Jan 31, 2013

Fact checking Elizabeth Rata

There are two certainties in life: death and taxes. Benjamin Franklin lent fame to the proverb in a letter to French historian Jean-Baptiste Leroy. In modern times, writers tend to add a third certainty to create a triple or satisfy the rule of three. Vince McMahon (yes, I used to watch WWE) said that the three certainties in life are death, taxes and Randy Savage. He was right of course, but hardly suitable for a New Zealand context. In New Zealand, the three certainties in life are death, taxes and Maori bashing.

In the latest round of anti-Maori opinion, Dr Elizabeth Rata* argues that “tribalism” – meaning the Maori political system pre-1840 – is incompatible with democracy. Rata presents a more sober argument than David Round, but it is based on a false premise – that Maori operated under a system of tribalism and that Maori want to recreate said system.

Rata misrepresents the Maori political system. Maori did not operate under her invented definition of tribalism – the Maori political system was governed by tikanga. Maori society was grouped in three units; whanau, hapu and iwi. The hapu was the main political body led by a central rangatira and several lesser rangatira. Rangatira governed without force and relied on consensus politics to ensure compliance with tikanga. The consensus model was, arguably, as democratic as anything in industrial Europe. Tikanga developed as a result of centuries of practice and was informed by core principles (comparisons can be made with the common law). Tikanga regulated Maori political, legal, social and spiritual behaviour. According to Timoti Gallagher it was “flexible, adaptable and could be interconnected to fit with the demands of the moment or as new circumstances arose”**. This conception of Maori society is at odds with Rata’s make-believe notion of “tribalism”. As a result, Rata’s conclusions cannot stand. With this in mind, let’s pick the article apart piece by piece:

Kin status is what matters in the tribe; citizenship is the democratic status… Tribalism is exclusive. To belong you must have ancestors who were themselves born into the system.

Untrue. Whakapapa regulated belonging, but it was possible to join a hapu through marriage or immigration. Indeed, it was not uncommon for one hapu to subsume another.

Yet how can a traditional tribal system be revived when it was destroyed by democracy? Tribalism and democracy are incompatible - they cannot exist together as political systems in the one nation.

The Maori political system was not destroyed by the introduction of western democracy. Hapu transferred their sovereignty to the Crown in exchange for the protection of rangatiratanga. Crown sovereignty and Maori rangatiratanga have always co-existed, but one is subordinate to the other. Rangatiratanga was never destroyed (despite the Crown's efforts). Rangatiratanga is still exercised within our own "spheres", for example on the Marae or in Iwi governance.

Those wanting to place the Treaty into New Zealand's Constitution must address the implications of the fundamental incompatibility between democracy and tribalism if the constitutional review is to have any real purpose.

Well, that’s not right. Even if, and it’s a huge if, the Treaty were included in a written constitution that doesn’t alter New Zealand democracy. Constitutions remain subject to democratic amendment or destruction and neither the Treaty itself nor its principles diminish Crown sovereignty. The principles of the Treaty demand that Maori recognise and accept the sovereignty of the Crown in exchange for the protection of rangatiratanga and so on. The Treaty does not demand an end to liberal democracy and a return to the Maori political system pre-1840, if anything the Treaty with its reference to citizenship endorses Dr Rata’s definition of democracy.

The place of religion in New Zealand is a good example of the division between political status and identity. Many New Zealanders have a religion but their religious identity is not part of the political arrangements, although the right to exercise their religion is. Race and culture are like religion - an identity but not a political status. We meet in the political sphere as equal citizens not as members of a religion, a race, or a tribe.

