In the past 2 years, Aotearoa has had to face up to an ugly truth about its race relations. An ugly, violent truth. While the default of many was to declare that “this isn’t us”, many others, Māori in particular, understood that as a nation-state borne out of brutal colonial dispossession, maintained with the threat of state violence over our heads, over our children’s heads, over our whanau heads…. this has always been us.
With the presence of Marama Davidson as the co-leader of the Greens in a cooperation agreement with Labour, and the renewed presence of the Māori Party in the cross benches, there has been a significant level of pressure upon the Labour Party from all sides to respond to racial issues and advance the interests of Māori. And while there remains a lot of work still to do (particularly in relation to justice, corrections, and Oranga Tamariki), there have been some remarkable developments in the past year -of note: Māori wards; a separate Māori health authority; a boost in funding for Te Reo Māori, Māori housing and Māori media; and the implementation of the Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (an initiative started by Minister Mahuta in the previous term and continued into this term, resulting in the He Puapua Report).
None of these steps should be misconstrued as privilege or favour. They are necessary steps to address the ongoing harm that results from Māori living in a colonial system. Nor will they be enough to address the harm that has been delivered over so many successive generations across every spectrum of our lived experience. There is not one aspect of our lives that has escaped the harm of colonialism, and we cannot fix, in one or even two terms, what has been put in place over 180 years.
Nevertheless, what we are seeing is that with every step closer towards Tiriti justice, Aotearoa becomes increasingly unsafe for Māori as white supremacists conflate equity with anti-whiteness and Māori privilege. Most notably, the online space has become considerably unsafe. A 2018 study by JustSpeak found that Maori accounted for 33% of all online harassment in Aotearoa. This spikes every time we progress towards Tiriti justice, and in particular internet security experts have noted that there has been an increase in harassment, threats and risk towards Māori over the past year.
This has tested the mechanisms designed to provide online protection, such as the The Harmful Digital Communications Act (HDCA) and Netsafe, who are legislated to give effect to the HDCA. What we have seen is that the current regulatory regime falls short of protecting Māori from digital harassment, particularly online campaigns geared to bring about violent hate crime against Māori.
By the time the petition was launched to Lee Williams’ employer, he had amassed 440 clips of racist vitriol on his channel which targeted Muslim, Chinese and whānau Māori. Many of these clips had been reported to Youtube and NetSafe, but were unsuccessful in having them taken down. Consequently, these marginalised groups were left subjected to defamation, ridicule, threats, derision and a growing level of risk as Williams called upon “ordinary New Zealanders” to rise up against what he framed as an invasion, takeover and the stripping of nationalist (white) rights. The targetting of Māori increased significantly from May 2 with little to no response from relevant authorities and a mixed response from social media platforms.
Netsafe, and New Zealand Police, were unable to halt the content which functions as a system of online radicalization, and the social media platforms simply were not inclined enact accountability – and so when it was clear that Lee Williams was also making videos from his workplace in his uniform, we appealed to his employers to enact accountability, and nearly 7,500 New Zealanders have so far agreed.
Consequence is an interesting concept that also does not escape racial determination. For those who are accustomed to race-based entitlement, consequence feels like injustice.
Deplatforming Lee Williams will, of course, not solve the problem in and of itself, but it has shone a light on the growing risk against Māori, coupled with clear gaps in Police, Netsafe, NZ Secret Service, and multiple other agencies’ abilities to avoid that risk. Māori are over-represented as victims of online harassment. Māori are also over represented in crimes that are linked to race, and in 2018 the Ministry of Justice reported that 20% of all offending was linked to discrimination, 75% of sexually violent offending was also linked to discrimination.
Māori in particular are at increased risk of a hate crime and digital harassment in spite of New Zealand government’s protective mechanisms, and the reasons for that are manifold, here are a few:
1. Racism against Māori is normalized and systemized.
If you look up the history of race based hate crime in Aotearoa, you will find that the first crime considered under that category occurred in 1905 – the murder of Joe Kum Yung by Lionel Terry. Not the murder of Te Maro or the many other Maori killed by Cook and his crew, not the massacres of innocents at Rangiaowhia or Rangiriri, or the many, many other Māori who were slaughtered wholesale by colonial invaders in pursuit of land. This is not minimize the gravity of anti-Asian racism, or any form of xenophobic racism, but to highlight that race based hate crimes against Māori are legitimized as collateral in the colonial process (a fact that stems from the Doctrine of Discovery).
