Elizabeth Rata asks: Ethno-Nationalism or Democratic-Nationalism: Which way ahead for New Zealand?
With the sudden emergence into our political life of the revolutionary report He Puapua, it is clear New Zealanders are at a crossroads. We will have to decide whether we want our future to be that of an ethno-nationalist state or a democratic-nationalist one.
Ethno-nationalism has political categories based on racial classification – the belief that our fundamental identity (personal, social and political) is fixed in our ancestry. Here the past determines the future. Identity, too, is fixed in that past. In contrast, democratic-nationalism has one political category – that of citizenship – justified by the shared belief in a universal human identity.
We have a choice between identity politics which focuses on what makes us different or accepting that people are people and we have common humanity and equal citizenship.
These two opposing approaches to how the nation is imagined, constituted and governed are currently in contention. We will have to choose which form of nationalism will characterise New Zealand by 2040.
The He Puapua Report describes our future as an ethno-nation. Its Vision 2040 Roadmap sets out a timeline for the transformational constitutional change which will divide the polity into “three streams: the Rangiratanga stream (for Maori), the Kawanatanga stream (for the Crown) and the Rite Tahi stream (for all New Zealanders)”.
Displaying an astonishing confidence, the authors claim that “We consider Aotearoa has reached a maturity where it is ready to undertake the transformation to restructure governance to realise rangatiratanga Maori (self-determination)”. I hope that this ‘maturity’ can accommodate the vigorous debate that is certainly needed if we are to abandon democracy – for what exactly? While each sentence of the Report deserves scrutiny I will confine myself to two points. The main one is the Report’s premise of the political category as an ethnic one. The second concerns judicial activism in constitutional change.
He Puapua envisages a system of constitutional categorisation based on ancestral membership criteria rather than the universal human who is democracy’s foundational unit. Ancestral group membership is the key idea of ‘ethnicity’. This slippery term refers to a combination of culture – what we do and how we understand ourselves – and genetic inheritance. The word entered common usage from the 1970s followed by ‘indigenous’ in the 1980s. ‘Ethnicity’ was an attempt to edit out the increasingly discredited ‘race’. However changing a word does not change the idea. Ethnicity does not mean culture only. It has a genetic, biological – a race, component. Although race is an unscientific concept it retains social currency with whakapapa often used to soften the racial connotation of ancestral belonging.
Whatever term is used – ethnicity, race, culture, whakapapa – the issue is the use of ancestral membership for political status. Liberal democracy can accommodate identification with the ancestral group in the civil sphere. Inclusive biculturalism allows for the evolving social practice of a hybrid Maori and settler-descendant culture, one enriched by diverse migration. Exclusive biculturalism, on the other hand, takes those ethnically or racially categorised groups into the constitutional sphere of legislation and state institutions. It is here that we see the effects of five underpinning beliefs of ethno-nationalism.
The first belief holds that our ethnic or racial identity is our primary and determining personal identity. This denies the fact that identity in the modern democratic world is individual identity. The modern person is the autonomous, self-creating, self-directed, independent individual who makes choices (even the choice not to exercise choice and not to be independent). This privilege of choice was not available to our ancestors who were locked into the birth-ascribed identities of traditional cultures. It is not available today to the millions who live under neo-traditionalist elites. These are theocracies and oligarchies (such as the Tongan and Saudi elites) who use traditional beliefs as political control on others while themselves enjoying the fruits of modernity.
We modern individuals make choices about which identity matters the most to us – which identity is the one that we will invest with enormous subjective meaning. An example is the well-educated professional class of the 1980s who chose to identify in ethnic terms, referring to themselves with considerable pride as ‘pakeha’. Not all British settler-descendants and other white migrants chose to do so. Indeed it is unusual to find a privileged middle-class group, who adopt ethnicity as a political identity of choice. That is more usually a practice of emergent elites and disenfranchised people. A likely reason is the unfortunate conflation of inclusive and exclusive biculturalism. The desire of the liberal-left to strengthen the democratic social contract by including Maori was subverted by the interests of those successfully creating the foundation for ethno-nationalism. How inclusive biculturalism is replaced by its exclusive form can be seen in the He Puapua. Exclusive bicultural leads directly to the “transformative restructuring of governance to recognise rangatiratanga Maori (self-determination)” proposed by the Report.
For many people, the meaning of who they are is intimately tied to the idea of ethnic belonging. There are those who choose their primary social identity to be pakeha. Others, with Maori ancestry, choose Maori identity as their defining subjectivity. From a democratic point of view the right to choose a determining identity, including an ethnicised or racialised one, must be supported. It is the same for those who wish to define themselves in religious or sexuality terms. As long as such identities remain private choices, practised in association with others of like minds in the civic sphere, there is no problem. It is the right of an individual in a democratic country to make that choice.
Choosing how we define ourselves is a right. Using how we define ourselves to give ourselves more rights, gives other fewer rights and is not how democracy works.
