Saturday, June 22

Answer the racist roadshow with arguments, not disruption!

Far from the vacuous slogans and salacious scandalmongering of the bourgeois parties in Parliament, a real and often heated political discussion is taking place in New Zealand. It is happening mostly in the provincial centres, where the suffocating influence of the Wellington state bureaucracy is weaker. Conservative forces are taking the lead, and they are meeting little resistance in the way of counterposed ideas or rebuttal of their arguments.

Far from it: the main opposition to the conservatives consists of efforts to shut them down by denying them venues to meet, and disruption from within the meetings when they do go ahead. This situation has in turn spawned a series of secondary arguments about vital political rights workers need, including freedom of speech and the right to assemble in public spaces, as well as accusations of racism and violence against the meeting organisers.

These confrontations are taking place at a series of meetings organised by the Stop Co-Governance roadshow.

The term ‘Co-Governance’ first gained widespread use in New Zealand in relation to the controversial, and ultimately very unpopular, ‘Three Waters’ reform of the infrastructure related to drinking water supply, sewage disposal, and stormwater management in built-up areas (the so-called ‘three waters’). Under the proposed reform, which has since been shelved by the government for fear that the issue might intrude on the general election, the water infrastructure would be transferred to publicly owned corporations, which would be overseen jointly – that is, co-governed – by elected local governments and Māori iwi (tribal) authorities with equal representation. Some opponents of this proposed reform seized on the co-governance aspect as their chief objection, saying this undermined the principle of control by democratically elected local government. The government’s answer was that co-governance reflected its obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi.

Stop Co-Governance (SCG) is the banner of Julian Batchelor, a journalist and small business operator. The SCG website claims that “Co-governance is not about co-governance. It’s a plan by radical tribal representatives to take over New Zealand.”  His campaign feeds on resentment about the growing use of te reo Māori (Māori language) in broadcasting, bi-lingual road signs, and the names of government departments, as well as powers granted to Māori iwi authorities in various environmental and natural resources questions. SCG likens such discrimination to the apartheid system of racial discrimination under which Black people were brutally oppressed in South Africa before 1990.

“The cornerstone of democracy is one person one vote”, the website states. “When Maori are appointed to boards, trusts, councils etc, instead of being voted on, this is undemocratic. If this continues, the end of the road is either dictatorship (e.g. Iran, Iraq, North Korea) or tribal rule.” “Tribal rule” becomes their catch-all term for all kinds of objectionable behaviour: for example, the intimidation of a woman motorist by a motorcycle gang, when she accidentally got in the way of a motorbike procession that turned out to be a tangi. Even the efforts by some people to include the Māori name for New Zealand in the name of the country, Aotearoa-New Zealand, is painted as a conspiracy to introduce ‘tribal rule’ by stealth.

Images from the Stop Co-Governance website.

The racist stereotype of Māori as a violent, criminally-inclined people is unmistakable. Batchelor has added a disclaimer to his website, to the effect that he is talking not about all Māori, but just the ‘Elite Māori’, “the group who are in charge of administering all the cash and assets which are being gifted by the government to Māori.” But his constant references to ‘tribal rule’ make nonsense of that disclaimer. It is the whole ‘tribe’ that he fears.

Many people, including workers and Māori especially, find the views expressed by Batchelor and the Stop Co-Governance campaign repugnant, and have sought to protest and counter them. Meetings organised by Stop Co-Governance have been met with protests. In several meetings police have formed a line across the hall separating protestors from supporters.

But there have been very few attempts to answer their ideas. For the most part, those opposed to SCG have sought to silence them by various means. Owners of venues renting meeting halls to them were put under pressure to cancel the bookings. A meeting in a Dunedin Scouts Hall was cancelled on 17 June by an official of the Scouts NZ who barged into the meeting twenty minutes after it had begun and closed it down, claiming that it didn’t align with the values of Scouts NZ. “Members of the public made us aware over social media, just before it kicked off, the true intent of the booking,” he said.

