Where to now

5 February 2019

A speech prepared for delivery at the Lower Marae at Waitangi, but never delivered because I had hardly begun speaking when demonstrators made so much noise it was impossible to continue.

Tena koutou ki a koutou a Ngapuhi

E hari ana taku ngakau ki te mihi atu ki a koutou

He iwi kotahi tatou

No reira tena koutou.

Yes, I can, when properly coached by a Ngapuhi chief, say a few words in te reo!

And to be perfectly clear, I was enthusiastic to do so in this context.

I have absolutely nothing against the Maori language and for many New Zealanders it is important. 

What I have objected to is two things.

First, the use of the Maori language where almost nobody can understand it seems to me to be political correctness run riot.  I first made that observation about the use of te reo on Radio New Zealand, or RNZ as they now preferred to be called.

I came across the same issue two weeks ago when I was briefly in China.  I had reason to call the New Zealand embassy in Beijing, and was astonished to find that the phone was answered with a message in te reo, followed by one in English, and followed finally by one in Mandarin.  I would guess that not one person in a thousand calling the New Zealand embassy in Beijing understands te reo.

Secondly, I have spoken out strongly against making the teaching of te reo mandatory, as some politicians and others now advocate.  I am entirely comfortable with taxpayers providing funding to teach te reo to those who want to learn it, and to fund Maori TV and umpteen Maori language radio stations – it is a valuable treasure to those who identify as Maori.

But for most New Zealanders it has no practical value whatsoever.  As you might expect from a person with an economics training, I look at the cost of every new proposal – and by cost I don’t just mean the dollar cost, but the opportunity cost.  What do we have to drop from the school curriculum in order to make time to teach te reo?  Do we have less maths, less history, less science, less physical education?  Something would have to be dropped to make space to teach te reo, and quite frankly it is hard to think of anything which would have less value to most New Zealanders than learning te reo.

Without question the most important language for all New Zealanders to speak, read and write fluently is English – not just because it is the dominant language of this country but also because it is the only truly international language.

Chinese is the most widely spoken first language in the world, followed in turn by Spanish and then by English.

But the total of those who speak English exceeds that of any other language.

When I was Governor of the Reserve Bank, I used to attend annual meetings of the central bank governors from the entire Asian region – from Mongolia in the north, through East Asia, South-East Asia, Australia and New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Iran – a huge sweep of mankind.  Every meeting was conducted in English, with no translation provided.  It was just assumed that everybody who had reached the status of central bank governor could speak English.

English is the dominant language of international commerce and of science.  It is the language of aviation.  When a Lufthansa plane, with a German pilot, lands in Frankfurt, the pilot speaks to ground control in English.  Legislation in India is in English.  In Singapore, it is compulsory for everybody to learn English.

Tragically, too many New Zealanders – and I suspect this may be particularly true of Maori New Zealanders – don’t have the strong knowledge of English they need to prosper in a modern economy.  I have never forgotten being told by the manager of a small company in Hawke’s Bay that he couldn’t hire most of those who applied for a job as a forklift truck driver because they couldn’t read well enough – couldn’t read labels on the pallets, couldn’t read the safety instructions.

It was for good reason that in decades past some Maori parents insisted that their children learn English: English was the passport to the modern world.  It still is. 

If the resources exist to teach an additional language in our school system, I would argue strongly that that second language should be Mandarin Chinese.  China is not only now our largest trading partner; the Chinese economy is the second largest economy in the world, indeed by some measures the largest economy in the world.   There can be little doubt that China is hugely important to our future.  More and more Chinese are learning English; but it would make good sense for us to learn Chinese.

Can I begin my comments today by saying how much I appreciate your invitation?  I have no doubt that some of you see me as the devil incarnate, a racist of the worst kind.  It is a great tribute to you that you are willing to have me here today, at this place of great importance in our history, even though you may disagree with me on a whole raft of fundamental issues.  This willingness to listen to the other side of a debate is one of the great strengths of Maoridom – a characteristic not shared by some others, including some of our universities.

When I was invited to speak two months ago, Rueben Taipari, the person who contacted me, said that he had recently read my autobiography.  He said it showed a side of Don Brash that most people are not aware of.

So let me briefly, and in the Maori tradition, explain where I’ve come from.

I called my book “Incredible Luck”.  And I called it that because I’ve been lucky in three different ways. 

