Teaching illusion

On this day when Don Brash tries to revive his ugly Maori-baiting, I thought it might be valuable to revisit his original Orewa speech. It’s a speech that was so successful in boosting National’s popularity that the party still has a link to it from its front page more than 18 months after it was delivered.

It’s also a speech that did more to damage our social cohesion and race relations than any other in many years, more dangerous than any of Winston Peters’ anti-Asian mutterings because this was a man who could be our Prime Minister.

When the speech was delivered, many progressive-minded New Zealanders felt very uneasy about it, but couldn’t quite describe why. Late last year, I read an article in Political Science, the journal of Victoria University’s politics programme, which described very eloquently the discontent felt by almost all such Kiwis at Brash’s bigotry.

Written by political psychologist Jon Johansson (who David Farrar has had several swipes at recently), the article described Brash’s speech as a case of “teaching illusion” thus:

Phantom enemies or out-groups are externalised as impediments to achieving a harmonious or better society. Appeals are made to deep-seated prejudices; scapegoats are identified and held responsible for slow progress. The majority is pitted against minority groups, or perhaps social cleavages are exploited to create a new majority – usually by exploiting a perceived grievance or by making a coded appeal to ignorance or worse, to prejudice and hatred…

By pitting one group against another for political gain there is an implicit recognition and calculation by the political leader that their self-interest will be served. Costs are disregarded and consequences ignored because the driving motivation is invariably one of desperation.

Johansson compares the Orewa speech to other ugly events on our political history, specifically:

Muldoon’s ‘Dancing Cossacks’ advertising campaign in 1975. This campaign, in which the National Party portrayed its opponents in the unions and the Labour Party as communists and evoked images of Polynesians committing crimes, costing New Zealanders jobs, and being ‘dole bludgers’, is a straightforward case in which stereotypes were used to distort reality and stigmatise minority groups for political gain. Winston Peters, leader of the New Zealand First Party, is another who routinely singles out groups for exclusion from his vision of a cohesive New Zealand society. He stereotypes Asian drivers, third-world immigrants and litigious Maori and blames them for eroding the fabric of what makes this country unique and strong. In early 1996, in a speech delivered in Howick, Peters railed against increased Asian immigration, exploiting New Zealanders’ insecurities so successfully that his party rose more than 20 points in the opinion polls over a three-month period.

Johansson criticises Brash trenchantly for not being knowledgeable about his subject matter. Brash was, by his own admission, ignorant of New Zealand history. Writes Johansson:

More revealing was Brash’s admission to Wong that he had read neither Claudia Orange’s The Treaty of Waitangi nor Jamie Belich’s various works on New Zealand history (despite Belich being selectively quoted in the Orewa speech). Brash also disclosed that he had only ever read the English version of the Treaty, which he said he had studied closely. An essay by historian Bill Oliver, which Brash admitted he had also not read before his speech, provided the intellectual underpinning for his claim that the Treaty had been ‘wrenched’ out of its context. Oliver, when interviewed by Wong, made it clear that he could not see ‘any connection between my arguments put forward in that essay and the policies put forward by Don Brash’…. A contemporary Maori leader … told me that what struck him most about the Orewa speech was its lack of intellectual rigor when compared to Bill English’s equivalent speech. Brash provides a simplistic and assimilationist view of our history: racial harmony emerged, despite fault on both sides, and it is only now being undone by Maori who have been encouraged by successive governments to adopt a ‘grievance mentality’… The National Party leader’s understanding of our nation’s history is parsimonious at best. He, like most New Zealanders, has not read the historical treatments that are widely acknowledged as most authoritative. That, naturally, is his choice. Unlike most New Zealanders, however, he has offered himself as someone who could lead our nation.

Johansson also marks Brash down for presenting such a profoundly negative view of Maori:

No adaptive, uplifting or educative speech about race, anywhere, at any time, has ever included discussion about blood purity. Indeed, those speeches that do are of a qualitatively different type altogether, remembered for the disastrous consequences that invariably flow from them. Additionally, if subjective self-definition by people of Maori ancestry is thought so injurious, Brash does not suggest alternative criteria … Negative attributions directed towards aspects of Maori behaviour outnumber any positive or unifying statements by a 3:1 ratio. Brash uses aggressive language such as ‘the dangerous drift towards racial separatism’, or ‘the threat which the treaty process poses to the future of our country’. He talks, almost absurdly given the disparity between Maori and Pakeha outcomes on any number of social indicators, of a New Zealand where ‘the minority has a birthright to the upper hand’… A prudent leader does not pit one group of New Zealanders against another in pursuit of partisan self-interest, especially when it is highly debatable whether the significant policy solutions offered can even be implemented… Maori were scapegoated in the Orewa speech. It was not a speech of unity. It primarily stands as a Machiavellian strategy to change a desperate political dynamic in National’s favour.

