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If the current government wanted to stir up racial tension in New Zealand it has done a good job. As soon as people find out that a scientific subsidy can be doubled if you have Maori ancestry; that you might lose a supply deal with a government agency if you aren’t Maori; or that you can increase your democratic clout by enlisting with a tribal agency, thereby enjoying special political rights as proposed in He Puapua, they start to question how, precisely, one can become classified as a Maori. Resentment builds if it becomes clear some get a head start if they can self-designate as Maori.

From the early days of settler society the race classification rules were straight forward. If your racial quotient was 50% or more Maori, then you were Maori. If your quotient was less than 50% then you were not Maori. The distinction mattered for electoral purposes. With the high rate of intermarriage between settlers and Maori, dilution of the Maori blood quotient became rapid. So rapid, in fact, that early census figures suggested Maori were dying out. Grandchildren usually couldn’t qualify as Maori. But over time the system became too complex: many half-caste Maori married someone with Maori ancestry, who was less or more than 50%. Some married into other ethnicities. People lost track of their precise Maori quotient for legal purposes. By 1900, no full-blooded Maori remained in the South Island, and today there are probably none in the North Island. Norman Kirk’s government that came to office in 1972 promised to clarify the law, but that proved very complicated. Eventually, in the Maori Affairs Amendment Act 1974, a Maori was defined as “a person of the Maori race of New Zealand; and includes any descendant of such a person”. This was such a broad definition that one MP asserted amidst some hilarity in Parliament that anyone who rode past a marae on a pushbike could claim to be a Maori!

The 1974 definition gave many people with a little Maori blood wider rights than they had ever enjoyed, both electorally, and in relation to land, Maori Affairs housing etc. Since the Ardern government came to office with an overall majority last September, Maori have been pushing for more advantages. He Puapua plans for them to co-govern the country, notwithstanding that Maori numbers, even with the 1974 Act behind them, are only slightly more than 16% of the overall New Zealand population.

As soon as there are new eligibility rules for any advantage, people naturally begin to wonder whether there is some way they might qualify. Some become envious, or resentful when they discover they can’t, especially if they know they would have made it had eligibility been decided on the basis of merit. Those with a scintilla of Maori ancestry are incentivized to use it to their advantage whether they need help or not. Old friendships are strained when one can benefit on the basis of something that can’t be changed while the friend can’t. Some cheat. It is now believed that people are inventing a tribal connection that they cite after their names, but no one dares to challenge them. Racial wedges are being driven into the community for no reason that stands more than a minute’s analysis.

Beginning in 1985, historical grievances were heard by the Waitangi Tribunal. Nearly every tribe, with the notable exception of Nga Puhi, has reached a “full and final settlement”. That should have put “colonial” grievances to rest. It has not, because new causes and claims spring up like mushrooms as a few well-placed Maori develop big appetites for further Pakeha resources. The demand for co-governance is the most extravagant of these. It is high time the Prime Minister spelt out her intentions in this regard instead of hiding behind the Official Information Act, delaying information releases, and thus leaving us in the dark about the official status of He Puapua. Race relations have no hope of settling down until everyone knows what is intended.

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