25 Aug 2019

Awkward Conversations about race and identity – with Dr Wayne Ngata and Mai Chen

From Awkward Conversations, 4:06 pm on 25 August 2019
Dr Wayne Ngata, Mai Chen and Alex Perrottet.

Dr Wayne Ngata, Mai Chen and Alex Perrottet. Photo: Phil Yeo

A series of four panel discussions marking the Tuia 250 ki Tūranga commemorations of first contact between European and Māori, recorded on location in Gisborne's Smash Palace.

Part of the talk from this lively encounter, the first in the Awkward Conversations series

Wayne Ngata: If I think of growing up in a little place called Otanga [a remote locality in the Gisborne district], you don’t notice anything about race until you encounter it. You’re the majority, but, interestingly enough, your parents defer to Pakeha in different areas – whether it’s a manager of a farm, or the shopkeeper, or the postmaster. You notice those things and they’re normal. And only on reflection you think “Why did that happen?”

Mai Chen

Mai Chen Photo: Phil Yeo

Mai Chen: I was fascinated by what Wayne was saying, because we’re used to thinking of tangata whenua as a minority, but actually in Tairāwhiti [the East Coast of the North Island] they’re a majority. We need to change our view of who New Zealand and New Zealanders are. Because when we think about New Zealand, most people think about European New Zealanders. There’s no doubt that when my family emigrated to this country [in 1970] we were very much in a minority. In fact it was so sad that my mother said to me, "You will have to marry the boy that came in the second Taiwanese family in the South Island," because there was nobody else.

Of course that’s profoundly changed now. And part of the reason I shifted from Wellington to Auckland was to understand how the country had transformed. I always say I went to Auckland to come out as a Chinese person. And when we look now at a population where one in three in Auckland are Asian, where we are talking about Auckland as the fourth most super-diverse city in the world.

By 2038, Statistics NZ tells us that 51% of people in this country will identify as Asian, then Māori, Pasifika, but 65% will still identify as European New Zealander. Now, that’s my son. He’s got Scottish grandparents on the one hand, and Taiwanese grandparents on the other. Identity is going to become more complex. Get used to it, and get better at dealing with people who are not like you.

Dr Wayne Ngata

Dr Wayne Ngata Photo: Phil Yeo

Wayne Ngata: We’ve got to be mindful of how that sits in a country that has the Treaty of Waitangi, which places particular significance on the Crown and Māori. How do Māori view that? Do we feel threatened? Some may. We’ve got to ensure that relationship with the Crown is solid, which means we do not become a republic, or we lose some leverage. We have nowhere else to go. This is our country. We’ve got to accept that there is growing diversity. We’re going to be more of a minority. What is our place?

Mai Chen: And that’s really important. Because under te Tiriti you’ve got Māori and you’ve got the Crown. So where is the place of tauiwi [foreigners/immigrants] in all of this? And what respect do they have for Te Tiriti o Waitangi? If they are not informed about the treaty of Waitangi, they will say, “How come they get all the privilege?” And then we end up with divide and rule. For one discriminated people to be divided with another discriminated people, and to be fighting them as well as everybody else, is really just not the way we want to do this.

Mai Chen and Alex Perrottet

Mai Chen and Alex Perrottet Photo: Phil Yeo

Mai Chen: New Zealand needs to be a successful super-diverse, multicultural society, but on a bicultural base. That’s why it’s so important that the tauiwi that come understand that they are part of the crown. They need to understand that the basis they came to this country is not the same as the indigenous people. Because of te Tiriti, they have unique rights. Mate, this is their country.

When we came to this country, we just wanted a better life. We wanted a fair shot. My Dad came here because he was a fantastic gymnastics Olympics coach. You wanted him to train your gymnastics team. I didn’t want special treatment, I just wanted not to be discriminated against.

Kiri Allen (MP): Wayne, you mentioned your fears if we were to become a republic, in terms of its consequences on Te Tiriti o Waitangi and the partnership with the Crown. I'm interested in you elaborating on that; and Mai, from a constitutional law perspective.

Wayne Ngata: We're dealing with the Crown. So does the Crown disappear if we become a republic? Therefore, does the protection of the treaty disappear? That's a legal constitutional question. So if we become a republic, what happens to the treaty?

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Photo: Flickr / Takver

Mai Chen: We are already a de facto republic right now. The reality is the Queen does not sit in New Zealand. Her representative does. And so we are really effectively a republic, but we don't have a president as such. I think the only important thing from Te Tiriti's perspective is that we have an agreement, a political mandate, because as long as the substantive fruits of the treaty are retained, then actually, you can change the form of the government.

Are you going to have a president?  I think the the more important issue is whether we're ever going to move to a superior constitution of the sort that you see around the world, because the major stumbling block is enshrining the treaty. As you know, Te Tiriti o Waitangi is half-in and half-out of the law at the moment. It's kind of there, it's kind of not.

Alex Perrottet:  But isn't that a great opportunity to enshrine it?

Mai Chen: Well, it keeps coming up and [MPs] keep not dealing with it, because it's too big an issue. You can't get a political mandate to enshrine the treaty as higher law, because then it overrides everything. And so as a consequence, they back off.

The rise of ethnoburbs: a comparison of population distribution in Auckland in 2011 for those born in China and Korea

The rise of ethnoburbs: a comparison of population distribution in Auckland in 2011 for those born in China and Korea Photo: Motu Working Paper 11-06

Mai Chen: But actually, you need to make sure the new tauiwi that come understand this issue, otherwise the political mandate will dissipate. You get an ethnoburb where 65 to 70% of the people come from other Asian countries - China, Taiwan, Korea - their Member of Parliament has to listen to what the electorate says.

It weakens some aspects of the political mandate to settle issues and to continue to apply and enforce Te Tiriti o Waitangi if we don't ensure that the people who come understand that it is a fundamental aspect of our Constitution.

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Photo: Phil Yeo

About the speakers

Dr Wayne Ngata

Dr Ngata is Te Aitanga a Hauiti & Ngāti Porou. He is a much loved local cultural expert and academic, most at home in a pair of shorts, black singlet and gumboots. He also carries a full facial moko into work at the Ministry of  Education in Wellington, and around the world giving him a unique insight into the way in which people think about Māori men.

For his doctoral thesis, Wayne Ngata explored the use of a variety of traditional chants as a mechanism for exploring and understanding Māori philosophy and behaviour. He used case studies involving a community focus on knowledge and innovation to illustrate the influence of these chants on the development of kaupapa Māori. The findings will help Māori and non-Māori alike give better effect to development initiatives for Māori

Mai Chen

Mai Chen is a well-known public figure, who by virtue of her ancestry, has navigated racism since the moment her family set foot in New Zealand. Her techniques and strategies for dealing with random, subtle and sometimes direct racism provide an insight that most people wouldn’t necessarily think about. She has an extensive media profile, and regularly features on RNZ National.

She is a New Zealand constitutional and administrative law expert, Managing Partner of Chen Palmer Public and Employment Law Specialists, Professor (adjunct) at the University of Auckland School of Law, a director of the BNZ and chairs the New Zealand Asian Leaders group and the Superdiversity Centre for Law, Policy and Business. (Wikipedia)

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Photo: Te Hā Trust

In association with the Te Ha Trust, and the Tuia 250 Ki Turanga/Gisborne programme of public events in October 2019