How and what we remember is complicated but crucial. So when we consider the Maori Party's criticism of Helen Clark, shouldn't we ask if New Zealand is a better or worse place to be Maori given her three terms in government?

Well, this is a cat amongst Helen Clark's United Nation's pigeons. In the midst of a parliamentary recess when political news is thin on the ground, the Maori Party has told the world – and it's the world that matters in this case – that it doesn't support Clark's bid for the Secretary-General's job.

Marama Fox came out this week declaring Clark's record with New Zealand's indigenous people poor and that her party could not support her UN bid as a result. According to RNZ this morning, that's a reversal of her position earlier this year, when she told Radio Waatea the party did back Clark. But her switch is likely a response to concern from party members and, to my understanding, has the backing of the board.

It's a great talking point and all sorts are lining up to take a stance – Winston Peters says it's "treachery in the extreme" and Paul Henry, "treason". Curiously, and unhelpfully for Fox, Maori Party founder Tariana Turia has said she understands the party's position, but also backs Clark.

Yet Fox is, reasonably enough, sticking to her guns, pointing to the Foreshore and Seabed Act of 2004, Labour's failure to sign up New Zealand to the UN's Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Tuhoe raid that happened on her watch.

And she's had backing from some of the sharpest Maori political observers around, such as Morgan Godfrey and Maiki Sherman, who point to the same events as Fox.

They are all fair points, especially as Clark has asked to be judged on her record. But while some are asking why anyone should care when it's ultimately the UN Security Council that decide the next UN chief, they're missing the point that this gives her opponents a reason to sideline her in what is an intensely political contest.

Despite the enthusiastic coverage in New Zealand, the odds have always been against Clark. It's the turn of the east Europeans for the job and Russia will have huge sway in deciding who wins. And she's up against well-connected Europeans, some who are women, some who speak Russian and at least one woman who grew up in a community country. So this is undoubtedly a blow.

But what interests me is how this again exposes the distinctly different world views in this country. Godfrey and Sherman make many good arguments against Clark and it's clear, and to my mind understandable, that many Maori are slow to forgive being used as political pawns in the wider game. If you're the victim of the game-playing, you feel it much more intensely.

Godfrey, for example, told me on Twitter yesterday the foreshore and seabed wasn't just one issue amongst many to consider when you looked at Clark's record with Maori, it was "the issue".

And it's clear that the Foreshore and Seabed Act was deeply flawed. But I'm torn, and I stop short of endorsing the critics because I think you can't judge history and people's acts without acknowledging context. Issues are never as black and white in the moment, as they appear years later. And we risk forgetting the detail as years go by.

For example, Sherman says in her Newshub blog that Clark "signed off" on the Tuhoe raids. That's a blunt interpretation.

When the police finally apologised for the raids in 2012, Annette King, the Police Minister at the time of the raids, spoke for the first time about how they were initiated. She told Paul Holmes on TVNZ's Q+A that she, Clark and other senior cabinet members were only told about the raids the night before. They were told the raids were based on investigations into terrorism and the resulting charges would be laid under the new Terrorism Suppression Act.

King says both she and Clark challenged the police as to whether action under that new act was appropriate and were told yes. But they were not show evidence and were, rightly, reluctant to over-rule an operational decision by the Police Commissioner. The police briefing, she said, was "a courtesy". Not a request for sign-off.

Further, she says that she and her cabinet colleagues were "very surprised" to see the brutal way the police carried out the mission the next day.

So I think we have to be very careful how, and what, we remember. The same can be said, to some degree, for the UN Declaration (which as I wrote at the time came full of fish hooks) Foreshore and Seabed Act.

Andrew wrote this excellent Pundit post back in 2009 when a ministerial review found the foreshore and seabed law wanting. But it's interesting to note Chris Trotter's counter-factual in the comments.

Andrew's argument is that Clark could have played the hand she was dealt much better – and without making terrible law – but Chris argues that the political context made that nigh on impossible.

I have sympathy for both views, but what I do feel strongly is that you can't judge a Prime Minister without looking at the environment she was operating in and some counter-factuals. It's undeniable Clark was working within very tight political boundaries when it came to race relations and being seen as too sympathetic to Maori would have been political suicide. Don Brash's Orewa speech was only months away when the foreshore and seabed decision was made, and the political upheaval that caused didn't come out of nothing. Much of the Pakeha electorate's mood was not sympathetic to Maori concerns, which was clear by her earlier decision to ditch the Closing the Gaps policy (in name at least), another compromise that sits as a black mark on her race relations record.

