
Come October 14, on both sides of Te Tai-o-Rēhua (so-called Tasman Sea), we will see just how progressive, or regressive, our nations truly are.
Tina Ngata (Ngāti Porou) is a researcher and scholar, and the author of Kia Mau: Resisting Colonial Fictions. Her work involves advocacy for environmental, Indigenous and human rights. This includes local, national and international initiatives that highlight the role of settler colonialism in issues such as climate change and waste pollution, and which promote Indigenous conservation as best practice for a globally sustainable future.
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