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OPINIONĀteaMarch 21, 2024

Death by a thousand cuts: How political decisions affect Māori

Image by Tina Tiller
Image by Tina Tiller

While many across the country will be affected by funding cuts, it’s the broader slashes that impact Māori the most, writes Anton Blank.

Left and right, the red flags fluttered before the election. 

When political parties start talking tough on crime, there will be problems ahead for Māori, now one of the most imprisoned populations anywhere in the world. 

Even Labour wanted more youth justice residences for young offenders – mostly Māori teens. I don’t know how any Māori politician could support such a policy with a clear conscience. But they are part of the machine desperate to win supporters.

Bill Clinton hammered the same narrative during the 1990s, to draw voters away from the Republicans. He incentivised the building of prisons and three-strikes laws. The strategy consolidated the escalation of the African American prison population, which had started with Reagan and Bush.

Implicit biases are preferences and aversions shared by humans. In the social world we gravitate towards people who are like us, and it is more difficult to build relationships with people who are different to us. 

The more commonly used jargon for this phenomenon is unconscious bias, which is technically not an accurate descriptor, because researchers suspect that most of us know we have these latent biases. By calling them implicit we are saying we can assume the biases are there, inside us.

The implicit biases are stored by the brain and guide and trigger our decision-making, especially when we are under pressure. 

Police are more likely to taser and arrest Māori, for example, likely because of stereotypes about Māori and violence. Over time our brain makes automatic associations between a group or type of person and a behaviour or characteristic. 

Implicit bias lives in government policy too and is driving detrimental change for Māori at an alarming pace. Every new announcement lands as a blow to the stomach. 

Winston Peters, Christopher Luxon and David Seymour after signing a coalition agreement (Photo: Marty Melville/AFP via Getty Images)

Repealing the smokefree legislation, for example. On the face of it smoking is a generic issue, but this impacts Māori more because our rates of smoking are 3.3 times higher than anyone else. Nearly one in four Māori die from smoking-related conditions.

Political decisions implicitly favour some groups over others.

The privileging of English-language names of government ministries subtly denigrates te reo Māori. It is a very significant gesture, reminding Māori about the priorities and ideology of the new administration. 

My cousin’s young children fret that they won’t be allowed to speak te reo at primary school. As Māori, we feel these things at an emotional level. 

In the vernacular of implicit bias, this is called death by a thousand cuts. Small daily indignities experienced by marginalised groups accumulate and impact our psychological wellbeing.

The Treaty Principles Bill is another political micro-aggression we must brace ourselves to navigate. The bill proposes to dilute the guarantees afforded to Māori by Te Tiriti, under the guise of reinforcing democratic rights for everyone. Essentially, the Treaty would be repurposed into a generic bill of rights.

Its proponents are trying to generate support for the changes among new migrant populations. One person, one vote, no special privileges for anyone – that is the rhetoric. 

Capabilities theorist Amartya Sen proposes that all humans are entitled to five essential freedoms, including the ability to participate in democracy. When every citizen experiences all freedoms, Sen believes that poverty will disappear.

Hīkoi ki Waitangi arrives at Te Tii Marae on Waitangi Day 2024 (Photo: Eda Tang)

Sen argues further that some groups require additional protective freedoms. Sen knows that democracy’s benefits are never evenly distributed, some benefit more than others. The weight and influence of numbers, means the majority – or the largest minority in a territory – wields more influence and is more able to shape the political narrative.

Sen would agree that because of our social and political vulnerability, Māori require additional protections. 

These protections are in fact already articulated through Te Tiriti, which establishes the partnership between Māori and the Crown. The nature of the partnership and power-sharing has been negotiated, imperfectly, over time.

All New Zealanders are clearly not equal under the law, especially Māori, who have less access to health services, receive less attention from the education system, and are more surveilled by the justice sector than any other group in the country. Given the increased focus on gang violence, this surveillance will intensify.

Without any additional protections, the proposition of one person, one vote, everyone equal under the law is clearly codswallop. 

At an event at Auckland’s Civic last week, nine Māori thought leaders addressed a central proposition of “I am the sovereign.” A few themes emerged, first and foremost, that Māori have never ceded sovereignty to the Crown. Also, that Māori need to keep going, articulating our truth, building our strategies.

The thousand cuts make us stronger, more resilient, more powerful.

Keep going!