An opponent of identity politics – fair enough – but this argument is working against 21st century trends. Former colonial societies are moving towards forms of multicultural or bicultural pluralism. New Zealand is no different. Racial politics is an entrenched part of New Zealand democracy. In 1908 the then Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward rebuked Rua Kenana’s request to enrol on the Pakeha electoral role saying that Maori have “special representation of their own”.*** The representation the Prime Minister was referring to were the Maori seats, established in 1867 by the Maori Representation Act. The seats have and continue to affirm racial politics in New Zealand and are “an institutional endorsement that Maori are a distinct people with a unique place in New Zealand’s constitutional framework."**** Viewed in this light, the Maori seats have meant that the Maori democratic identity has been defined, for over a century and a half, by virtue of our whakapapa Maori. Rata’s argument does not hold water in the New Zealand context. The Select Committee reporting on the then proposed MMP legislation recommended that the Maori seats be retained despite the Royal Commission's recommendation to abolish the seats. Maori feel that the seats are an inalienable right – further entrenching racial politics as a part of our democracy.

Race or cultural identity cannot be included as a political status in a constitution.

Well, that’s wrong. Racial identity is already included in New Zealand’s constitution – in the Treaty and the Electoral Act - and it works perfectly well.

This takes me back to the question of chieftainship. Can chieftainship be exercised in a democracy? The comparison with religion holds the answer. Just as bishops and priests lost their considerable political power to democracy's system of accountable leadership, so too must today's iwi leaders accept the same limitations. Their influence on the political system should be that of any other social organisation or business corporation.

Rubbish. Of course rangatiratanga can be exercised in a democracy. After all, rangatiratanga is subordinate to the Crown’s sovereignty and only binding on those who submit to it. The Crown’s sovereignty – empowered by our democratic system – is binding whether you recognise it or not. Rangatiratanga is no different to any other form of devolved authority – confined and inferior. As for the argument that iwi leaders influence should be equivalent to an ordinary organisation, that ignores the New Zealand context. The Treaty guarantees Maori the right to citizenship (i.e. the right to participate in democracy and the acceptance of the sovereignty of the Crown) and the right to retain and exercise their Maoritanga. Successive governments and courts have recognised this right. The Treaty, various pieces of legislation and the attendant jurisprudence acknowledges that Maori have a special place in New Zealand society. The role of iwi reflects this.

At best, Rata’s piece is faulty because it relies on a false premise. At worst, it’s intellectually dishonest. Rata misrepresents the nature of tikanga and rangatiratanga and displays an impressive ability to think in binary. Unsurprisingly, Rata also demonstrates a poor grip on how democracy evolves to meet different conditions. New Zealand democracy, for example, has evolved to accomodate rangatiratanga and our cultural identity. Canadian democracy is also evolving to meet the special place of First Nations' people. The same is true across other Commonwealth countries and some parts of Asia and South America. Democracy does not have to confine itself to Rata's perfunctory and ostensible definition of the democratic state.

It's a shame that Rata is given a prominent platform to parrot her faulty views. Her regressive pieces go a long way towards justifying anti-Maori and anti-Treaty feeling and undermining sympathy for tino rangatiratanga. The three certainties in New Zealand are no Maoris, no Treaty and no sympathy.

Post-Script: Arihia at Te tau okioki writes: "a Pakeha woman with a massive chip on her shoulder, Rata is well known at home for raving on endlessly in a fact-free kind of way about biculturalism, Maori education, and Maori language. She is highly critical of what she calls 'culturalism' and the 'elite' in Maoridom, and the problems of Maori language education... the evidence she uses to support her claims is decontextualised, inaccurate or a fabrication most of the time and this is made possible partly by her refusal to follow the basic rules of any research... I am angry at Elizabeth Rata because she is an Associate Professor at the University of Auckland on the basis of such poor scholarship, and because she refuses to engage with a range of scholarship or to conduct her own research in ethical or even methodologically robust ways." This somewhat reflects my thinking on Rata's scholarship. Much of Rata's writing is concerned with the intersection of race and politics. Some of her ideas hold true, I think, but most of what I have read is rubbish. 

*I suspect Dr Rata is a graduate of the John Ansell School of Law and Social Sciences. I used to have some time for her despite never agreeing with her arguments and conclusions. She was willing to push into some controversial territory, but the piece in question is intellectually dishonest. It's worth mentioning that Dr Rata is a member of Muriel Newman’s hate group. Check out some of her anti-Maori academic and media writing. Says it all really.

