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“NZ’s wonderful PM and people: a lesson for Australia” (ed. in FT 23/3/2019)


NZ’s wonderful PM and people: a lesson for Australia (ed. in FT 23/03/2019)

Professor Wadan Narsey (Adjunct Professor, James Cook University)

Who would have expected that that a most horrific terrorist attack by a white Australian  (who shall remain nameless) on a Muslim congregation peacefully praying in a mosque in Christchurch, NZ, can illustrate the profound difference between Australia and NZ in race relations and multiculturalism?

Yet that message may be seen day after day through the media coverage of the genuine heart-felt enlightened reaction of the NZ Prime Minister and the NZ public, with the implicit contrast provided by the political discourse in Australia where racist parliamentarians and political leaders with skeletons in their own cupboards, go through the motions of declaring support for their ANZAC compatriots across the ditch.

But NZ has not always been the paragon of multiculturalism that it is, today. As a student and graduate of Otago University in the late sixties, I used to see at first hand the racism against Maoris and Pacific Islanders that existed then.

As a Professor of Economics at the University of the South Pacific (where I was employed for forty years) my work included researching, writing and advocating policies for better economic, political and social relations between Pacific Islands and NZ and Australia.

I have therefore also seen at first hand how NZ has not only progressed in its multiculturalism towards Maoris, but also has been years in advance of Australia in fostering better economic, political and social relation with Pacific Islanders, barely scratched on the surface by Australia, despite distributing billions of aid money.

All that is now good in NZ and its political leadership was abundantly clear to the world this last week, in the outstanding leadership of Prime Minister Jacinta Arden.

In contrast, and this was also pointed out by a panel of Muslim women on an episode of an ABC program (The Drum) to discuss the Christchurch crisis, the core of Australian weaknesses in fostering multiculturalism continues to be its horrendously shabby treatment of its indigenous First Australians, whose lives are worse than that of many poverty stricken Third World countries, including the better off Pacific islands.

I suggest that Australian political leaders need to examine and learn from the foundation of NZ’s commitment to multiculturalism, not just towards Maoris, but also new migrants like Pacific Islanders and the Muslim community which was the target of the recent terrorist attack.

Just as Jacinta Arden’s Government may build on the huge goodwill that has been built up over the last week (read the excellent Opinion piece by Matthew Hooten in New Zealand Herald 22/3/2019) it might even be time to resuscitate the old calls for full Union between Australia and NZ, for mutual benefit, and including the the Pacific (we can dream, can’t we?)

Jacinta Arden and the Christchurch terrorism

I need not say much about the terrorist attack on the Christchurch mosques in which fifty innocent Muslims saying their weekly prayers were slaughtered in cold blood by a racist white Australian.

As reams are being written already not just in NZ but globally, I need not even say much about the magnificent, deeply compassionate leadership shown by NZ’s Prime Minister, Jacinta Arden, whose furrowed brows showed to the world, the deep pain and sorrow that she felt for the victims and their families.

Who would have thought only a year ago that this slip of a figure, who had only recently become a mother (one of only two women prime ministers to ever do so in office), would actually have a heart of a lion and the dynamics of a general during a crisis.

Across the ditch, female Australian Ministers and parliamentarians have recently felt obliged to resign because they could not reconcile the demands of the family and being mothers with that of being parliamentarians and ministers.

In this time of horrendous crisis for a city only recently recovering from major earthquake catastrophes, Jacinta exemplified the cliché, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”.

I can only use the words of others such as NZ journalist Clare Stephens to describe NZs Prime Minister: empathy, resolve, strong, human, sincere compassion, redefining what it means to be a leader of a country in a time of crisis, with no fear mongering no retaliation, no distractions, only compassion and courage.

Unlike many other political leaders in such situations spouting empty words of “our thoughts and prayers are with you”, Jacinta and her government quickly announced substantial financial assistance for the victims’ families.

