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Jacinda Ardern, the 40th Prime Minister for Racism

Anne Russell

We’re now halfway through the sixth Labour Government’s first term, which is enough time to tell what their priorities are. After displacing the opposition party in an election, centre-left governments have some grace time where they can plausibly blame their faults on the difficulty of cleaning up the previous government’s mess. That time is over. The Ardern-led Labour Party’s record on tangata whenua and tau iwi relations can now easily be measured on their own terms, and so far they’re not holding up.

Many liberals have been impressed with Ardern’s track record on racism so far; her initial response to the Christchurch massacre was far better than anything Simon Bridges could have drummed up. However, the banal day-to-day long-term support for victims is what really counts—and has not been forthcoming. Last week, David Williams reported that the government had considered but ultimately denied ACC coverage to people who had been traumatised by the attack, including people who were present at the mosque. Ardern defended this by positioning the Ministry of Social Development as a better option for ‘one-off’ situations like this–never mind that dealing with WINZ is traumatising and that staff are routinely racist and Islamophobic.

The government’s reputation slipped further when the Oranga Tamariki scandal broke through to the mainstream press, highlighting how the organisation often unnecessarily takes Māori children into frequently-abusive state care. Then yesterday, police moved in to shut down the occupation at Ihumātao, whenua near Tamaki Makaurau that was designated a Special Housing Area (SHA) without proper consultation with iwi, and bought by Fletcher building company in 2016—all in violation of the Treaty of Waitangi. Save Our Unique Landscape (SOUL) has called for anyone near the area to assist with the occupation.

None of this is new, of course. Maori and tau iwi have been raising these problems consistently through every government since the beginning of colonisation. Leonie Hayden’s essential article on Ihumātao points out that it has been a site of anti-colonial struggle since at least 1863, when the Crown confiscated 400 hectares of Ihumātao land to punish the local iwi for supporting the King movement in the Waikato. The current eviction is similar to what happened at Bastion Point in 1977-78, when police evicted a 506-day occupation of the whenua and demolished their kāinga. In 2016, the Labour Party actually condemned Fletcher’s land grab under National, saying that “For the Government to force through this SHA despite the significant evidence presented by SOUL is a sign of an arrogant and uncaring government.” I wonder what changed.

Naturally, the decisions at Ihumātao rest with not only the Labour Government, but with Fletcher, the police and Pākehā society. But if Ardern truly is a cut above previous politicians, she could make a difference. Despite Ardern’s progressive public image, Morgan Godfery has argued that her political instincts often tend towards conservatism. Playing it safe to a white constituency, she has allowed the police to continue at Ihumātao. "Ultimately we are falling on the side of the local iwi and their position. They are the ones leading the protest here, so if we come in over the top it really would be undermining the local iwi in this case," she said.

This is a fairly astounding claim, given that six out of seven iwi at Ihumātao opposed the developments. But aside from the pretence that state police aren't currently “coming in over the top” to implement Labour’s policies, this sleight of hand is routinely used by governments to pit conservative Māori against their own, a strategy that dates back to early days of colonisation. As activist Emmy Rākete said, “The claim that ‘kaumatua support Fletcher’ only makes sense if you imagine that Māori politics are unitary, with no internal contradictions. The fact is that kaumatua on the barricades at Ihumātao are silenced, while kaumatua willing to betray the whenua get airtime.” Godfery further highlighted the gendered aspect to this, asking “Why is it often the first instinct of Māori women to protect land and just as often the first instinct of Māori men to cut a deal?”

Ardern’s acolytes are unlikely to see wahine Māori like Pania Newton and other land protectors at Ihumātao as feminist heroes, preferring an #empowered white woman who sasses Boris Johnson and Donald Trump while enacting land grabs at home. The frustrating thing about Jacindamania is that Ardern gets deified to where it becomes rude to point out that she’s only one person in an ultimately oppressive establishment; but venturing any criticism of her is inappropriate…because she’s only one person and her hands are tied. Does anyone really believe that the Prime Minister of New Zealand is powerless in these situations? Undoubtedly, the motive for taking Ihumātao is that giving it back would open the floodgates to more Treaty claims. Or as someone on Twitter said, “I’m scared of doing right thing in this case because it will mean I might have to do the right thing in a bunch of other cases too.”

If you’ve been caught up in Jacindamania, it’s time to stop. It was always a mistake—both because one person can’t fundamentally change a system, and because politicians usually stop wanting to try after getting a taste of power—but now it’s plainly unconscionable. Like all centre-left governments in recent memory, Labour are happy to milk minorities for votes and then betray them, knowing that the virtually-two-party system gives them little other options.

None of this means that having a centre-Left Government in power doesn’t make a difference; it does. Aside from giving some people more breathing room, it really shows up the limits of what establishment power will give to regular people. Friends of mine became hard leftists under the fifth Labour Government, and more will probably follow. Voting is an essential method of harm reduction, but no more than that. Time to create systems to eliminate harm altogether.

Anne Russell is a former journalist for Scoop Independent News and Werewolf.co.nz. Follow her on Twitter at @elvisfchrist

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