Kia Mataara – Assessing the Risks to Mana Motuhake Pt 1 – Performativity and Permissiveness

This Waitangi week I wrote three pieces that reflected upon the areas I believe we most need to focus on for our pursuit of Tiriti justice in Aotearoa. They are three short form pieces, and are all based upon recent developments of our political landscape which threaten to derail our progress towards mana motuhake. The first of these is the uptick in liberal performative gestures, and the permissiveness of Te Ao Māori which allows it.

If the New Zealand government really punches above its weight at anything, it’s performativity. Over recent decades the Crown has refined, to a fine art, the practice of performative gestures that don’t really amount to anything transformative. This includes siloed reforms which are under-resourced and regularly drop terminology like “mana motuhake” whilst still leaving ultimate power in the hands of the Crown. The fact that they are siloed means that even the most progressive of the reforms will inevitably butt up against other sectors who are far from ready to take that step – for instance, the health sector reforms will struggle to achieve wellbeing for Māori whilst Māori are still being disproportionately incarcerated and dispossessed of our own children through institutionalised racism within the Ministry of Justice and Oranga Tamariki. Even when the intention is bold, and benevolent, rarely is it met with the systemic force or resourcing to support that intention reaching its fullest potential.

Performativity also includes giving buildings and public agencies Māori names, yet still not equitably sharing power or even securing pay parity within those same agencies and buildings, and further includes the targeted resourcing of Māori cultural optics (eg extravagant launches with roopu kapa haka or waka hourua presence) for spaces or entities that offer no material benefits or systemic transformation for Māori people. We see this where the government tries to “solve” racism by investing in cultural promotion and education, but refuse to embed education about racialised privilege, white supremacy or the harms of colonialism (as found in critical race theory).

As much as we may wish to point the finger at the Crown and call this yet another example of colonial mal-intent – all of these empty or part-gestures depend upon Māori endorsement in order to be effective. Our own permissiveness as ceremony holders, as performance or visual artists and as leaders, is critical for the government’s ability to continue with performative acts which at best offer scant progression, and at worst take us off course entirely. Perhaps it is conscious mal-intent, but we cannot overlook the fact that the governmental system we live with – the system which provides the policies that shape our lived experiences – was borne out of an intent to dispossess Māori, and that fact has never really been reckoned with by this government.

A vital component in combatting this phenomena is an understanding of the economics of colonialism, democratic capitalism, and how global market forces, crafted out of a history of colonial empires, seduce us into thinking that representation and financial success within colonial structures equals liberation and advancement. Mengzhu Fu and Dr Mahdis Azarmandi write eloquently here from a Tangata Tiriti perspective about the way in which cultural platitudes can be a distraction from where energy needs to be directed.

This is particularly pertinent for the issue of constitutional transformation. This government understands what it is, understands the discussion, understands how it relates to Tiriti justice – but it has repeatedly evaded doing anything about it. Ex-Prime Minister Ardern predicted it would happen in her lifetime, but not in her government. The current Prime Minister has yet to comment on constitutional transformation, but given he is clearly focussed upon clawing back the centre right drift to National and ACT, it’s doubtful he will be effusive.

So we are clear: this government’s constitutional framework is an unavoidable source of institutional racism with deadly consequences for Māori. If you need the connections drawn for you – I would recommend you read the recommendations of the Maranga Mai Report on The impact of colonisation, racism and white supremacy on tangata whenua in Aotearoa New Zealand – and in particular the chapter on health. We now know and have the scientific data to support that racism is an *independent* predictor of early, avoidable death for racialised minorities including Māori. When we delay constitutional transformation, we are condemning Te Ao Māori to higher death rates – and a raft of other horrid social and economic outcomes that would never be acceptable for white populations. We have to be unrelenting, and uncompromising, in our pursuit of constitutional transformation and no longer accept and enable performative gestures that distract us from this goal.

Tangata Tiriti must underpin their support of Tiriti justice by centering the importance of constitutional transformation – for you cannot pretend to be an ally whilst also tolerating a system that disproportionately kills those you purport to be an ally to.

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