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Stateside With Rosalea: Mr Big Thumb-on-Nose

Stateside With Rosalea Barker

Mr Big Thumb-on-Nose

I've been pondering what it was that really changed under David Lange's government in the 1980s. From what I'm reading or gleaning from Internet video/audio originating in New Zealand, the two big things that the media is referring to are the nuclear-free stance and the social changes that went along with Rogernomics.

Seems to me though, that the biggest change was in the shift away from biculturalism to multiculturalism. The prominence of stories about the esteem in which Lange is held by, for example, the Pacific Island and Indian communities seems to bear that out. And a little googling on the matter quickly brought me to an abstract for a paper in the NZ Sociology Journal in 1988:

Pressure is mounting in Aotearoa New Zealand to formalise multiculturalism as a counterweight to 'biculturalism' for working through differences in a changing and increasingly diverse society.

The paper is by Augie Fleras, Department of Sociology, University of Canterbury, and while I struggle to understand anything beyond the first sentence of the abstract, as quoted above, that first sentence does seem to neatly characterise the times.

In the mid-eighties I was living in a country town that had been part of the collateral damage of the removal of government subsidies for farmers. Shops, offices and service industries closed, and jobs were hard to come by. Work-for-the-dole schemes were in full flight, and it was from working with many Maori on workschemes that I came to see multiculturalism in a different light.

Previously, during the 1970s, "biculturalism" was the catch-phrase of the day. There was very much an earnest attempt by young people who were going to university--in itself, a new enterprise for most Kiwi families--to make good on the promises that seemed to be held in the Treaty of Waitangi.

For many young people at that time, it seemed we were one people standing on two legs and could not move forward so long as institutionalised racism was hamstringing one of those legs.

But the majority of people in New Zealand were very uncomfortable with those ideas, and multiculturalism was a specific attempt by the Lange government, not so much to celebrate differences or promote diversity, as to move the public awareness around racial issues to another focus of discussion.

I'm no boffin, but the paper I refer to seems to be arguing that, for Maori, BI-culturalism was always MULTI-culturalism in the sense that the descendants of the early British colonists reflect just one of the many different heritages that have emigrated in the recent past to that particular string of islands in the South West Pacific we know as Aotearoa New Zealand.

That wasn't the sense of it that I got on the workschemes. My understanding was that the Maori I met viewed the brave new world of multiculturalism as a way of Pakeha avoiding coming to terms with the nuts and bolts of what signing the Treaty of Waitangi actually meant.

For example, it was all very well to be talking about enacting a bill to make the Maori language an official language, but where was the commitment to teach it to all Kiwis? Even more pertinently for the time, how would it help put food on the table?

In short, multiculturalism was viewed as a kind of sleight of hand done with mirrors and exotic costumes. As opposed to biculturalism, which was just sleight of hand. (There are no more cynical voters than those in the provinces, let me tell you!)

So while reminiscences about David Lange tend to be dominated by the non-nuclear stance, my feeling is that there is a much more local lasting legacy. For those communities that had lived almost invisibly within the fabric of New Zealand society for generations--those of Indian, Chinese, non-British European and non-Maori Pacific Island heritage--Lange ushered in an era of recognition that was deftly woven into a sense of our country having Grown Up and become Multicultural.

The crowning achievement of that realignment of public perception was supposed to be the Sesquicentennial celebrations in 1990, which turned out to be--in Wellington, at least--an abject disaster. Perhaps the public sensed the falsity of the new course or perhaps everything seemed to be moving too quickly, socially. Or perhaps it was just a damn badly planned money-waste.

It is more than ironic that nowadays the nation wears its multicultural mantle most proudly on Waitangi Day--it is, I think, one of the great tragedies of Lange's legacy.

It's not that I think we shouldn't celebrate diversity, but it's a tragedy to allow a sociological construct to subsume something unique about our nation: our willingness to uphold a treaty between colonists and an indigenous people, no matter how complex the questions around such a commitment become.

Could there be any better stance from which to do a thumb-on-nose to the colonisers of today's world, than to stand on both those legs?


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