The “ism” in racism relates to the systemising of a practice. When we talk about colonialism we are referring to the way in which colonial ideas exist in systems that create harm. When we talk about sexism we are discussing how sexist ideas exist in systems that create harm. When we talk about racism we are talking about how racist ideas exist within systems that create harm. Racism exists in individuals but it is powered by social systems. Social systems are built from social policies, and so systemic (and institutionalised) racism exists because of racist social policies. Government is responsible for policy in Aotearoa and it has been shaping racist policy and legislation in Aotearoa since its creation in 1852. Because of this, racism against Māori is soaked into the social fabric of Aotearoa at an individual and systemic level.
2. Māori have been procedurally underrepresented in the development of the Christchurch Call, Harmful Digital Communications Act, the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002, the impending 2021 Counter Terrorism Act, the impending Counter-Terrorism Act, and other legislation like the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Amendment Bill (which updates the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993 to allow for urgent prevention and mitigation of harms caused by objectionable publications). Māori are further underrepresented within the critical decision-making roles of organisations tasked to administer and enforce this legislation like NetSafe, Internet NZ, the Classification Office, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and NZSIS. Consequently there is a poor level of appreciation for how the acts impact upon Māori, in addition to racism being largely understood within a xenophobic framing rather than colonial racism which is distinct in its intent, impact and embedding within the state system.
3. Colonial racism against Māori is underpinned by economic interests and buttressed by an international colonial white supremacist infrastructure.
New Zealand’s economy is built off the back of abused Māori rights. Stolen Māori land and water has underwritten the farming sector, the horticulture and viticulture sector, the energy sector, the tourism sector, fisheries, forestry – simply put, returning what has been stolen would have catastrophic consequences for New Zealand’s very colonial economy. This is also the case in other colonized nations, many of whom are only too happy to collude with neo-imperial forces such as the US military to police apparent invasive crimes elsewhere whilst ignoring their own. Internationally renowned scholars and economists have acknowledged that the world’s global economy is built from two major injustices – black enslavement and Indigenous dispossession. Full restorative justice would cause global economic instability and an unprecedented shift in global power structures. Power protects itself, and so the white supremacist colonial machine works not only domestically, but also internationally to protect its political and economic interests. For an insight into how this works I thoroughly recommend the following documentary. In fact…. this really is an important documentary for understanding the nature of interconnected white supremacist organisations and conservative political parties.
4. Racism against Māori pays politically as well as economically.
Colonizers are haunted by a fear of themselves. By this I mean the Great Replacement Theory that white supremacist content creators (both in parliament and online) invoke is a projection of what they have done. The greatest replacement project carried out was that of European Imperialism and this is an internal demon that many colonial descendants simply cannot chase off, and are loathe to be reminded of. This is a fear and aversion that politicians realise they can reliably tap into for votes, and they tap that fear by suggesting that Māori are being accorded extra privileges, that other non-white groups are “taking over”, and that all of this will happen in a way that abuses non-white rights.
It is this final point that is critical for us to understand and address. Around the world, in the UK under Johnson, in the USA under Trump, in Brazil under Bolsonaro, in India under Modi we have seen that where conservative racists are given a platform, racism is emboldened and increases throughout the nation, resulting in more racist hate crimes and more racist harassment. White supremacists have been tapping this fear and undermining democratic processes around the world, and marginalized communities have been paying the price. What we saw last year in the Black Lives Matter marches were populations that have had enough. They’ve had enough because they have tried, time and time again, to use the official channels to address rights abuses and all of the protective mechanisms amount to nothing – not because they are unnecessary, but because even when these protections are championed by progressive politicians they come up against white supremacist elements within government who attack those protections and support as being anti-white. In this way, marginalised communities are walked by their governments into race-based hate crimes like the Charleston massacre, committed by Dylan Roof who was radicalized by online content.
