Politics: Helen’s Two Great Labours

This month poses two challenges Helen Clark’s Labour Government must meet to make memorable second term. The Treaty of Waitangi is commemorated on February 6 and on February 19 the Prime Minister will open conference sequel to the mid-2001 Knowledge Wave talkfest.

Indigenous rights and richer society have been gnawing issues now for 15 years. Unless Clark and Co can make meaningful progress on both, the equitable society, which is the point of classical social democracy, will elude them.

Take the easy one first: faster growing economy and enhanced living standards.

This is not just matter of volume, as Tertiary Education Commission chair Andrew West makes clear. Tourism, for instance, is growing rapidly but produces mostly low-paying jobs. More bums on tour buses do not rich society make.

West faces an enormous task: to reorient tertiary education so universities produce an academic elite and polytechnics generate pool of technical and skills talent. The quality of our universities is endangered by the mass education programmes – proving more is not necessarily better. And polytechnics are too much wannabe universities.

To reform tertiary education to drive “knowledge economy”, West will need strong backing from the Cabinet. That is still moot.

The 1970s’ social democratic centralising instincts of the current crop of ministers don’t help. They have recentralised school administration just as diversity is increasingly thought the key to optimum development of individual talent – though Education Minister Trevor Mallard is putting extra money into early childhood and gifted children’s education.

At least research and development policy is now sharper and more focused. From the strategy developed late in 2002 greater effort will go into joint public-private research and creating new business ventures out of research ideas.

This is route to the higher-paying jobs, necessary cornerstones of richer society. Getting richer does not come from more of the same or, for that matter, doing the same more smartly. It comes from doing completely new things, some built on traditional strengths. An example is pharmaceuticals from milk, the focus of one of the six public-private research consortia developed last year.

And more effort is going into international connectedness: hooking up with high-flying New Zealanders overseas and foreign companies and institutions.

On the down side, the government will do some discouraging things for business this term, including more restrictive workplace law and veiled tax-like imposts.

The cabinet has yet to wrap its notion of smarter, richer economy in an easy-to-grasp formula that entrepreneurs will buy into. Its promoted “growth and information framework” is as exciting as wet dishtowel.

The challenge for Clark on February 19, opening what is billed “leadership” conference, will be to embody national leadership in the way Norman Kirk did 30 years ago. The Prime Minister’s contribution to the Knowledge Wave conference 18 months ago was ambivalent.

So too has been her approach to the Treaty.

She started with handicap. Classical social democracy is race-blind and sees only socioeconomic difference. In office Clark has discovered ethnic difference is real and palpable: Tariana Turia’s every speech drives that home.

The Treaty is not just matter of grievances and resource claims. Those are big part of it and will be so for another 20 wearying years but, they are passing phase.

The Treaty is matter of power
The partnership principle is one dimension. growing number of Maori demand parallel and equal say in decisions or, as minimum, full consultation. Power-sharing is the true meaning of biculturalism.

Indigenous rights by virtue of having settled here first is another dimension. In history later arrivals used to confront indigenous rights claims with suppression. Here the suppression wasn’t complete.

The Treaty is also employed to claim equal status of two cultures. The post-christian mainstream relies on science to explain the world. Maori culture is animist, according value and connection to all things. It is culture where taniwha live. In “western society” science long ago consigned such creatures to private fantasy.

Maori culture is whanau-based. “Western” culture is individual.

So far the cabinet has retreated, neither conceding nor challenging each Treaty assertion. So resentment has grown – and not just among non-Maori, as Winston Peters’ residual appeal to Maori who are missing out both ways demonstrates.

Pegs in the ground. Boundaries. That is Clark’s challenge and some senior ministers are starting to voice it quietly. Unless she makes start this term, the Treaty will be her undoing and the richer society chimera.

Colin James is Management’s regular political writer.
Email: [email protected]

Visited 3 times, 1 visit(s) today

New NZ CEO and COO at FNZ

Global wealth management platform, FNZ, has appointed Jeremy Graham as Chief Executive Officer of New Zealand, and Aroha Steele as the country’s Chief Operating Officer.  The company says in a

Read More »
Close Search Window