The second belief underpinning the He Puapua Report is that the ethnic or racial group is primordial – existing from the beginning of time and known through the mythologies that are now called ‘histories’. This belief feeds into the assumption that the group is fundamentally distinctive and separate – hence ethnic fundamentalism. It denies the universal human reality of migration, genetic mixing and social mixing. It certainly denies the New Zealand reality.
A third belief permeating He Puapua is that how people live and understand their lives (culture) is caused by who they are (ancestry or ethnicity/race). Such biological determinism asserts that our genetic heritage causes what we do and the meaning we give to our actions – culture. It is a belief that has taken on its own life in education to justify the ‘ways of knowing and being’ found in matauranga Māori research, Māori mathematics, and in ‘Māori as Māori’ education. The equivalent in India is the idea of Vedic science – the Hinduteva fundamentalism that made huge roads in that country during the 1990s. According to this belief how a person thinks, behaves and relates to others is caused by ‘blood’ or in more acceptable terms, by spirit, volkgeist, mauri or whakapapa.
The fourth belief is a blood and soil ideology. It is the idea that an ethnic group indigenous to an area is autochthonous. The group is ‘of the land’ in a way that is qualitatively different from those who arrive later. As a consequence of this fact the first group claims a particular political status with entitlements not available to others. The ideology is located in mythological origins and seductive in its mystical appeal. By separating those who are ‘indigenous’ from those who are not, a fundamental categorisation occurs which then becomes built into political institutions. Such a categorisation principle can be extended – why not have a number of ‘classes’ with political status based on time of arrival – those who arrived first, those who came a little later, to those who have only just arrived. In an ethno-nation it is quite possible that these ‘classes’ could become caste divisions.
The fifth belief builds on the others. The classification of individuals as members of ethnic categories is extended to political categories. Membership of an ethnic category takes precedence over citizenship as a person’s primary political status. One’s political rights follow from this status. The acceptance of ancestral membership as a political category, rather than a social identity, has huge implications for national cohesion and democratic government. It is where ethnic fundamentalism becomes a major problem for us all.
The democratic political arena is where we meet as New Zealanders, as equal citizens of a united nation. That public arena is textured by contributing communities certainly, but it is the place where we unite – as a modern pluralist social group that is also a political entity. If we choose not to unite in this way, and the He Puapua Report is recommending that we don’t, why have a nation – New Zealand?
When we politicise ethnicity – by classifying, categorising and institutionalising people on the basis of ethnicity – we establish the platform for ethno-nationalism. Contemporary and historical examples should make us very wary of a path that replaces the individual citizen with the ethnic person as the political subject.
Interestingly those examples show the role of small well-educated elites in pushing through radical change. In Rwanda the ethnic doctrine ‘the Mahutu Manifesto’ of 1953 was written and promulgated by eleven highly educated individuals identifying politically as Hutu. The raw material of the ethnic ideologies that fuelled the violence in Bosnia and Serbia was supplied by intellectuals. Pol Pot began his killing campaigns immediately on his return from study in Paris.
In my 2006 speech to the NZ Skeptics I said: “In New Zealand we are obviously not far down the track towards ethno-nationalism. However we need to recognise that the ideas which fuel ethnic politics are well-established and naturalised in this country and that the politicisation of ethnicity is underway”. Fifteen years later the He Puapua Report shows the progress towards ethno-nationalism. Why has this racial ideology become so accepted in a nation which prides itself on identifying and rejecting racism?
Apart from the success of culturalist intellectuals in muddying the waters between inclusive and exclusive biculturalism, activist judges have played a significant role. New Zealand’s democratic system is based on political decisions made by elected representatives who are accountable to the people. The judiciary is required to interpret laws made by politicians. However, the Court of Appeal’s 1987 reference to the Treaty of Waitangi as ‘akin to a partnership’ set in motion the development of principles for such a partnership and for their inclusion in legislation. From this time, judicial activism in Treaty matters has influenced political decisions. The He Puapua Report unquestioningly accepts and promotes an activist role for the judiciary. Its writers suggest that the “co-governance structure would require a Tiriti body or court to regulate jurisdictional boundaries between the respective governance entities”.
Ethnic fundamentalism is no better, no worse than the myriad of other fundamentalisms that some individuals impose upon themselves (or have imposed upon them) to give their lives meaning. It becomes a danger to liberal societies regulated by democratic politics when ethnicity is politicised. By basing a governance system of classification and categorisation on historical rather than contemporary group membership, we set ourselves on the path to ethno-nationalism. ‘He Puapua’ means a break. It is used in the Report to mean “the breaking of the usual political and social norms and approaches.” The transformation of New Zealand proposed by He Puapua is indeed a complete break with the past. For this reason it is imperative that we all read the Report then freely and openly discuss what type of nation do we want – ethno-nationalism or democratic nationalism?
What type of nation do we want: one where some are more equal than others or one where we’re all equal?
There ought to be no debate about that in a democracy but if Ethne-nationalism triumphs we will no longer be a democracy.