Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

Phil Goff and the race card

November 27th, 2009

phil goff, the race card
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Playing the race card is one of those claims that is meant to shut down any further debate, and Phil Goff knew the risk that he was running – since he referred to the likely criticism on that front quite explicitly in his speech to Grey Power in Palmerston North. For example :

I reject strongly the allegation the Prime Minister made that anyone who has concerns about this deal is playing the race card.


Race is a red herring in this deal. It’s about subsidies for big corporations, and I am not going to shy away from saying so.

I opposed a special deal for Rio Tinto, just as I oppose the special deal for a Ngai Tahu corporation.

Just as we as taxpayers had to pay for Rob Muldoon’s supplementary minimum prices to farmers that many of you here will remember – so someone has to pay for the subsidies of today.

The subsidies aren’t free – ordinary New Zealanders have to pay for them – and in this case for generations to come.

The burden of paying will fall disproportionately on people less able to pay – hard working Maori and Pakeha taxpayers alike.

This is not a time to put at risk the concept of full and final settlements.

You see, when we considered this issue last year, Cabinet decided not to go down this route.

We looked at it and decided we would have created a permanent class of ‘post-Treaty asset’ – Assets that were once part of a Treaty settlement would forever be eligible for compensation if they were ever affected by adverse decisions by government.

On one level of course, this is merely postmodern politics : ie, Goff is trying to pre-empt criticism by acknowledging its likelihood. Goff is not politically naïve. He knows he is playing to a gallery that includes racists, and that Labour can expect to reap a political advantage from that quarter. Yet the issues he was raising in Palmerston North were also substantive, and not reducible to mere dogwhistling to rednecks. Given the nature of the deal done between National and the Maori Party in Parliament this week over the ETS, he was in something of a ‘damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t’ situation when it came to mounting an attack on it. Calling the deal ‘ shabby’ and opposing its benefits to particular Maori tribes ( and large iwi corporations) at the taxpayer’s expense is not playing the race card. It is more like truth in labeling.

His critics – especially those on the left – need to consider where they stand on the issues he dealt with in the Grey Power speech. Do we think that ‘ full and final’ Treaty settlements should be open to further compensation if and when unforeseen events – like an ETS – lower the value of some of the components of that deal ? Given the historical grievances at the core of those settlements, there is a strong case for doing so. Goff does himself few favours by waving around the legal opinion by Helen Aikman QC that the Crown has no legal obligation to do so.

The question is whether there is a moral obligation – barely a decade after the signings – to ensure that a century and a half of grievances are laid to rest. While I disagree with Goff’s narrow and legalistic response to this issue, I don’t think he should be condemned for raising the question and giving his five cents on it. Especially when the parties who do seem willing to re-open these deals include a National Party that has campaigned on a need to resolve all Treaty deals within a very tight and unrealistic timeframe.

So does National now believe in full and final Treaty settlements or not – or will it selectively revisit them whenever it needs to lock down a deal with the Maori Party ? National after all, played the race card when it promised to end the Treaty process for good and for all on a specific date. Is it now to be exempt from criticism ( and allowed to freely accuse others of playing the race card ) whenever it chooses to back pedal on core policy?

Similarly, it is hardly playing the race card to query whether the re-opening of the foreshore and seabed issue will not be divisive. Given the grief ( much of it self-inflicted) that Labour has experienced over this issue, Goff can be allowed some satisfaction at the likely fallout for National and the Maori Party, once the Key government gets down to fashioning a workable compromise between the incompatible interests at stake here. Undoubtedly, it will be a divisive process, as Goff says. It could also, as he says, prove in the end to be just a limp process of re-branding : “In reality it may be no more than simply renaming the existing Act, with pretty much the existing arrangements.”

Sometimes, division and conflict are necessary steps before a compromise can be reached. It is depressing that Goff still seems unable to accept that Labour’s legislative attempt to impose a lid on the competing rights at stake in this issue was wrong, and indefensible. Again, while I disagree with Goff, I’m glad his speech has revealed where Labour is likely to position itself next year, once National unveils its own imperfect attempt at reaching closure on the foreshore and seabed.

The one area where Goff’s speech did hit home cleanly was over the failure of the ETS deal to meet the environmental challenge. The rewards for big polluters, Maori and pakeha, are indefensible. So however is the response that calls Goff’s speech an instance of ‘playing the race card.’ Unlike Don Brash at Orewa, this speech dealt with specific and substantive issues – and if its faults are also substantive, they should be attacked on those terms.

After all, if the Maori Party are going to become the kingmakers in future New Zealand elections, they – and we- are going to have to learn how to debate their shortcomings without being called racists for doing so. The fact racists will undoubtedly prey on such criticism is not a reason for remaining silent, or for giving the Maori Party a free pass.

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