More importantly for the future, the NZ Prime Minister announced swift radical changes to NZ’s gun laws which had lagged behind those of other countries, ironically because of NZ’s long peaceful history, despite having a relatively high intensity of guns in the country per thousand population.

She set out clearly for the NZ public what the moral issues were with simple but powerful messages: “On behalf of all New Zealanders, we grieve together. We are one. They are us”.

What is abundantly clear is that New Zealanders by and large, of all ages, of all political persuasions, united behind their Prime Minister’s enlightened leadership, raising the perennial question: were the NZ people reacting the way they did because of Jacinta’s leadership, or is Jacinta able to be what she is doing, because she is the mirror of the NZ people?

I suspect both.  But what I can certainly say from my own personal experience in NZ fifty years ago, that such a profound humanitarian political leader and populace did not exist then.

My NZ days in the sixties

With no university in Fiji and the Pacific then, I had the good fortune to go to Otago University in Dunedin for my a degree in science and mathematics.

In my Xmas holidays, I used to work in the freezing works in Whakatu, living and socializing in the freezing works barracks, whose residents then were mostly the Maoris and Islanders and cash strapped students (just a  few then).

Racism against Maoris, Islanders and “wogs” in general was never far from the surface in NZ then.

Indeed, even at university, I was shocked at how close NZ friends identified with white South Africans in their struggles against Blacks, and opposed the protests that radical NZ university students organized against the tour by the Springboks.

In 1971, I did one year Christchurch Teachers College at Ilam, coincidentally living very close to Hagley Park (where the recent terrorist attacks took place) and Hagley High School where I did some teaching practice.

Even though I had then specialized in mathematics, I did a unit in Political Science at Canterbury University out of curiosity because of similar problems of ethnic political representation in Fiji. As part of that unit, I wrote a paper on Maori political representation after interviewing the late Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan (later Dame) who had then just become Member of Parliament for a Maori seat (she incidentally also one of the first MPs to ever give birth while an MP).

I received a “C” grade from a young white politics tutor for repeating Dame Tirikatene’s views that Maoris were then struggling to get fair representation and influence in NZ. That tutor blithely informed me that there was no racism in NZ.  While it was easy for white New Zealanders to be blind to their racism (and I have a few personal stories), certainly there were far more positive forces at work then.

So while the current Australian Government has callously turned down the desperate call from the Aboriginal First People of Australia to be merely heard in the Australian Parliament (read the contents and the pathos in the Uluru Statement from the Heart), the first people of NZ became entitled to 4 Maori seats in the NZ Parliament as early as 1867, more than a hundred and fifty years ago, and their numbers have been continuously counted in order to increase their seats proportionately.

In Australia, the Aboriginals and first Australians, were only counted in Australian censuses from 1967! How horrific is that. Can you imagine Fiji censuses not counting indigenous Fijians? (Hmmmmm. Ask the Fiji Bureau of Statistics that question today).

While the Australian Government has cynically rebuffed the desperate call by the Aboriginal peoples of Australia for a Makaratta Commission to merely “supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history” NZ has had the Treaty of Waitangi (however flawed) from 1840 and much more since.

More importantly, successive NZ government from all major parties have continued the process of legal recognition of the legitimate rights of Maoris over NZ’s land and sea resources.

In contrast, white Australian politicians continue their empty rhetoric at the beginning of their talk-fests of recognizing the original owners of the land they stand and talk on and (bitter irony) dredge up some Aboriginals who walk around with smoking leaves and twigs to welcome people to “their land” which was stolen ages ago and never returned.

In NZ, the reconciliation between Maoris and new mostly white immigrants has also progressed to the glorious national and international celebration of Maori culture and language, whether it is through the All Blacks’ performance of a war haka before every game (copied now by Pacific Islanders) or through the Maori names appearing first on government buildings, before the English names, or last week during the mourning in Christchurch, the widespread use of “kia kaha” (“stay strong” in Maori), school girls (both Maori and others) doing a haka of mourning and drawing maori emblems on their chins, white NZ women (following Jacinta’s example) wearing head scarves out of respect for the mourning Muslims, and there even being a Muslim prayer heard nationally.

