About them Maori: and Prison

Guest Post

To follow up on commenter George’s interesting post Thursday on the prickliness of confronting Maori under-achievement in our society (it’s real, and particularly sharply pointed in imprisonment statistics) and the uncomfortable aspersions cast upon those with whom we choose to disagree with, inter-alia, those who don’t hold our identical world-view. It is a polarising debate, and becoming more polarising.

In order to find answers in a neutral setting I summoned my two daughters to me; both entirely beautiful part-Maori maidens, it must be said, and proud of it. Let’s call the older one Mother because she has produced two of the most wonderful grandchildren ever to grace Christendom, while the other we shall call Troubles because she has produced, uhm?never mind.

I advanced them a question, asking if either of them had ever been colonised; both looked slightly shocked. Mother insisted it wasn’t so, while Troubles announced that although she had never been colonised, she had been tattooed, and offered to show me the artwork. I declined the invitation.??

Because colonisation of these wonderful islands by the British has been offered as a reason for the decline in mauri and mana, the life-force and respect, of the existing inhabitants subjected to the new pressure from overseas and the waves of alien people thence, a whole new species. A whole new world.

Certainly; it is completely true that the leadership of the colony were extremely concerned at massive loss in numbers and morale of these, their fellow British subjects, and instituted an inquiry as early as 1856 in order to advance both reasons for the decline and counter-measures to inoculate the native people from further destruction.

Counter-measures, some of which were already taking place before the inquiry, included land ownership reformation, political representation, education in the new languages and sciences, provision of health services and sanitation, and, recognising the native bent for horticulture as evidenced by the very first British and European voyagers here, expansion of existing crop varieties and the introduction of mills and other machinery to improve farmed produce and yield.

Another thing happened in 1856; Charles Darwin was penning his masterpiece “On the Origin of Species”, his theory of natural selection that would prove revolutionary and, literally, re-shape world-views. Within fifty years both the dwindling Maori and ‘science’ would reach new lows. Science spun off into fields unsuited to empiricism, especially the fields of eugenics and phrenology, and philosophically into theories of racial superiority and the inevitable replacement of ‘lower’ genes by the ‘higher’.

By the early part of the 20th Century it can be said, with complete honesty, that our people and society were the most institutionally-racist they would ever be, not at all as bad as some of the other colonies; no way. But we were convinced of the superiority of the new sciences and introduced way-of-life in these lands, and the almost inevitable erasure of Maori.

Concerned for racial and social indicators of criminality, a stain our fore-fathers struggled to comprehend in the land of milk-and-honey, officials experimented with statistics to find trends which may alert to the likelihood of social precursors pointing to later imprisonment, and they found an alarming co-relation: There was one group of subjects who, though numbering just 15% of the population represented an unhealthy 33% of the prison muster. Those people were Roman Catholics: No other cohort came close to the unsatisfactory statistic, including Maori, whose numbers incarcerated were wholly in keeping with the general ratio of the non-Maori non-Catholic populace.

A short period later almost the entire world experienced a cataclysmic wrench from the old philosophies, the destruction of the last vestiges of feudalism and monarchal alliances which threw their subjects against each other in hatred and war, and the emergence of new social and political orders. Within a decade the continuing repercussions of war and the false hope of endless gains from imagined wealth culminated in financial calamity when banks collapsed, taking their depositor?s money with them, and ordinary folk; business owners and mortgage-holders found it impossible to re-finance loans resulting in some of the most serious financial hardships seen in the 20th Century. Who would have believed, twenty years before, that Cuba St in Wellington, our capital city, would witness a food riot in 1932?

Dominion Newspaper 1932, a photo of the riots in Wellington


The pains of hunger, the scars of real poverty never left many who experienced the sensations. My own mother would discard neither a newspaper, a potato sack, nor an ice-cream stick, while a sometimes-visitor to our home, an American woman, would not waste an envelope, preferring to steam it open, turn it inside-out and re-use it for new mail. They were proud penny-pinchers whose capability for austerity was astonishing by our modern standards but which asset was honed into them in the bleakness of those years. The penal statistics went steadily along recording, not in total disregard to the social circumstances which produced rioting, stealing, destruction of property and other ‘crimes’, but in attempting to find anomalies, of which there were no particular stand-outs. By 1934 neither Maori nor the previously troubling Catholics were over-represented in prison cells.

Those years of hunger and going-without produced new politicians and causes, and the shaping of a new working-class family; one who would never suffer the indignity, the utter, burning, shame of Want with no means to quench it. Social Welfare was born, it was generous when required to be, and benevolent, non-denominational and ‘universal’ although, by modern standards, slightly racist and sexist.

Another terrible conflict passed and New Zealand suffered in parallel with our partners, but on returning to peace there was much to do, work for all, progress to be made as well as money from shipping exports to a re-building world. Wool prices went so high many youthful immigrants found gainful employment on local farms gleaning strands of the golden fleece from fence-posts and gates. Maori too, embraced and exploited the opportunities available, becoming staples of the wool-sheds and freezing-works, many moved into cities to be closer to high-paying jobs in local ‘manufacturers’ production facilities.

New Zealanders embraced under the Fifties-follies fortunate rainbow. We loved Maori; they loved us. We schooled together, played footy together, partied together, and searched the endless rows of “Situations Vacant” columns in the newspapers together to find the highest-paying jobs. It continued for years and years, right through the sixties, and then it all went pear-shaped.

Mother Britain, who had given us birth, who we had suffered for and stood with, kicked us out of home. We had to stand on our own two feet, she said. And we were not well-placed to do so.