First, like everybody else, I’m lucky to be alive.  The odds against being born who we are are absolutely extraordinary.  We are each the product of a single sperm meeting a single egg – our fathers produced literally billions of sperm, our mothers hundreds of eggs, and who we are depended entirely on that one sperm and that one egg.  And of course, for our parents to have been born depended on an equally improbable meeting of one sperm and one egg.  And so on through thousands of generations.

Second, like all of us here, I was born into the most extraordinary time and place in human history.   When your ancestors arrived in this country centuries ago, it was by means of a dangerous sea voyage which almost certainly lasted weeks if not months.  When my ancestors arrived here in the 19th century, they too would have endured months of difficult and unpleasant travel.  Today, we take safe and fast air travel for granted; we take for granted being able to communicate without cost with people on the other side of the world – I was coached on the mihi with which I began my speech today by a Ngapuhi chief talking from his bed in Beijing.  We take for granted that we can watch events on the other side of the globe from the comfort of our homes.  It never occurs to us that we might die of a tooth infection.  Just a century ago, a tooth infection could be fatal.

And while New Zealand is a long way from being perfect, it is nevertheless a place where all children are provided with essentially free education, where healthcare is highly subsidized, where our daughters have almost the same opportunities as our sons, where nobody is jailed for criticizing the Prime Minister.  It’s a country ranked by the Legatum Institute in London as the second most prosperous country on the planet, behind only Norway.  (That is not to say our per capita income is the second highest on the planet – the assessment included a range of other factors measuring the quality of life.)

Indeed, when Jeremy Clarkson, the star of Top Gear, visited New Zealand a few years ago, he said that visiting our country made him question the wisdom of God.  If God really did have perfect knowledge and perfect foresight, why would he have his only son born in a lousy place like Bethlehem, when he could have been born in Palmerston North?

But third, I have been lucky because of the parents I had.  They were not wealthy.  My father was a Presbyterian minister on a very modest salary; my mother was trained as a milliner and, until well into mid-life, had only a single year of high school education.  Until I was at high school, most of my clothes were made by my mother.  Every week we had one or two meatless days – allegedly because that was good for our health, but in retrospect I realise that that was at least in part because we couldn’t afford meat every day.  And I regard that background as one of my huge advantages: I learnt that nobody owed me a living and that to succeed I had to study hard and work hard.

Rueben pointed out to me that my autobiography also admitted to failures in my life, and yes, I’ve had several of those. 

I structured most of my book around a metaphor.  Some of you may recall the Bell X-15, an experimental aircraft built by the US Air Force in the 1960s in order to test the strength of various alloys at very high speeds.  The Bell X-15 still holds the record for the fastest manned flight ever.  It reached an altitude of 100 kilometres – some ten times the altitude at which commercial jets typically fly – and speeds of 7,000 kilometres per hour.

But it only reached that altitude, and reached those speeds, because it was launched by being dropped from another aircraft at 40,000 feet.   I felt that, by being born in New Zealand with the parents I had, I had been launched from 40,000 feet, and I analysed my life into what I regarded as successful “flights”, partially successful “flights”, and dismal failures.  I won’t recount those failures now, but there were several of them!  I console myself with the thought that those who’ve never made mistakes haven’t been brave enough!

Rueben suggested that as Ngapuhi wait, and wait, for their turn at settling with the Crown, I should make some observations about how to improve the economic status of Maori New Zealanders, and Ngapuhi in particular.  I’m willing to do that, though I do so with great trepidation.  I don’t know nearly enough about the circumstances of your iwi to do that with confidence, so my observations will be tentative.

The first observation I want to make, however, I do make with some confidence.  Maori New Zealanders will never become economically prosperous through Treaty settlements. 

Nobody knows at this stage what the total of all Treaty settlements will be.  But let’s suppose it is $4 billion – four times the original so-called “fiscal envelope” that Jim Bolger envisaged back in the nineties.  Let’s assume also that that total is invested to yield an average of 5% per annum in perpetuity.  And finally let’s assume that 15% of New Zealanders, or some 750,000 people, are entitled to a share of that.  That would increase the annual income of each Maori New Zealander by the grand total of just $266 – better than a kick in the pants but certainly not enough to transform the economic status of Maori New Zealanders.   (Incidentally, I owe this insight to Ngati Porou leader Sir Rob McLeod.)