In Australia, one struggles to find white politicians or any national politician even genuinely celebrating the Aboriginal culture and traditions, let alone remembering the past histories of genocide,  slaughter, dispossession and displacement, with “the stolen generation” being a rare exception.

All that successive Australian political leaders can do to highlight Australian “close links” with the Pacific Islanders and specifically with PNG is the tired old and repeated reference to their “co-operation” during WWII on the Kokoda Trail, which was essentially poverty stricken PNG natives assisting wounded Australian soldiers back to safety.  The only concession to PNG visitors to Australia today is a separate line at the airport of entry. Gee whiz. The two decades of alleged Australian stewardship of PNG is best forgotten.

Also forgotten are the thousands of Kanaks (from Solomon Islands and Vanuatu) who were enslaved (“blackbirded”) to build Queensland cane farm and then booted out upon federation and the formation of White Australia in 1905. Today, racist Australian politicians rant and rave and make political capital at election time, when a few thousand Pacific Islanders are brought in to pick fruit that would otherwise rot on the trees.

NZ and the Pacific

NZ’s genuine commitment to multiculturalism today may be seen also in the extremely progressive economic, political and social relations they have gradually evolved with the Pacific countries, and especially the Polynesian ones of Samoa, Tonga, Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau, whose peoples today number more in NZ than in their home countries.

I saw at first hand the honest and principled reaction of NZ High Commissioners to Fiji, to the military coups in Fiji and support for progressive actions: the late Tia Barrett who  made his residence available to meetings to reconcile the political parties during the 2000 coups (all failed) and the late Michael Green who struggled vainly to head off the 2006 Bainimarama coup.

Partly as a result of some Pacific economists (including mois) urging the NZ and Australian governments to open up their labor markets to seasonal workers from the Pacific, NZ took the lead in 2004: read my chapter (“PICTA, PACER and EPAs: Weaknesses in current trade policies and alternative integration options”) in the book Pacific Futures edited by Michael Powles (ed) Pandanus Books. Australian National University and Pacific Cooperation Foundation of New Zealand. 2006. This was based on a presentation I made to the Otago University Foreign Policy School conference of 2004.

Tens of thousands of workers from the Pacific have benefited honestly through hard work from these guest worker schemes taking back massive amounts of savings which are crucial to their people’s development and foreign reserves, while NZ farmers have benefited enormously in turn.

These have been honest “win win” schemes for NZ and the Pacific Islands, unlike the horrible, paternalistic, donor schemes which usually have amounted to “boomerang aid” with the benefits flowing back to Australian contracting companies.

Australia has followed by allowing in a few thousand Pacific guest workers, but more than a decade behind NZ, while still, Australian farmers weep over their rotting fruit because they cannot get Australian fruit pickers on time or there is a lull from overseas student back packers, for whatever reason.

There is very little doubt that while politicians from Samoa, Tonga, and Cook Islands will gladly and with great alacrity take any aid that China is willing to throw at them, never will they allow such aid to work against the interests of NZ who they feel tightly bound to and is a genuine “motherland”  that China never will be.  That closeness is all too visible at virtually every rugby union and rugby league game that is played in NZ. All that remains for NZ to do now is to do what has been begged for, for more than ten years, is to introduce a combined Fiji, Samoa and Tonga rugby team into their national and international competitions (cynics will say that pigs will fly, who knows, Jacinta Arden might yet take a big stick to her national rugby administrators).

In contrast, the Australian Prime Minister can glibly inform Fiji that they are all part of the same “family” (as he recently did) no intelligent Fiji politician or person believes a word he says (which may be true of course of Australian voters as well).