**See Te Kahui Kura Maori, Volume 0, Issue 1 Tikanga Maori Pre-1840. Very accessible and draws on the likes of Justices Durie and Williams and other writers of celebrity.

***See Mihaia, Oxford University Press, Auckland, 1979, pg 38. It’s a masterful history book from Professor 
Dame Judith Binney.

****See Electoral Law in New Zealand by Professor Andrew Geddis (starting at pg 93). Prof. Geddies writes a brief and easily read discussion of the Maori seats.


  1. After last year's Te Papa Treaty lectures, I'm kind of miffed at other appointments at the Associate Professor level at Auckland too.

    1. I assume you're referring to Nin Tomas? I haven't read her work or heard her speak so I can't speak to that, but do you think it was a token appointment?

    2. I make know aspersions on the process, I just know that the speech she gave was either dishonest, or so misleading that the difference doesn't matter.

      He piece is still on-line on Radio New Zealand, but it made a multitude of claims about the Bolivian Constitution that are simply not true. Translating to a New Zealand context, it would be as if someone overseas claimed: "New Zealand has an unwritten constitution that guarantees a veto to the indigenous Maori population". The speech bore almost no relation to reality.

    3. Interesting. I'll track down the audio and read up on the Bolivian Constitution.

  2. Rata is the Token Maori for the NZPRC that is nothing more than a hate group, disguised as a political think tank they have forgotten to make mention of non Maori political issues like unemployment, Greek economy, $250 Billion international debt. NZPRC would have some credibility if weren't blaming Maori for everything wrong with New Zealand.

  3. "Crown sovereignty and Maori rangatiratanga have always co-existed, but one is subordinate to the other."

    In what way is Maori rangatiratanga subject to Crown sovereignty when on Maori land when Maori sovereignty was not ceded in entirety, if at all?

    Also, the Maori text referred to tino rangatiratanga being retained, would that not imply that it was retained in it's original unsubordinate state?

    The doctrine of contra proferentum implies that sovereignty was not ceded per the English text if there was no equivalent word or phrase in the Maori text.

  4. This is an excellent examination of this woman, who is kind of like an academic version of Winston Peters crossed with John Tamihere (God help us all).

    I am disturbed, however, to see you use the term "Fisking" as a headline. That is a term of abuse used to attack and vilify one of the world's most outstanding journalists. It is a term only used by the most brutal far right ideologues.

    Why would YOU use it, Morgan?

    1. Opps, I didn't even think about that when I wrote it. I'll change the title.

  5. The latest NZJES - Maori education edition - argues that Maori are suspicious of democracy and don't support 'Western' notions of politics at all - god knows how they arrive at that - but that's what they say!!!!

  6. ps. sorry - it says anonymous -- I'm not - my name is Seann Paurini - I'm not sure how posting to these things work - now I think I know - as I've posted before - wasn't sure how -- NZJES is the NZ Journal of Education Studies - I'll find the ed. Its L and G Smith, A Jones, Charles Royal etal. Interesting that two Maori academics refused to take part because one of the eds' is not Maori.

  7. Maori sovereignty has never been ceded to the crown. Article 2 of the treaty guarantees maori retain their absolute sovereignty over their lands and taonga.

  8. Thanks for the breakdown Morgan, I missed that article since I gave up on reading the Herald...
    I don't mean to stand up for Rata, but I have found a few of her articles to be really enlightening because she highlights how neoliberalism has intersected with biculturalism and as a result our biculturalism is flawed. Iwi are forced into turning themselves into a kind of corporation to survive, then the Pakeha rednecks can turn around and call the Iwi greedy bastards when they are successful.
    Perhaps I have been reading Rata through an economic lens rather than a cultural lens?
    Personally, I would also critique Rata's herald article by highlighting that our democracy has little to do with equality, especially since it exists alongside capitalism.
    I should make it clear that I do see our current form of biculutralism as a Pakeha defined biculturalism which has been designed to maintain power and control over resources



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