I’ll be glad to see the back of the Foreshore & Seabed Act. For many on the Left, including myself, its been a monument to Labour’s failure of nerve in the face of a campaign by National to exploit the underlying racism of Pakeha New Zealand for electoral gain.
Yes, there was a certain electoral logic to it. Neutralise the issue, appease the bigots, and continue the fight for progressive values in other areas. Still, the Foreshore & Seabed Act could never shake the feeling of cowardice and betrayal it was born in.
Now that the rise of the Maori Party has forced National to change its stance toward Maori from despised minority to desired coalition partner, we have a real opportunity to replace the legislation with something better. And Labour, freed from the fear of backlash from the bigots, can at last play a constructive and progressive role in the debate.
But there’s just this one thing that’s been bothering me. It’s this smug attitude from National and its backers that has them trying to rewrite that dark chapter of our race relations from 2003-2005. In their reading, this was purely a case of Labour shafting Maori, as if it all went on in some kind of political vaccum. The timeline then skips to 2009, where John Key and his new National Party come along and set things right.
Let’s not forget the political context here. This whole mess stems from Labour’s cowardice and National’s bigotry. National, you’ll recall, was the party of Orewa, of Iwi vs Kiwi and of Bill English’s “Beaches for Kiwis” billboards. National voted against the foreshore and seabed legislation because they thought it was too soft on Maori.
In fact, it was John Key who stood up in Parliament and said:
“in National’s view MÄori did not own the foreshore and seabed in an exclusive situation. They owned it along with all other New Zealanders, and they have not had anything taken off them.”
There’s no way National have been playing an honest game here. You don’t go from divisive, race-baiting Orewa rhetoric in 2004 (a speech John Key stood right behind) and then suddenly decide you’re on the same page as the Maori Party on the foreshore and seabed just five years later.
That is, unless your choices are driven by pure political calculation. In 2004, Maori were a group that were never going to vote National, but could be used to scare working class Pakeha into ignoring their economic interests and switching over from Labour. In 2009, the Maori Party is an organised political force that National has to court if it wants to remain in power for more than one term.
John Key, the ‘candidate straight from central casting‘, is the perfect man to sell this switch. Tell him it’s racism you need, and he’ll sell you racism with a smiling face. Tell him to woo the Maori Party, and he’ll give up the foreshore and talk about partnership. Each comes to him as naturally as the other.
That’s fine so long as he’s choosing the progressive option, it sure beats the way it used to be. But let’s not kid ourselves about why National’s suddenly changed its tune on the foreshore and seabed.