Police separate protestors at the Ōrewa leg of Julian Batchelor’s ‘Stop Co-Governance’ tour. Photo: Jake Law NZH 24Mar23

On other occasions, protesters have attempted to gain entry in order to disrupt the meetings with noise. A woman claimed to have been assaulted as she was thrown out of the meeting in Palmerston North on July 24. “I was waving a sign that said ‘hate speech is not free speech,’ and two or three people tried to grab me and grab the sign away and the whistle out of my mouth,” she told the NZ Herald.

As tensions have continued to rise, some of those trying to silence the SCG meetings have asserted thugs’ veto – that is, they threaten violence and disorder if the meetings go ahead, and then demand that the police shut down the meetings on the grounds of public safety. A protestor managed to gain entry to the SCG meeting in Hastings, then grabbed Batchelor’s laptop and data projector and threw them on the floor, and was then arrested by the police protecting the meeting. One of the organisers of that protest,  Ngāti Kahungunu chairman Bayden Barber, accused the police of ‘picking sides.’  “It is clear that the conversation was not going to occur without erupting into violence and it should have been stopped earlier,” he said. Barber’s criticism of police actions at the meeting was echoed in Parliament by Rawiri Waititi, leader of Te Pāti Māori. At least two other venues in the area had previously cancelled their bookings for SCG.

Stop Co-Governance has responded to these disruption attempts by enlisting the support of anyone who is prepared to help them see that the meetings proceed. In some places, the individuals tasked with policing who gets admitted to the meetings include known ultra-rightists. This has led to further accusations that SCG has been refusing entry to Māori on purely racial grounds.

The damage done to the interests and political rights of the working class by this campaign to silence the Stop Co-Governance meetings is a thousand times greater than the damage done by the racist roadshow itself.  These methods of denying the right to meeting spaces, intimidation and threats of violence, and the thugs’ veto, which today are being wielded against an unpopular and objectionable racist outfit, will inevitably be turned against the workers movement and Māori organisations tomorrow. The more these methods become established and legitimised today, the harder it will be to fight them tomorrow.

Who are the owners of meeting halls in this country? Not working people, nor their organisations, in all but a few cases. Spaces where workers can meet to discuss and debate the big political issues we face cannot be taken for granted. The owners of almost all of these places are either local governments (which have some obligation to make them available to every sector of the community, but which are in practice entirely dominated by capitalist interests that exploit every opportunity to impose their own ’values’), schools, churches, sports clubs,  and a few remnants of bourgeois political movements from the past, such as Boy Scouts, Orange Lodges and the like. (The Boy Scouts was founded a century ago as a patriotic outfit to mobilise support for the imperialist war among young people – let us not forget that this was the foundation of “Scouting values”). Marae open their spaces to the wider community in some circumstances, but are mostly for the use of Māori only.

The only exceptions are the Trades Halls in the two largest cities – as far as I am aware, these are the only two large meeting halls that belong to the workers movement. (This lack of union meeting halls is partly explained by the long dependence of the New Zealand trade unions on compulsory membership by law, which led to most unions holding their meetings on the property of their employers. In more recent times, some unions have established smaller meeting spaces, but none large enough to accommodate gatherings of hundreds, as far as I know.)  For the most part, the workers movement will need to defend our rights to hire and use large meeting halls against the ‘values’ of their owners. To support the rights of the venue owners to impose their ‘values’ and bigoted opinions about who is a suitable organisation to hire the hall would be suicidal for workers.

When the working class fight back begins in earnest, we will need to assert and vigorously defend our rights to freedom of assembly, freedom of political association, and freedom of speech.  The right to hold a political meeting includes the right to exclude from the meeting anyone the organisers choose to exclude. Political battles have been fought in the past over the right to exclude police spies and other enemies of the assembled organisations from their meetings, and there will be more such battles in future.

Without the right to exclude people from a private meeting, irrespective of how widely that meeting has been advertised, the right of freedom of assembly is void. Likewise, meeting organisers – not just the police – have the right to use reasonable force to throw out people who are intent on disrupting the meeting, as was clearly the case with the woman thrown out of the SCG meeting in Palmerston North. This is not a right to assault or humiliate anyone – hence the word ‘reasonable’ – but much the same right that allows hired bouncers in a public bar to use reasonable force to throw out people who are behaving in an unruly way, and subject to the same constraints.

