Expatriate New Zealanders returning home after a long absence are often taken aback by the extent to which the country they once knew has been transformed by what is politely termed biculturalism.
Maori words they might not recognise, such as whanau for family and morena for good morning, are now commonly used by culturally-sensitive New Zealanders with no Maori blood. On state-owned Radio New Zealand, which is achingly woke, reporters routinely sign off their stories in Maori – or as it’s fashionably known, te reo (literally translated, ‘the language’). Some go further, demonstrating their cultural awareness by referring to cities and towns using Maori names that are unfamiliar to most listeners and have never been in common usage, even by Maoris.
Bilingual signage is springing up everywhere, government departments have Maori names that no one uses and a Maori Language Commission, tasked with ensuring that Maori remains a ‘living language’, busies itself inventing Maori names for 21st century phenomena such as Facebook and smartphones. Even the country itself is now routinely referred to, from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern down, as Aotearoa – a name that has no official standing.
Meanwhile, unelected part-Maori representatives enjoy voting rights on some city and district councils, despite the public’s emphatic rejection of special seats for Maoris whenever the issue has been put to a referendum. Official functions almost invariably include Maori input, whether or not it’s relevant to the occasion and no one bows their heads more reverently than Labour- or Green-voting humanists and atheists whenever a public ceremony calls for the recitation of a karakia, or Maori prayer.
All of the above is now accepted, albeit often grudgingly, as part and parcel of daily life. Many New Zealanders have been persuaded that the 16 per cent of the population who identify as part-Maori are entitled to special treatment under the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi. Others, noting that the biculturalism agenda appears to have almost total support across the political establishment, regard resistance as futile.
But even New Zealanders’ tolerance is limited and it took the Covid-19 emergency to stretch their forbearance to breaking point.
It wasn’t the government’s implicitly separatist decision to make an extra $56 million of economic relief and health funding available to Maori communities, on top of the $12 billion spent on the population at large, that got Kiwis’ backs up. New Zealanders are accustomed to people with Maori ancestry being treated as having special needs that justify extra spending, especially when the Labour-led coalition government needs to retain the seven Labour-held Maori electorates in this year’s general election.
No, what triggered a backlash was the establishment of illegal roadblocks manned by Maori vigilantes, ostensibly for the purpose of preventing travellers spreading the coronavirus into remote and vulnerable Maori communities. Euphemistically labelled community checkpoints, the roadblocks were set up without any mandate or legal authority other than a nod and a wink from the police, who later admitted they co-operated with the activists because they were worried they would otherwise face angry protests.
Politicians and the media initially turned a blind eye to the roadblocks. Ardern even expressed her approval. But as the weeks dragged by and the ‘checkpoints’ multiplied, the issue became a political slow burn that couldn’t be ignored – especially after reports emerged of motorists being bullied and illegally detained and photos were published showing roadblocks manned by members of criminal gangs displaying their colours.
Roadblock organisers insisted no one was forced to stop. But try telling that to motorists confronted by people – often intimidatingly large people – standing in the middle of the road surrounded by traffic cones, wearing masks and hi-vis jackets and holding official-looking signs saying ‘Stop’.
Police, too, maintained there was no coercion, saying they had agreed to the roadblocks on the understanding that the right to freedom of movement would be respected. But more than once, assurances that no travellers would be made to turn around were proved wrong. Even after the government relaxed the rules limiting local travel, families were barred from accessing nearby beaches. On one occasion, a newspaper reporter was denied passage despite showing a letter confirming that he was employed in an essential industry. All the evidence indicated that the vigilantes were exercising power and control simply because they could.
As the roadblocks proliferated, sometimes on main highways in regions where there were no vulnerable communities to protect, their true purpose became obvious. Under the smokescreen of the coronavirus emergency, activists were boldly promoting an agenda of Maori sovereignty. That was clear from assertions that they were policing their ‘borders’ – a claim with no basis in law.
Former National party leader and Reserve Bank governor Don Brash, a tireless campaigner against race-based laws, spoke for many New Zealanders when he said there was a strong suspicion that police were turning a blind eye to the roadblocks ‘because the offenders are Maori. No one else would have been able to get away with it’. According to Brash, New Zealand risks becoming a society where there’s a different set of rules for people with a Maori ancestor.
Alas, his former party, despite being in a position of strength with 56 seats in the 120-seat parliament, seemed as reluctant as anyone to condemn the vigilantes, at least until it sensed the mounting public outrage. Only then did it start asking hard questions of the commissioner of police, who responded with a master class in ambiguity and dissembling.
At the time of writing, police had finally been shamed into asserting their authority. Most of the estimated 30-50 roadblocks had been disbanded and those that remained had a police presence. But in the meantime the reputation and credibility of the police have taken a hammering and New Zealand has become less recognisable as a country where the rule of law is guaranteed and no citizen has a right to interfere with the freedoms of others.
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