New Zealand: Racist 'Pakeha Party' ignores history

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By Thomas Roud, Christchurch

July 29, 2013 -- Fightback -- A Facebook page for “The Pakeha Party” caused a stir in early July, quickly gaining more "likes" than any other political party in New Zealand. [Pākehā are New Zealanders of European descent.] While the founder, David Ruck, admitted that the idea was initially a joke between friends, the torrent of interest has resulted in an attempt to build a real political party based on rhetoric of "equal rights" for all New Zealanders.

The Pakeha Party illustrates the profound ignorance of history within our society, as well as an underbelly of racism which have both been emerging more frequently during the economic recession. While many have, quite rightly, pointed out that David Ruck is a complete buffoon, the popularity of his bigoted "joke" highlights a dangerous ideological tendency.

Historical illiteracy

Reading comments in the media, and made by Ruck via the Facebook page, it is clear that supporters of the message of "equal rights" completely misunderstand a great deal of New Zealand’s colonial history, and race relations. The myth of a privileged Māori beneficiary living off the hard work of others is commonplace not just within misinformed racist circles, but has representation in mainstream media. The disgusting cartoon by Al Nisbet earlier this year is a clear example of mainstream attacks on Māori living in poverty – and a perpetuation of the myths around beneficiaries in general.

More disturbing are the many calls from white New Zealanders to discard the Treaty of Waitangi and "let bygones be bygones". This is perhaps one of the most fundamental misunderstandings, reinforced by a kind of abstracted liberalism based around "individual" rights and responsibilities. The argument is familiar enough: that “Pākehā now should not be paying for the crimes of our ancestors”. The separation of who is "guilty" for particular wrongs in the past from any repercussions over time must be challenged. What supporters of Ruck’s message ignore are the ways that violations of the treaty (illegal land seizure etc.) by the Crown have created a fundamentally unequal society.

All workers are dispossessed, but indigenous people experience dispossession in the extreme within colonial societies. Ancestral land which sustained families for generations were enclosed, carved up, and sold – often illegally or in a fraudulent manner. Naturally, this forced Māori into poverty in rural communities while the collective wealth of the nation circulated through predominately white hands. Revenue from these injustices, and the labour of the working class, built New Zealand largely in the image of Europe. Institutions with European "sensibilities" were seen as normal and Māori struggling to integrate into these systems were punished.

In the mid 20th century a migration from rural communities by Māori into urban centres took place. Māori were slotted in always at the lowest rung of the working class within urban environments. Māori integrated, often discouraging children to learn their own language so as to better fit in within the white, European-centered schooling system. Māori were being incorporated into European society, but effectively as an underclass. Urbanisation largely destroyed widespread understanding of Kaupapa ["traditional ways of thinking"], and over the following decades te reo [Māori language] was in serious jeopardy of becoming extinct. This loss of cultural identity is still being grappled with today. The Pakeha Party are likely informed by the generation of white New Zealand who remember this era as the “good old days” when race and the Treaty of Waitangi were ignored. As Morgan Godfrey pointed out recently, New Zealand’s egalitarian myth does allow Māori (and everyone else) to participate, so long as they assimilate. “There’s no room for Māori participating as Māori.” The message of "equal rights" from the Pakeha Party would effectively see a reverse of Māori initiatives that attempt to allow Māori full participation in society as Māori.

Those who find Ruck’s message resonating with them seem to misunderstand that the crimes and injustices of the past have created and reinforced the inequity of the present. Māori are over represented in prisons, have poorer health outcomes and die younger, are in more dangerous and lower paid jobs; all related to systemic poverty and institutionalised racism that has built up over decades. Treaty settlements and Māori-specific social development schemes are trying to correct very real wrongs that not only disenfranchised Māori, but inversely allowed for the over-privilege of Pākehā in New Zealand. What Malcolm X said of the United States rings no less true with the meagre Treaty of Waitangi reparations being made now for past crimes:

If you stick a knife nine inches into my back and pull it out three inches, that is not progress. Even if you pull it all the way out, that is not progress. Progress is healing the wound, and America hasn’t even begun to pull out the knife.

Reparations, progress; these ideas are ongoing. Even in supposedly progressive journalism around the Pakeha Party it is often pointed out that the Waitangi Tribunal is two years off finishing up all settlement claims, as though in two years New Zealand will finally have racial harmony once more. The harm done in the past has shaped the present and will continue to shape the future regardless of treaty settlement processes. The ongoing struggle with racial oppression cannot be overcome under capitalism, but cannot be reduced simply to questions of class.

Misdirected class rhetoric
A legitimate concern socialists in New Zealand should have about the Pakeha Party page is that the rhetoric used appeals to class divisions to describe oppression and poverty. While many of the statements around this are basically incoherent, the message of “it’s about class, not race” is one all too familiar in some of the socialist tradition in the 20th century.

This call to ignore structural racism is not revolutionary, and it does not foster class solidarity so much as separatism and hostility. Pākehā are afforded many privileges in our society; better health outcomes, better employment opportunities, lower incarceration rates, more access to property. However, by clinging to these meagre privileges, Pākehā workers ultimately obstruct their own liberation. Solidarity is necessary to fighting for a socialist society, one with an equitable division of labour and resources; racism corrodes solidarity.

Acknowledging different forms of oppression, and working to correct power imbalances, is essential in building a progressive movement. Within the framework of society as it exists currently, this means fighting for more wide reaching affirmative action and reconciliation.

The ultimate failure of the Pakeha Party is its misdirected blame of the plight of white working class New Zealanders on the shoulders of Māori. Poverty, underemployment, unemployment, and exploitation are absolutely essential for the capitalist system to operate. Tino Rangatiratanga is not hurting the working class because its expression is in fact a challenge to hegemonic neoliberal capitalism. The Pakeha Party believes that Māori-specific programs, be they housing or welfare etc., come at the cost of programs aimed at all people. This ignores the fact that all social welfare programs have been won through struggle. A call for getting rid of Whānau Ora [a major contemporary indigenous health initiative driven by Māori cultural values], for example, would not result in more funds being directed to other programs – merely a reduction of total spending by the Government to assist the least well off.

Ruck’s ultimate demonstration of completely misrepresenting class struggle is exposed by his breaking of a picket line recently at a McDonald's, part of the UNITE union’s McStrike campaign. He is unhappy with being confronted, and claims that if people do not want to work for McDonald’s they should “get a different job”.

While the Pakeha Party is not comparable to far-right groups, such as the English Defence League in Britain, Golden Dawn in Greece, or even NZ's own “Resistance Party” headed by Kyle Chapman, this does not mean it is harmless. The Pakeha Party has indeed resonated with a lot of New Zealanders – many of whom are likely looking for answers as to why our national myths no longer seem to be true. Like the myth of the American Dream in the USA, slipping away from generation to generation, our own myth of egalitarianism is largely under pressure as inequality skyrockets and wages continue to stagnate for the working class. People are looking for someone to blame, and the misdirected antagonism towards Māori does nothing to address the true cause of our current situation.

Recently, David Ruck’s incompetence lost the page 700 followers when he posted drunk. Some on the left have suggested that if the Pakeha Party registers, it will split votes from conservative ACT/National and NZ First parties. This is a miscalculation. Even if the Pakeha Party itself is a flash in the pan, the popularity of the Pakeha Party message indicates a serious miseducation within New Zealand about our own history and our race relations. The ruling class gains the ultimate benefit from Pākehā racism.

[Thomas Roud is member of the socialist group Fightback and Anti-Racist Action (Christchurch).]