Even more dangerous to a nascent workers movement is the assertion of the thug’s veto. The notion that it is acceptable to threaten chaos, disorder and violence, and then demand that the police shut down a meeting on grounds of public safety, grants sweeping powers to the police to decide who may or may not hold political meetings.

Nothing is easier than to threaten disorder when controversial ideas are being discussed – and simultaneously, to place the responsibility for the threatened disorder on the people proposing controversial ideas! Even a small minority can threaten violence and disorder. The police will generally be more than happy to comply with the thugs’ veto, and shut down political discussion. They have demonstrated that already in the case of the Posie Parker rally in Auckland in March, where they stood by motionless while those who had threatened violence and disorder carried out their threat. The thugs who carried out the violent attack on the Posie Parker rally congratulated themselves on their victory; in reality, it was a victory for the ability of the police to decide who gets to meet and to speak.

Rawiri Waititi, leader of Te Pāti Māori, speaking in Parliament. Photo: Parliament TV

The reactionary logic of this line of approach can be seen in Te Pāti Māori urging the government to mobilise the government security and intelligence agency GCSB and the ‘disinformation and misinformation’ brigades against the Stop Co-Governance tour.

If shutting down the racist roadshow is fraught with these dangers, how then should they be combatted?  – By ideas and arguments: the Stop Co-Governance is raising false ideas; they must be fought with correct and true ideas.

It is not sufficient to denounce Stop Co-Governance as racist, even if the accusation is true. Julian Batchelor says that he is not aligned with any political party. However, the New Zealand First Party’s Winston Peters says very similar things about Co-Governance, including the false comparison with Apartheid. But Peters, deputy leader Shane Jones, and many other officials and supporters of New Zealand First are themselves Māori! Denouncing them too as anti-Māori racists would seem somewhat ridiculous.  

Above all, what is needed to combat the SCG ideas is a sense of the class conflicts in capitalist societies like New Zealand. Politics in New Zealand, including this discussion on Co-Governance, is shaped by this conflict of class against class to a far greater degree than it is by racial and national conflicts, important as those may be.

The working class, the wage-workers of the factory, farm, forest, road and sea, is comprised of many nationalities and people from many geographical origins. We are a class divided and weakened by competition among ourselves, for jobs, social services and so on. We therefore have strong class interest in unity: the greater our unity, the greater our strength – the more divided we are by discrimination in employment, housing, access to social services, and the justice system, the weaker we are. Thus it is in the interests of all workers to combat racial discrimination and national inequalities, the most stark of which is discrimination against Māori. The fight to unify our class requires recognising the historical fact of the forcible dispossession of Māori of their land in the colonial period, and the national oppression that survives to the present day as the historical legacy of that dispossession, in the form of discrimination revealed by the statistics on unequal rates of imprisonment, housing, access to health and so on. (This recognition has nothing to do with guilt – in fact, such dispossession is the common origin of the working class in every part of the world.)

For its part, the interests of the oppressed Māori nation lie in forging an alliance with the working class in its fight for national equality.

The leaders of the Bastion Point occupation in the late 1970s, one of the broadest and most successful struggles for Māori land in the last century, understood this well. Eddie Hawke, father of the brothers Joe, Grant, and Alec Hawke, who together with his sons was a central leader of that struggle, was a veteran of the 1951 lockout. Eddie had been a waterside worker who remained loyal to the union throughout the gruelling 151-day lockout, one of the biggest assaults on the working class in New Zealand’s history. He had many connections and great respect in the union movement on that account. By the 1970s some key unions were led by former 1951 watersiders who had been blacklisted from the wharves and had to find other jobs. This included Frank Barnard, leader of the Auckland-Tomoana Freezing Workers Union, and Bill Andersen, head of the Auckland Trades Council.