Years of austerity had produced flinty thrift, years of excess has produced trifle smugness. No more could we walk from school to a job as effortlessly as going to bed. The numbers collecting Unemployment benefits, which had been paid to about 450-odd souls in 1974, doubled, then re-doubled then re-doubled then re-doubled, and within ten short years had reached 53,000, but even that number was a facade. Muldoon, a socialist fool masquerading as anti-communist, a financial peon fighting a formidable array of ravaging circumstances, had convinced an eager parliament to lower the retirement age to 60 as panacea to the growing number of dole-seekers, affording a minor explosion in numbers of those giving up work to receive the relatively generous pension. Others opted out of work altogether, years without employment had made even more attractive the low-hanging fruit of the Domestic Purposes Benefit, the Invalids Benefit and the Sickness Benefit, all of which numbers more than doubled.

God?s Own Country was in Deep Schtuk. By 1984 our GDP was $34B, but our yearly financial deficit was $2.7B thanks to huge ?welfare? bills, a shortfall entirely ?sustained? by endless borrowing to fund our ?egalitarian, equitable? society. It was the equivalent of borrowing $22B every year, year-in year-out, indefinitely, in modern-day terms and was a seriously dysfunctional and stupid illusion. It had to stop.

Nobody can say, with a straight face, that David Lange intended to hurt Maori; it is impossible to believe that charismatic man harboured ill-will towards any group of people except his political opponents. Very few though estimated his inner courage correctly, believing him soft and corruptible was a major error.? He stood by his man as Roger Douglas, from a communist upbringing, took the shambolic Kiwi shack apart and rebuilt the structure in a much superior way, with hugely improved foundations; but when he was finished there was a lot of the original material left over, and a new word swept the land: Redundant.

That it was Maori upon whom the cuts fell deepest is an undeniable fact. Ill-equipped to progress, mainly through lack of educational achievement, many were bewildered: A punishment employed by those masters of torture, the Romans, where victims were led blind-folded deep into remote forest areas, the ?wilderness?, and left bound, abandoned to their own devices.

Unemployment hurts. Not like the sharp pain and adrenaline burst of accidentally hitting your own thumb with a hammer, when your blood boils and your eyes focus bright and angry; the pain of unemployment is much worse because it sucks your self-respect and dines on your own dignity, sometimes to the point of debilitation. It can make you hardened and angry; it can arouse violence within you. It is a hateful thing to give, but worse to receive. The shattered storefronts of Featherston St and Queen St during the 1930?s riots remind us of that.

The new generations watched their parents grow disillusioned, some became angry, others indifferent and keen to exploit the veins of welfare to fund alternative life-styles and, in turn, produce their own disillusioned little-ones convinced of neither the value of education, or work. Some Maori leaders took to new means to lift up their people, a Maori ?revivalist? or renaissance movement was born, several traditions almost lost were re-cast, some traditions were even invented; the most obvious being the performing, by the Mighty All Blacks, of the ?Haka? at home games, a spectacle never observed in this country before 1987. Many of the Maori revivalists were, and remain, widely respected.

Other Maori ?leaders? became agitators, belligerent and spiteful and contemptuous. That?s all right. There have been such people since civilisation year-dot; whether in Memphis, Babylon, Rome, London, Munich or Waitangi. They seek to feed off their own imagined infamy, they spurt hyperbole and misinformation; reacting to such rhetoric is an exercise in futility.

But there is still a problem, and it appears to be getting worse.

To recap: During the time of most ingrained and institutionalised, subconscious, racism in this country no more Maori than anybody else were incarcerated. Therefore, can we say, neither racism, nor colonisation attributed to imprisonment numbers? During the era of the most wide-spread unemployment, unrest and grueling poverty in this country no more Maori than anybody else were incarcerated. Therefore, can we say, that financial hardship did not lead Maori to prison in higher numbers? But during the time of greatest access to welfare assistance Maori prisoner numbers have exploded?

Because of low educational achievement, a self-perpetuating millstone around the neck, a veritable and formidable shackle to the ground that restricts sufferers to reaching only the lowest-hanging fruit, and it?s got to stop, along with the acceptance that Maori require a welfare lifeline, and special treatment.

When Cook and his cohort of scientists came to this land they found an intelligent and resourceful people; they were in the business of documenting strangers and were not new to the task. Many on board were veterans of the oceans, and new lands, and had described Aboriginals from many places, Tierra Del Fuego, Japan, Alaska, the Pacific Islands, Australia, America and many more. They didn?t find under-achievers here in any sense except when judged against Christian moral standards.

The Catholic community determined to deal with criminality a century ago and linked the causes directly to illiteracy. They determined that they were as capable as other citizens of conquering the written word and set about it assiduously in the Marist schools, in the churches, and in the homes. Bought up in Wellington?s eastern suburbs, home to many Catholic families, a friend told me of a story in his family about how his grandfather had taught his father-before-him to read while aged about twelve, at home, and that on completing his first sentence, the older man had wept. With pride.

Our educators, but more importantly, our Maori leaders, the real leaders, the political leaders, the team leaders, even the gang leaders, not self-appointed ?spokespeople?, need to rise up and hammer this message home: That they are equals here, and that every single Maori child in this entire country will read and write by the age of twelve, with no exceptions whatsoever. Just as the Catholic community did.

That will end this unfortunate imprisonment cycle, it will bring more prosperity than any Treaty-settlement or endless welfare can bring and enrich their lives, and ours. This was achieved by the good people of The Society of Saint Mary within twenty years, it can be achieved by Maoridom within the same time-frame.