So waiting around for that manna from heaven would be a tragic mistake.  Of course, for some Maori the Treaty settlements have been the source of considerable income – they are the directors of the companies established to manage the assets received in Treaty settlements and their legal advisers (both Maori and non-Maori). 

But for far too many Maori the Treaty settlements have delivered little or nothing – just walk down the main street of Huntly to see what I mean, despite the very substantial settlements which Tainui has received.   

And to the extent that Maori New Zealanders have been lulled into the false notion that their prosperity will be assured once the Treaty settlement has been made, the long-drawn-out settlement process has almost certainly done lasting damage to the economic well-being of Maori.

That was one of the two reasons why, when I was National Party leader last decade, I committed the next National Party Government to a policy involving one further year to lodge a grievance and a maximum of five further years to resolve all outstanding grievances.  I believed it was crucial for Maori that the process was hastened, because as long as too many Maori retained the false notion that their economic prosperity would be assured once the settlement had been made, there would be passivity that would be totally contrary to the interests of Maori.

(The other reason why I wanted to put a finite deadline on the settlement process was because I knew that the longer the process dragged on, the more impatient the Pakeha community would become, wrongly believing that a high proportion of all tax revenue would be devoted to compensation.)

More generally, there must be at least serious doubt whether the positive discrimination intended by successive governments to assist the economic status of Maori New Zealanders has actually worked as intended.

More than a year ago, The Economist magazine, arguably the finest English-language weekly in the world, had an article about the effects of positive discrimination in favour of Malays in Malaysia.  The article noted that the positive discrimination had been introduced with the very best of intentions, to improve the lot of Malays as compared with other Malaysians, mainly Chinese and Indians.  But the effect had been to benefit a small minority of Malays, while leaving most of the Malay population no better off.

And that experience is surely directly relevant to New Zealand, with more and more special programmes reserved for those who chance to have a Maori ancestor. These include: 

  • preferential access to medical school and some law faculties,
  • people appointed to local government committees simply because they are Maori,
  • almost every government board or agency requiring to have at least one person with a Maori ancestor,
  • government funding for Maori tourism,
  • exemption from corporate tax for the businesses arising out of Treaty settlements,
  • taxpayer funding to enable tribes to lay claim to a customary marine title for any part of the coastline that takes their fancy,
  • a special programme to help young Maori get a driving licence,
  • a requirement that Maori have special entitlement to be consulted on environmental planning laws,
  • mandatory respect for Maori spiritual values despite New Zealand’s being officially a secular society,
  • a more and more widespread insistence on involving unqualified Maori in local government decision-making, and
  • local government required to pay for “capacity building” to enable these unqualified people to take part in decision-making.

As in Malaysia, these benefits were originally intended to lift the incomes of Maori New Zealanders, which on average lagged those of other New Zealanders.  But they have now come to be regarded by a great many Maori as privileges to which they are entitled by virtue of landing in New Zealand prior to European and other settlers.

And who benefits from these race-based entitlements?  Assuredly not most ordinary Maori. 

Not only have most Maori not benefited at all from this growing affirmative action cancer, most have been positively harmed by it. 

Why?  Because it has led a great many Maori to assume that other taxpayers owe them a living, and that in due course other taxpayers will have to discharge that obligation. 

What on earth could be more demotivating than to be told, again and again and again, that your poor education, your poor housing, your low income or inability to get a job is not your responsibility at all – it’s the fault of a grossly unfair system arising from imagined injustices done to some of your great-grandparents by some of your other great-grandparents. 

It is surely not in the least surprising that far too many people with a Maori ancestor are unemployed and poorly educated – the present environment positively encourages helplessness.

It is surely significant that Maori New Zealanders who migrate to Australia often do much better than those they leave behind.  To some extent, that is because those who have the courage and the initiative to take themselves off to a new country are almost by definition those with “get up and go”, and so more likely to succeed wherever they end up. 

But I strongly suspect that part of the reason why Maori New Zealanders in Australia seem to be more economically successful than those they leave behind is that those who migrate know they can’t look to anybody but themselves for their success: the Australian government doesn’t owe them anything more than it owes other immigrants.

I have always believed that government should lend a helping hand to those who are down on their luck, hopefully in a manner that doesn’t demotivate the recipients of that help.  But it is absolutely fundamental that that help should be based on need, and not on ethnicity.

It is a huge tragedy for all New Zealanders that we appear to be on the same destructive path that Malaysia is on.  Unless we move decisively to a new path, it will not end well.