When the Bastion Point occupiers appealed to the unions for support, the response was quick and solid. The Auckland Trades Council imposed a green ban on the Bastion Point site, which effectively blocked any effort by the government to use unionised workers (almost all workers were union members in those days) to demolish the occupiers’ shacks or evict the protestors. This green ban was a powerful demonstration of working class support. Workers also organised through their unions to gather food, money, and other means of support and solidarity throughout the occupation. The Takaparawhau newsletter, which among other things detailed the long and shameful history of injustice in relation to that particular piece of land, was distributed widely in workplaces through the unions. The alliance between Māori and the entire working class was key to maintaining the 507-day occupation, and thus to the ultimate victory and return of the land.

Protest leader Joe Hawke, left, speaks at Bastion Point occupation, 1977 Photo: NZ Herald

Today, and for the past thirty years, the entire leadership of Māori iwi has had the opposite orientation: towards alliance with the capitalist ruling class. They seek to advance Māori interests through the institutions of the capitalist state, its Parliament and parliamentary parties, its ideological apparatus – especially the news media and educational institutions – its justice and legal systems including the Waitangi Tribunal. It could hardly have been otherwise: the union movement has been all but non-existent in this period, and the working class has had no voice.

Co-Governance is a slogan that perfectly encapsulates this orientation towards alliance between Māori and the capitalist ruling class. By singling out this slogan for close examination, Julian Batchelor shines a spotlight on this alliance – and touches a nerve.

Because ultimately, the promise of Co-Governance is as fraudulent and baseless as the racist scaremongering of Julian Batchelor.

The capitalist ruling class, the big owners of capital who hold political power in New Zealand, are a handful of super-rich families, and they have absolutely no intention of ever sharing their capital or their political power with anyone. In order for this narrow layer to maintain their political stranglehold on power, they need a much wider base of supporters, and so they maintain a broad layer of political supporters with a degree of privilege, mostly among the professional middle class.

In the wake of the land struggles of the 1970s, which shook the stability of their rule, the capitalist class has actively fostered a Māori middle class, by opening up higher education to Māori for the first time, and promoting Māori in the state bureaucracy. To this end, they were willing to make some significant concessions: the Waitangi Tribunal settlements, involving recognition and apologies for past injustices and compensation packages, funding for Māori news media, support of various kinds for te reo Māori, funding of kōhanga reo and kura kaupapa Māori in the education system. This was money well spent, in their eyes – it established their alliance with Māori and thereby strengthened their grip on power. Any action that pointed towards re-establishing the alliance of Māori with the working class (such as the land occupation at Ihumātao) was quickly nipped in the bud by further concessions. They will continue to make such concessions as long as they find it politically expedient and affordable to do so.

Meanwhile, for the big majority of Māori who are not part of this new middle-class layer, there is much that doesn’t change. Health statistics improve slightly, at a glacial pace. The shameful disproportion in Māori rates of imprisonment remains all but unchanged. The police go about their business as before, routinely using racial profiling to target Māori youth (as the scandal of the police photographing Māori on Wairarapa streets demonstrated), and harassing and using deadly force against Māori men, as the Shargin Stephens case showed. The child welfare agency Oranga Tamariki, notwithstanding its Māori branding and despite hiring Māori social workers, continues to snatch children from the care of their families based on little more than racial profiling.

Anti-vaccine-mandate protest and occupation at Parliament, February 2022. Photo: Newshub

The great disaffected mass that descended on the parliamentary grounds in February last year, politically shapeless, confused, and leaderless as it was, was largely made up of workers and included a large number of Māori. Their presence was a challenge not just to the Labour government, but to all the Māori Members of Parliament and their hangers-on as well; it served them notice that the Co-Governance strategy is not universally popular among Māori. The profound alienation of the working class, above all its Māori component, from the world of capitalist politics was mercilessly laid bare in that month-long demonstration. It was the beginning of the end of the Labour government, which has never recovered from its arrogant refusal to speak to the protesters. In the long run, it may have even greater consequences for Māori leadership.

Hence the urge by the iwi and parliamentary leadership towards suppressing rather than answering the arguments of Julian Batchelor.