Two groups of New Zealanders have made great strides in the last thirty years: women and Maori. Thirty years ago, sexism was rife in New Zealand society, the public service, and in our corridors of power. Helen Clark told me in the eighties about her experiences in Parliament – being sneered at, ignored, and belittled even by members of her own party.
The old boy’s club has slowly gone out of business, as women have been able to achieve great things. We have broken down barriers to entry in the workforce. We have gained recognition, through the paid parental scheme, that the work we do in raising our children is valued by, and valuable to, society. Equal employment opportunity and anti-discrimination legislation has slowly worked away at the sexism that was prevalent in the workplace and in employment practices. Slowly, it has been made easier for abused women to leave their violent partners. The gap between what men and women earn for doing the same work has narrowed, though it still exists. And leaders, such as our Prime Minister, Governor General, and Chief Justice, have shown the new generation of young women that they can achieve anything they want.
But there is still so much more to achieve in the battle for gender equality. Women are still in the minority in the corridors of power. We make up only about a quarter of MPs in Parliament and a quarter of the Ministers around the Cabinet table.
A recent report in the Herald pointed out that women are still very much in the minority when it comes to the influential positions in our society: mayors, councillors, CEOs of businesses, heads of government departments or health boards, and school principals.
No, the battle for gender equality is still to be won. And we need to think about this battle in terms of the choice in front of us… we are choosing as a nation between a Green/Labour government committed to breaking down the barriers of female participation and a NZ First/National government which writes off such issues as “political correctness gone mad”.
Women understand this. While amongst male voters the Green/Labour and National/NZ First combinations are fairly evenly matched, among women voters our progressive forces are well out in front in most opinion polls. Women understand that Winston and Don want to take us back to the 1970s, when decisions were made in smoke-filled rooms in gentlemen’s clubs and women were only useful to look after the kids. For evidence of that, we only have to look at these two parties’ line-ups.
A National/NZ First Cabinet might be made up of the top fifteen members of National’s list and the top five ranked members of NZ First’s. How many women would that see in a Brash/Peters Cabinet, where the real decisions are made on how New Zealand is run? Two. That’s right. Two out of twenty. Only Katherine Rich and Judith Collins would make it. And we know how Don Brash treats his women MPs. The two women MPs in his Caucus to stand up to his mean-spirited, uncaring attacks on Maori and solo Mums – Georgina Te Heuheu and Katherine Rich – were sidelined, silenced, and demoted. There is now not a single woman on the National front bench, and we can be sure there wouldn’t be a single woman in charge of a powerful Ministry in a Brash/Peters administration.
Women understand this. Women understand that, in Don Brash and Winston Peters’ vision of New Zealand, their only rightful place is in the kitchen.
As with women, so with Maori. Maori have achieved so much in the past 30 years. It is no exaggeration to call it a Maori renaissance, with a flourishing of Maori culture and language, and a marked improvement in social statistics, whether in terms of the percentage of Maori leaving high school with a qualification, the percentage unemployed, the percentage catching preventable diseases, or the percentage achieving tertiary education qualifications. Slowly, but surely, there has been a restoration of mana.
This has been in no small part a result of policies aimed at healing the wounds of our past, of righting the wrongs of the land confiscations and the Treaty breaches that mar our history as a nation, and of policies aimed at ensuring Maori can achieve everything they aspire to achieve, on their own terms, and in their own communities, determining their own courses.
That is why a National/NZ First government, which seeks to reverse all those good policies that have led to the Maori renaissance, and make everyone the same, would be so dangerous for New Zealand. “We’re all New Zealanders” is shorthand for “I want Maori to be just like Pakeha in every respect”. The policies that Don Brash proposed last year at Orewa were explicitly assimilationist. They sought to make Maori into brown Pakeha, to deny that the state has any role in protecting and promoting Maori culture, and to deny that the Government has any responsibility to try to continue to work away at the social statistics which show Maori not doing as well as they can and they ought to. The assimilationist policies of the reactionary right parallel those of the Australian Government’s treatment of its aboriginal peoples. And we know where that leads: to premature death, to poverty, to despair, and to societal breakdown. We don’t want any part of that. We can’t afford to have any part of that.
Yes, just as Don wishes to take us back to a world when women were consigned to the kitchen, he also wants to take us back to a New Zealand which denies our history as a bicultural nation, and which seeks to fit every kind of New Zealander, whether Maori or Pakeha or Asian or Iraqi, into a single mould. Don wishes everyone to be like him, to adopt some mythical monolithic Pakeha culture and outlook on the world, and deny their cultural heritage.
UPDATE: A Don Brash reaction to these arguments is here.