So what? That's certainly what Godfrey says. Politics is no excuse to use Maori as pawns; just do the right thing. Except people and groups are used as pawns in politics every day. Politicians often make choices to sate the majority at the expense of the minority. In some ways it's essentially democratic, even if sometimes unjust.

So while I think history will recall that Clark's record with Maori was one of her failings in office, I understand that she would argue she did the best she could in those times. The Closing the Gaps intentions suggests she would have done more if she thought she could. So while we question her record, should we not also ask if New Zealand would be a better or worse place to be Maori had she done differently?

That is a much harder question to answer.

For a start, take a wider look at her political impact on the lives of Maori. Her strong stance on anti-smoking laid the ground work for Turia, Hone Harawira and the Maori Party's efforts today. She ultimately backed the anti-smacking bill. Consider her government's record on social spending, KiwiSaver and more.

Could not a firmer stance on behalf of Maori lost Labour the whisker-close 2005 election? And how would Maori have suffered under a Brash-led National government? Maori seats gone (and with them the Maori Party – that's especially ironic, given Fox's stance), "special treatment" gone, Treaty of Waitangi references in law gone. You could argue, as Clark probably would, that given the court's ruling, Maori were always going to lose some rights at that moment in history, be it under her or the next government. So did her stance ensure the loss was less than it might have been under Brash? Did she cut off a leg to save the poison spreading?

These are the soul-crunching calculations of politics. Context is vital. And, whatever your final judgement, fairness surely demands these memories are accurately recalled and remain part of the conversation.

Comments (9)

by Rob Hosking on August 03, 2016
Rob Hosking

Thoughtful piece - especially the second half of your second to last paragraph.  

But I think you risk putting too much weight on the context Clark had to work within then, and not enough on the context the Maori Party is working in today. 

by Tim Watkin on August 03, 2016
Tim Watkin

Good point about the context the Maori Party is working within today... if you mean they're only speaking for their members today (as I said) and are trying to get political traction and also now know how so much of the F&S stuff played out. It cuts both ways.

Not sure about too much weight on the context then tho...



by Morgan Godfery on August 03, 2016
Morgan Godfery

Thanks, Tim.

For the record, I’m sympathetic to your arguments about context (and I don’t think anyone’s ignoring that). But it reads like your argument is relying on ‘what ifs’ rather than any firm principles of justice.

Yes, Clark and her government felt as if they needed to triangulate to head off Brash. But, as you say, this is politics – compromises must be made – but that doesn’t mean *options* didn’t exist.

Did she have to prevent access to the courts, offending one of the first principles of liberal democracy? Probably not. Was ‘haters and wreckers’ a necessary message? Probably not.

I agree that Clark was an effective social democrat, but defending her record on Maori rights – especially the foreshore and seabed, the worst raupatu in more than a century (I’m not exaggerating) – requires some overwhelming context.

I’m not sure Brash is that.

Attacking Maori rights is hardly new. We’re used to it. Maori rights were and still are resisted.

If you ask me, Brash was a status quo politician. He’d have finished Douglas and Richardson’s job (something, ironically, people criticise Clark for). He was not such an overwhelming threat that he forced Clark and her government to pass the Native Land Act 2.0.


by Tim Watkin on August 04, 2016
Tim Watkin

Morgan, as flawed as the F&S Act was, I think we disagree over just how discriminatory it was. While I had and have real issue with the removal of access to the courts, it wasn't the first or last time a government has reacted to a court ruling that it felt went against the will of parliament and so changed the law as a result. I also think that while the beach access argument was a beat up, there's merit in public ownership of the foreshore and seabed.

So while I don't intend to excuse the wrongs done (and we should talk about this more one day, as I'm stretching my memory and may be persuaded that I'm recalling this through the wrong lens), I think were other layers of context as well.

As for options, well, there are always options. But alongside those negatives you reasonably suggest, I'm sure she would suggest that she could have done or not done other things that did benefit Maori. So on balance and across all policies and decisions, did she do more harm or good? I understand you're saying that the one decision tips the scales on all the rest; I'm just making the case for at least considering the rest.

But where I do disagree with your analysis is the statement that Brash was a status quo politician. For all the failings of various governments in their relationship with Maori the narrative arc of history was towards improvement. Social stats had been significantly improving since the Maori renaissance of the early 1970s, the Waitangi Tribunal had been established and then extended, settlements were underway. A National government in 2005 would have bent that arc in the opposite direction.

Even if he'd lasted just one term, I find it hard to believe that he wouldn't have set back race relations in this country – and the evolution of Maori rights – by decades. Economically he would have taken on Rogernomics (though in truth I don't think that ideology really has a finish line), but on race relations I don't see that he would have had a Horomia or Samuels, or even a Doug Graham.

