KIERAN MCANULTY has changed the game in a way only open to authentic political leaders. Instead of shying away from the challenges of co-governance, he has leaned into them. Instead of hiding behind the obfuscating language of official communications, he has demonstrated the extraordinary power of a simple “Yes” or “No”. What’s more, he has done all this in the accents of an ordinary Kiwi bloke. Kieran McAnulty is the person Chris Hipkins is trying to be.
Sticking up for the Treaty of Waitangi was always the winning response for the Sixth Labour Government. Most New Zealanders are justifiably proud of their country’s efforts to offer the indigenous Māori a measure of redress for the injustices heaped upon them during the creation of the settler-state of New Zealand. It is, of course, true that not all New Zealanders feel this way, but those who reject the promises of the Treaty grow fewer in number with every passing year. Young New Zealand, the demographic fast embracing “Aotearoa” as their nation, believe in the Treaty – and will fight for it.
McAnulty gets this because, at just 38 years-of-age, he’s a member of that younger demographic. The Baby Boom generation came of political age under the shadow of a racist majority. The majority Rob Muldoon knew he could count on in 1975 and 1981. The reactionary social formation that was still there in great numbers back in 2004 when Don Brash delivered his in/famous Orewa Speech. The motivational force behind Helen Clark’s ruthless response to the Court of Appeal’s decision on the foreshore and seabed. But McAnulty, alongside many others in Labour’s caucus, is two generations away from the politicians who were young in the 1960s and 70s. That world has gone – just as gaslight and gaiters had gone from the world of the post-war generation.
So why didn’t Gen-Xers like Jacinda Ardern, Grant Robertson and Chris Hipkins lean-in to the co-governance debate like McAnulty? One possible explanation is that they were never able to shake-off their fear that the big racist monster was still out there, still capable of upending progressive governments. They had, after all, seen at close hand Clark’s reaction to the post-Orewa polls. They had been witnesses, not only to the Labour leader’s fear of a Pakeha racist backlash, but also to her antipathy towards the “haters and wreckers” of Māori nationalism. Those sort of experiences leave a deep impression.
For McAnulty, however, those are yesterday’s political calculations. Either through careful sociological study, or by pure intuition, he has grasped what so many of his colleagues have not. That a substantial number – maybe even a majority – of the Baby Boomers can be won away from their fear of the big racist monster. That the people who marched against the Vietnam War, protested the Springbok Tour, and organised for a nuclear-free New Zealand no longer have to worry about what the older generation will say or do – because most of the RSA Generation are dead and buried. Its their kids and their grandkids that they should be thinking of now.
McAnulty’s other key insight is that when younger New Zealanders hear the word “democracy” their reaction is often quite different from that of their parents and grandparents. Democracy was what the Baby Boomers parents had fought for during the Second World War. It was the precious heirloom of the “Free World” through all the years of the Cold War. For the young New Zealanders who grew up in the shadow of Roger Douglas and Ruth Ricardson, however, democracy has been subjected to an altogether more robust interrogation.
It was under democracy that the New Zealand trade union movement was gutted, and never allowed to recover. It was under democracy that the welfare state became as cold as charity. It was democracy that looked at global warming – and did nothing. Democracy that denied an entire generation their own affordable home. Democracy that allowed big corporations to wreck the New Zealand environment, and send their profits offshore. Sure, you could vote, once every three years, but nothing ever seemed to change. Democracy might have done plenty for their grandparents’ and parents’ generations, but it has done bugger-all for theirs.
When older New Zealanders look at co-governance they are prone to see the demise of one-person, one-vote. But young New Zealanders look at the mess local government has made of their cities and towns, rivers and forests; they think about the way farming and business interests always seem to get what they want – often at the expense of everybody and everything else; and they ask themselves: Could the Māori make a worse job of looking after Aotearoa than Pakeha democracy? Could co-governance with mana whenua be any worse than co-governance with capitalists?
McAnulty has, quite rightly, pointed out that New Zealand has developed its own version of democracy. That it is steadily moving towards a way of governing that sees achieving consensus as preferable to, and certainly more sensible than, a 50 percent+1 tyranny of the majority. Both Māori and Pakeha are talking about a constitution based on the Treaty of Waitangi, rather than the Westminster system. A way forward that follows the paths already laid down in numerous Treaty settlements. A system of governance based on the peoples we are becoming, rather than the far-from-democratic institutions which the British colonisers brought with them.
If McAnulty’s colleagues have the courage to follow his lead, then the looming election may yet become an historical turning point. With National and Act offering nothing more than more of the same, Labour, the Greens, and Te Pāti Māori have been given the chance to join the most progressive elements of the older generations with the hopes and aspirations of younger New Zealanders, thereby forging an electoral alliance equal to the challenges of an uncertain and demanding future.
More than quarter-of-a-century ago, I concluded a feature article entitled “The Struggle For Sovereignty”, written for New Zealand Political Review, with the following sentences:
New Zealanders are heading into a great storm of change. Much that is precious to us will pass away. As Pakeha we have grown accustomed to being the colonisers rather than the colonised. Loss of power will be a new experience for us. As the second great wave of colonisation washes over us, our best chance of survival will be to reach out for the hands of the tangata whenua – whose feet are sunk deepest in the earth of Aotearoa. In the storm of change that is coming, the strength which that position gives to Māori will make them the only solid point around which everything else twists and turns. If we, as Pakeha, do not reach out and grasp that strength, the fury of the storm will blow us far away.
That storm is now upon us.