Johansson’s piece is very well researched, written and argued. It expresses in extremely reasoned terms why a man like Dr Brash doesn’t deserve to be our Prime Minister. Those many dwellers of New Zealand’s blogosphere egging Brash on in his race-baiting would do well to read this article. I’d be very interested in one of them (perhaps you, David Farrar?) offering a sensible, reasoned response to it, so that we can get a debate going.

Unfortunately, it seems we’re destined to endure another week of divisive, negative, nasty, ugly race politics at the hands of the National Party. We can only hope that our country is strong enough to survive it…

UPDATE: There is a host of interesting web reading on the subject of Brash’s “son of Orewa” speech. See, in particular: No Right Turn, Che Tibby, David Farrar responding to Dr Johansson’s article, and David Slack.

11 Comments Posted

  1. No adaptive, uplifting or educative speech about race, anywhere, at any time, has ever included discussion about blood purity. Indeed, those speeches that do are of a qualitatively different type altogether, remembered for the disastrous consequences that invariably flow from them. Additionally, if subjective self-definition by people of Maori ancestry is thought so injurious, Brash does not suggest alternative criteria …
    So people can identify as aggrieved based on weak ancestral connection and cultural identity what is “uplifting” about that?

  2. As I understand it, the Maori seats are more of a constitutional than a race-based institution.

    They are a recognition that the Maori Nation (whose independence was recognised by the Crown in 1835) retained certain collective rights while at the same time being integrated into the British Empire as outlined in the Treaty.

    These rights include a guaranteed representation in the New Zealand parliament.

    Brash certainly hit a nerve with white New Zealand. I think it is a case of whites in this country feeling jealous because they feel that they are not able to freely express a strong sense of ethnic group identity in the same way that they see other ethnic groups (especially Maori) doing.

    It is phrased in the terms of “one law for all”, but the reality is that the law is never equal for everybody and probably nobody would want that anyway. For example, look at how the law treats you differently depending on whether you are a child or an adult, a prisoner or a non-prisoner, someone judged to be “sane” and another judged to be “insane”, etc.

    Racial harmony will come about when everyone is committed to the basic underlying unity of the human Species and at the same time allowing people to freely express themselves as a racial or ethnic collective if they feel so inclined.

  3. Some questions

    Why does the discussion fall back into this “race-based” trap over and over again ?

    Why is a simplistic and inaccurate National Party slogan such a successful trigger, seemingly able to turn our brains off ?

    Are we/they (the Pakeha majority) really so ignorant of our history … or are we/they just plain selfish and greedy?


  4. So National seem bound and determined to give up on the Maori vote? Funny then that in his Orewa speech, Don said this
    “Today, nearly 70% of 24 to 34 year old New Zealanders who identify as Maori are married to someone who does not.

    And most of the rest are themselves of multi-ethnic identity, itself a consequence of two centuries of intermarriage. As a consequence, a majority of Maori children grow up today with a non-Maori parent.”

    Adding together Maori and their relatives and friends, it seems that the Nats may have given up on rather more votes than they intended 🙂

  5. Kia ora tincanman

    I don’t believe that Don Brash is “calling for equality for all New Zealanders”. Looking at National’s other policies, “leveling the playing field for all” does NOT seem to be the general theme.

    There are two issues that I find worth thinking about here.

    Firstly Maori historical rights are rights of “inheritance” not of “race”.
    If the Pakeha majority is now able to ignore or overturn Maori historical rights because there are more Pakeha, what affect would that have on our country, now and in the future?

    Secondly, this issue would not have been raised by National if Maori seats were safely in National’s hands. Thus this stance seems to be more like self-centred political expedience, rather than idealism, to me!


  6. Is it race baiting when the man is calling for equality for all New Zealanders? Treating people based on need, rather than race? I didn’t know that was being racist. Here I thought that was being a good, decent human being. Sorry Greens, had it wrong most of my life. I’ll do it your way from now on and treat people based on their skin colour, rather than as people.

  7. Kia ora!

    We wouldn’t be asked to worry about Don Brash’s idealism, and his concern about us “all being New Zealanders” etc etc if voters in Maori Electorates could be relied upon to vote a few National candidates into Parliament from time to time …


  8. I don’t know how to state this immodestly, but I take full credit for the best take-down of that bullshit speech in a blow-by-blow fashion – at least of anything I have ever seen to date. Every other critique is superficial pap compared with it. And I mean that in a humble and objective way. If you can download a mega pdf you’ll find it at http://www.tumeke.org

  9. We can only hope that our country is strong enough to survive it…

    Why so optimistic? I doubt we’ll last the week anyway, given the oil crisis.

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