Yeah it's a 'what if', but I'd bet a fair few bob on it being far worse than status quo... and anyway, that's my point. As you know, firm principles of justice are compromised every day in politics. It ain't a perfect world and no PM has the luxury of sticking to principles on every decision. It's little consolation when you're wronged, but it's not less true for that.


by Murray Grimwood on August 05, 2016
Murray Grimwood

We need to ask who is the best for the job.

Whoever gets it will almost certainly be incumbent as the global disintegration/collapse gathers speed.

This is a planet which can support maybe 2 bilion sustainably, perhaps only one billion. So whether you call it 'racism' (or whatever classification you or the rabble choose) there will be fighting over 'what's left', between peer-groupings. No option, no-holds-barred, winner gets to survive, For a while longer.

A leader with the tactical skills, political patience and charisma to orchestrate a smoother way down - and I've been weighing the options for 40 years and can't see one any longer - is what is required. Presuming the UN doesn't go the way of the League.

Remember that Pakeha vs Maori is just the legacy of a resource war - a bag-grab at the expense of folk who were already resource (protein/energy) poor. Prejudice is always associated with self-justification, and religion is never far behind.

The question of Clark is simply - Can she do the job?

by Dennis Frank on August 06, 2016
Dennis Frank

Yes, I share Murray's view.  The only question that matters is which, if any, of the other contenders will make a better leader.  I'm confident that Helen Clark would be a competent performer in the job, but her managerial style isn't sufficient to provide more than a mere holding-pattern.  She's never been a big-picture person.  Lacks the intellect required to finesse complex situations.

Tim's rationalisations and excuses for her track record aren't unreasonable, just unconvincing.  "That's certainly what Godfrey says. Politics is no excuse to use Maori as pawns; just do the right thing. Except people and groups are used as pawns in politics every day. Politicians often make choices to sate the majority at the expense of the minority. In some ways it's essentially democratic, even if sometimes unjust."  Sometimes we must compromise our principles, be pragmatic.  True.

Yet imagine a world in which Helen Clark had been able to transcend being a mere politician, and instead perform the statesman's role & be an exemplar in the delineation of our common interests here in Aotearoa.

Now you will argue that leftists can't be expected to be anything other than sectarian;  it's their pathology.  Fair enough.  But a prime minister is supposed to be governing for all of us.  She didn't.  Where were the references to the commons?

Where was the anchoring of the issue in British common law, and the extent to which the Treaty modified that?  I didn't notice any Crown law opinion cited to justify the F&S Act at the time.  I expect any such opinion would inevitably have to acknowledge that national sovereignty was secured by the English version of the Treaty and subsequent proclamations, plus the consequent UK parliament legislation - and local sovereignty was retained by tribal chiefs as specified in the Maori version of the Treaty.  None of the public debate at the time located foreshore & seabed in relation to these sovereignties, as far as I could see.

No, she simply did not have what it takes to forge a viable consensus.  She has to take responsibility for her bitter legacy.  The Maori Party were quite right in their expression of no confidence in her.


by Tim Watkin on August 07, 2016
Tim Watkin

Dennis, this issue has got nothing to do with Clark being sectarian, so no I wouldn't argue that. I simply argue that she was a politician faced with a choice between two potential evils, as all politicians are at some stage. Some times you can and do choose the moral high ground, sometimes.

I'm not sure we we expect people trying to work in a democracy to be transcendent; those are rare moment. Even someone like Lincoln, who is remembered by history as pretty darned transcendent by most political standards made all kinds of shitty compromises that sent men to their deaths. So let's be real.

And actually, I think a fair bit of the argument around what she, Cullen and Labour finally did had a fair bit to do with the principle of the commons, didn't it? (Accepting, again, the many inconsistencies in that and the extent of individual coastal ownership etc).

by Ross on August 08, 2016

I agree with the Maori Party. I don't believe Helen Clark should get the top job at the UN. She simply isn't well qualified for the rile.

Not only has she treated Maori shabbily, but she had a golden opportunity while PM to take action on the Peter Ellis case. She turned up her nose at that opportunity. Indeed her attitude to Ellis continues to have a rather unpleasant odour about it. If she can't right an apparent miscarriage of justice, why would anyone think she could well represent the vulnerable and disenfranchised?

Then there is Clark's role in the Ahmed Zaoui affair where she alleged, wrongly, that he was a member of Al Qaeda. For a Labour PM to demonise a genuine refugee was a low point of her reign.

by Ross on August 08, 2016

She simply isn't well qualified for the *role*.

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