Whatever the Australian PM’s rhetoric, the Fiji Government will willingly allow China benefits (such as visas on arrival at the airport or control of a harbor or a massive satellite system) however much it may irritate the Australian Government at seeing “their backyard” being taken over by this new global imperial power.

In vain can Pacific economists tell successive Australian governments that this loss of influence in the South Pacific t China is entirely because of their own neglect over the last fifty years, while the Pacific countries and peoples have been desperately calling for more enlightened Australian (and NZ) policies on trade, employment, sports and recently climate change assistance.

But for sure, and this has been hammered home by the response of the NZ Prime Minister, NZ Government and NZ peoples to the Christchurch massacre, NZ is held in enormously higher regard than it has ever been, while Australian political leaders can only lurk in the shadows.

Even though, there are massive numbers of Pacific Islanders in Australia (and you can see that increasingly in the Island faces and names in the rugby union and rugby league teams (both men and women), nowhere in  national arts celebrations in Australia will you see the glorious kaleidoscope of joyful multiculturalism that one sees in NZ at the drop of a hat- Maoris, dozens of Pacific Island cultures, and Asians, all singing and dancing alongside all the white cultures.

Why the difference, you may well ask?

Australian weaknesses in multiculturalism

As a recent migrant to Australia, I have observed contrasted the sad situation of Australian Aboriginals and Torres Straits Islanders to the far more robust participation and contributions of Maoris and now Pacific Islanders to the NZ body politic and society.

In my previous writings on the subject of economic integration (PACER) between Australia and NZ and the Pacific countries, I have always expressed the view that Australia has much to learn from NZ, not that any Australian political leader will ever concede that, even today.

It is ironic therefore that in Australian discussions about the Christchurch massacre of Muslims by a white Australian, an all Muslim panel of experts on The Drum (Monday March 18 2019) had one very progressive and radical contributor linking Australian racism against Muslims to that against indigenous Australians. (ABC is to be commended that for once, they did not include on the panel the usual insensitive white supremacist to “balance out” the views).

Dr. Randa Abdel-Fattah (Dept of Sociology, Macquarie University) linked the racism against Muslims in Australia to the century old White Australia policy and brutality and genocide against Black Aboriginals.

Sadly, the Australian national political discourses continued to be endless rhetoric of “Closing the Gap” despite the evidence showing little evidence of the gap closing. Indeed the statistics continue to show the Aboriginals’ horrendously low life expectancies, high rates of incarceration of young men and women, high suicides, and just horrible performances on a wide range of MDGs which put Australian Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders among the poorest developing peoples of the Third World, and even well below that of the the neighboring Pacific Islanders.

It is symptomatic that while the world is applauding NZ’s Prime Minister Jacinta Arden for her warm, humanitarian response to the massacre of Muslims in her country, Australia’s Prime Minister (Scott Morrison) is enmeshed in controversy over some statements he may or may not have made ten years ago in the Australian Cabinet about the existence or the use of of anti-Islamic sentiments amongst Australian voters (an internal discussion which was apparently and tellingly shut down by the Chair of that Cabinet Committee, Julie Bishop).

There is little doubt that in Australia, there is no shortage of political leaders who for purely for short-term political gain objectives,  continue to seek votes through fear-mongering and racism against ethnic groups and religions, and allying with extremist parties like that of Pauline Hanson, by giving her party higher preferences than Labor and the Greens.

Of course, NZ also has its share of such politicians,  and also of voters who will respond to such fear mongering and racism, and they will surface again and again. But they are nowhere to be seen or heard in the NZ of today, focused on a most wonderful Prime Minister, whose lead has been followed by hordes of ordinary NZ peoples of all races, ethnicity and religions, despite their own recent trauma of earthquakes.

What a wonderful country to live in, today, genuinely “God’s Own Country” a term that foreign students used to scoff at when our fellow NZ students in the 1960s boasted about their own country.

But not any more, and Jacinta Arden can take a large part of the credit for that change in perception, not just internally, but globally. The Pacific can well be proud of NZ and its Prime Minister.



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