Aotearoa is no different and while the government has made some notable attempts to curb online hate, we are still not safe (especially, as we’ve already discussed, Māori) – and the truth of the matter is that, under this form of government, we will continue to be used as political fodder and that will result in us continuing to be subjected to racist threats, racist systems and racist violence.
PULLING IT OUT AT THE ROOTS
While different parties present varying levels of threat to Māori wellbeing, what we have seen over, and over again, is a pattern of political behaviour where conservatives tap into the aforementioned fear in voter bases, and centrist parties then lean to the right in their policies and speak in order to retain their votes. Racist political rhetoric (both domestic and internationally) has been the backdrop for the Foreshore and Seabed Act, for the Urewera Raids, and now we are seeing another peak in racist rhetoric as the backdrop to the attempts to block important rights progressions such as Māori Wards, the establishment of the Māori Health Authority, and the implementation of The Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
This has arguably been the most powerfully popular Labour government Aotearoa has seen, in no small part due to its success at avoiding the COVID death rates seen overseas and it is keenly aware that it must hold on to the votes that were leant to it from traditionally conservative voters (which was indicated in Prime Minister Ardern’s 2020 victory speech).
The chips are again down, and the predictable mode of throwing Māori under the bus is again at play, with numerous National and ACT MPs seeking to pull their votes back with the tried and true method of invoking fear and distrust. The only difference from previous years is that social media now has the power to supercharge the negative rhetoric and create online communities of support for racist groups who would have been much more isolated in previous years.
We can comfortably predict that it will place internal pressure upon the Labour Party to both curb pro-Maori policy, and may well also limit the protection of Maori in this increasingly hostile environment.
The worst part is, this will continue to be the pattern, for this and every electoral term. We will continue to swing back and forth from Labour to National, and with each political cycle our rights, and Treaty justice, will continue to be a political football, with real Maori lives at stake. Judith Collins, Simeon Brown, Paul Goldsmith, all understand very well that they are throwing Māori under the bus to appeal to racist colonial fears. They understand that their rhetoric is picked up outside of parliament, and emboldens racists, in fact that is their hope – that the racists will be emboldened to swing more people to vote for the right. Māori lives are not just collateral in this equation, they are the fodder.
Within this adversarial political system, Labour will always be pressured to appeal to racist conservative voters in order to retain power (which can only ever be temporary before the pendulum swings back again). Nor is this only about Labour and National – the adversarial nature of politics means every party, and I mean EVERY party, will continue to make calculated sacrifices in order to appeal to voters. Ultimately, this arrangement will continue to place our human rights at risk, and will continue to prolong and thwart the journey towards Treaty justice, social justice and climate justice.
While the rights of Māori faced by white supremacist threats sits at the forefront of this conversation, it is not only our lives and human rights at risk. Conservative and far right forces prioritise profits over everything – countries under far-right conservative governments such as the UK, USA (under Trump), Hungary, India and Brazil have all suffered devastatingly high COVID mortality rates. They deprioritize vital initiatives to curb climate change and prefer hyper militarization over conflict de-escalation. While the rise of the right is a global phenomena, we in Aotearoa have a unique and powerful tool in Te Tiriti o Waitangi to curb its most harmful impacts at a local level – but it cannot be achieved under the current political system. A national task force that specifically focusses upon white supremacist threats against Māori is a good start, but this must also be accompanied with reviews of the HDCA, NetSafe, and InternetNZ, bringing NZ hate speech laws into alignment with UN standards on hate speech, and report on the contribution of parliamentary speaking rules to online and real life racist harassment, amongst other measures.
Ultimately, though, much more fundamental shifts need to take place to secure safety for Māori on our own lands and online. Under the current parliamentary system, racism in parliament will continue to proliferate, it will continue to result in harm towards Māori, it will continue to stymie our progress towards Tiriti justice, and the best hope for a nation that values human rights and protects its most at-risk communities is to progress, swiftly, to a new political system that centers Te Tiriti o Waitangi.