Not only does positive discrimination create a demotivating sense of entitlement, it is also patronising – it appears to imply that without such positive discrimination Maori New Zealanders can’t quite make it, that they’re not as capable as other citizens.  If I were Maori, I would find this grossly insulting.  We know, from the huge success of many Maori in New Zealand and internationally, that they are as capable as any other New Zealanders.  Just look at how many political leaders in Parliament are Maori!  Constantly suggesting that Maori need special assistance to compete with others is insulting and demotivating.

Moreover, as one Maori chief pointed out to me recently, we know from history that those who succeed most spectacularly are often those who, far from being the beneficiaries of special entitlements, are the victims of political persecution and discrimination – think of the enormous success of the Jewish people, in science, in banking, in retailing, in technology and in economics.

Harvard historian Niall Ferguson has noted that while Jews make up only about 0.2% of the world’s population, and 2% of the American population, they have won 22% of all Nobel prizes and 38% of the Oscars for best directors. Over 20% of the CEOs of the Forbes 400 list of American corporates were Jews at the time Ferguson was writing, and had been the founders or co-founders of the world’s biggest technology companies, such as Facebook, Google, Intel and Oracle.  They didn’t achieve those things through positive discrimination – they achieved them despite being the victims of widespread anti-Jewish sentiment and sometimes violent persecution.

On a smaller scale, the Quakers and the Huguenots had similar success despite, or perhaps even because of, the discrimination to which they were subjected.

A crutch may sometimes be essential, but becoming dependent on a crutch never enables its user to walk unaided, let alone to run.

Let me make one other point about the dangers of dependence.  Many years ago, at the advent of the modern welfare state, Sir Apirana Ngata, perhaps New Zealand’s greatest ever Maori leader – and a man I was privileged to put on New Zealand’s $50 bank note – warned of the serious damage which the welfare state would do to Maori society.  He believed that readily available welfare would erode the proud tradition of independence which most Maori had.  And I believe his warning has been amply borne out, with a disproportionately high proportion of those on the unemployment benefit, and on the single parent benefit, being Maori.

Decades after he gave that warning, when I was Governor of the Reserve Bank, I met with a prominent kuia at her request.  She wanted to talk about Maori unemployment.   After a very long discussion, I finally asked her what she would want me to do if by some chance I found myself in the position of a benevolent dictator.  Without hesitating she replied “Abolish the dole with effect from the first of January”. 

I thought at first she was joking, and asked her to explain herself.  She said that “Unfortunately too many of my people don’t have many skills.  They can’t live well on the dole but with three or four of them in the same house all getting the dole, and a few under the table cash jobs, they can live adequately on the dole, and that’s a disaster.”  She was deadly serious, and in a sense was simply echoing what Sir Apirana Ngata said nearly 80 years ago.

I don’t believe New Zealand can abolish the dole, but I have a good deal of sympathy with politicians like Shane Jones who make it quite clear that one of his main objectives in politics is to “get the bro’s off the couch”.  And I suspect he wants to achieve that not to save money for taxpayers, though it would do that also, but rather because life on the dole is obviously leading nowhere, or at least nowhere good.

Finally, let me make a few closing remarks about where we are as a country.

I think we are at quite a dangerous junction.  Many Maori New Zealanders feel they have been left behind by the rest of the country and perhaps that is an especially strong feeling up here in Northland.  Too many Maori are unemployed; too many Maori are in prison; too many Maori are coming out of school with totally inadequate education; too many Maori are living in stressful economic circumstances.  Too much of what successive governments have tried to do to help hasn’t helped, and in some cases has positively hurt.

On the other hand, many non-Maori New Zealanders have become increasingly impatient with the never-ending Treaty settlement process, and more particularly impatient with the constitutional preferences which have increasingly been written into law.

Most non-Maori New Zealanders reject any notion that the Treaty of Waitangi created a “partnership” between Maori and the Crown, a partnership which has been described as absurd by politicians as different as David Lange and Winston Peters.  Yet this is the interpretation which is more and more taken as the foundation of Government policy.

At some point, hopefully soon, we will need to determine whether we really believe in Article III of the Treaty, affirming the equality of political rights for all New Zealanders.  At that point we really will be able to say, with Governor Hobson, “he iwi tahi tatou”, “we are now one people”.  

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Copyright © 2021 Don Brash.