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We need a civilised discussion about racial law

We need a civilised discussion about racial law


Speech by Dr Jamie Whyte, ACT Party Leader

Public Meeting at De Canta Tapas Bar, Devon St, New Plymouth

Yesterday I published the speech that I gave to the ACT Party Waikato Conference on Saturday. It concerned a fundamental principle of Western civilisation.

I said that all citizens should be equal before the law.

I realise that in some countries, such as Afghanistan, that might be a controversial idea. Many people in Afghanistan reject the idea that women should have equal rights.

And at earlier times in history the idea was rejected across the Western world. Up to the mid-20th century, laws that privileged men, whites and gentiles were common.

But in New Zealand today, you might expect the principle of equality before the law to be uncontroversial. You might expect that a declaration of commitment to it would be greeted with quiet equanimity, perhaps even a yawn.

Not so. My declaration has triggered vitriolic hostility.

Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia has accused me of "harking back to the same old racism that people before him thought would win them votes".

She says my comments are "straight racism".

"He thinks it's attractive to New Zealanders, but New Zealanders actually know we have to work together,"

"It's old politics, it has no place in New Zealand."

Here is a woman who leads a party with an explicitly race-based agenda, who represents an electorate in which only people of one race are permitted to vote, and she accuses me of being racist. And what racist thing did I do? I suggested that the law should pay no heed to race!

But it is not just political beneficiaries of New Zealand’s race-based laws who display contempt for the principle of equality.

Since publishing my speech I have been exposed to hitherto unimagined absurdity from journalists – unimagined by me, at least. A reporter from Radio NZ asked me if I realised how “offensive” my commitment to equality before the law is.

Offensive?

Equality before the law is a fundamental principle of liberal democracy. Since when is it offensive to defend such principles?

Other journalists have accused me of “playing the race card”.

Suppose you meet two politicians. One says the law should not differentiate between people on the basis of race. The other one says it should. Which politician is playing the race card?

This issue has been turned on its head in New Zealand. Those who want the state to be racially impartial are accused of racism by politicians who openly promote race-based favouritism. And journalists endorse this intellectual perversion.

The most notable thing about the reactions to my speech is that no one has even tried to explain where my argument goes wrong. They ignore the content altogether – except when they are misrepresenting it – and instead bandy about accusations of racism, “dog whistling”, old-fashioned politics and all the rest.

It is pathetic.

By tackling the man rather than the ball, they reveal their inability to show where my argument goes wrong. If they could identify my error they would readily reveal it. But, because they cannot, they instead try to shut me up with accusations of wickedness.

This is a predictable response from people such as Tariana Turia who have built their political careers on playing the race card. But it is dispiriting, indeed alarming, to see journalists playing the same game.

Journalists have an important role to play in a democracy. They are supposed to provide the public with facts and informed analysis that help them to hold politicians to account. They are not supposed to shut down debate with accusations of racism and offensiveness. They are not supposed to be thought police.

* * * * *

I am a new boy in politics. I was warned that it is impossible to have an intelligent discussion about New Zealand’s race-based laws. You are just shouted down or personally attacked.

Maybe that is true. But, perhaps because I am new, I refuse to accept this. I refuse to accept that we cannot discuss certain topics. Democracy cannot work unless we debate the issues.

Equality before the law is too important for its violations to be ignored.

Equality before the law is a fundamental constitutional principle. As I explained in my speech in Hamilton – which I hope you will read in the original rather than its media-mutilated versions – it is the foundation of a just and flourishing society.

Set aside all the fear and loathing. Set aside the accusations of racism, and of being out of tune with modern New Zealand. Ask yourself a simple question: Are you in favour of legal equality or not?

You cannot be in favour of it for just some people. That doesn’t make sense. If that is your answer, then you are not in favour of equality before the law.

If you believe in equality before the law, then you need to make a stand.

What we have in New Zealand today is not equality before the law.

For some obvious examples, we have a Maori roll and Maori electorates. Iwi have special rights in the resource consenting process. State funded and directed universities guarantee admission to certain courses on the basis of race. We have such things as Maori wardens, with powers over Maori that they lack over Pakeha.

The political left grew out of a struggle against the legal privileges of the landed aristocracy in Europe. ACT is a descendent of that tradition, especially of the English Liberal Party of the 19th century. That is one of the reasons I often baulk at the party being labelled as right-wing. At the heart of ACT is a rejection of legal privilege.

Alas, the parties that continue to wear the left wing label have now rejected legal equality. Some of them have made this transition within their own life-times.

John Minto famously fought for legal equality in South Africa. Now he stands for a party that is promotes legal inequality in New Zealand.

One of the journalists who called me since my Hamilton speech to abuse me – or interview me, as he preferred to call it – told me that legal privilege for Maori is justified by material inequality: by the fact that Maori on average earn less and die younger than Pakeha and Asians.

I addressed this issue directly in my Hamilton speech.

Most Western countries have developed social “safety nets”: state housing, unemployment benefits, public hospitals, state schools and the rest. If one racial group is disproportionately in need of such help, they will disproportionately receive it without any explicit racial provisions in the law.

Add racial provisions and you get a quite different result. The well-educated child of a high-earning Maori will gain admission to law school with a C, possibly pushing out the disadvantaged child of a poor Indian family who got a B.

Truly disadvantaged Maori do not even get a sniff at law school or at a seat on the Auckland City Council Maori Advisory Board. These “compensations” go to those Maori in no need of compensation. It is no wonder that the most vitriolic opposition to ACT’s policy of legal equality comes from those in the Maori elite who get access to these privileges.

* * * * *

I came back to New Zealand because my wife and I think this is the best country in the world to raise a family.

I am white but my daughters are not. I want them to live in a country where that is legally irrelevant. I do not want the law or the government to treat my daughters differently from any other citizens. And, although she is only 11, I think my elder daughter would be bewildered and appalled by the idea that the law would treat her differently on account of her skin colour.

That is not to say that her skin is unimportant. My wife hopes our daughters will come to understand their African heritage, and that it will enrich their lives. But that is a matter for our family, not for the state.

Similarly, I know Maori who have learned to speak Maori in their adulthood. It has meant a lot to them. They already felt an attachment to their ancestry and to places in New Zealand that I envy. I welcome the resurgence of interest and pride in Maoritanga. But, again, that should be a matter of no significance to the law or the government.

Nor are the settlements made by the Waitangi Tribunal relevant to my point about legal equality. The Treaty of Waitangi gave Maori property rights over the land they occupied. Many violations of these rights followed. The remedies provided by the Waitangi Tribunal are not a case of race-based favouritism. They a recognition of property rights and, therefore, something that we in ACT wholeheartedly support.

In short, the importance of Maori culture and the legitimacy of Treaty claims are red-herrings. They cannot justify abandoning the principle of equality before the law.

* * * * *

I know enough about New Zealand politics to be unsurprised by the difficulty of defending the principle of legal equality. But I am still disappointed by it.

It is shocking that so many people are willing to abandon a foundational principle of our liberal democracy.

And it is yet more shocking that instead of arguing about the issues, defenders of legal privilege attempt to shout down those who disagree with them with accusations of racism.

I invite voters to ask every candidate where they stand on this issue.

If those who seek office say they are not in favour of legal equality, then how can we expect them to respect the rule of law? How can we expect them to defend our liberal democracy?

In the end, if you believe in democracy, you must vote for it to support it. If you will not vote for it, then you will not get it.

On 20 September it is over to you, the voters, to decide if democracy is important to you.

ends

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