This is a rarity among once-colonized nations: a country that uses its indigenous language extensively, where a treaty with its first peoples is mostly honored, and where indigenous peoples have permanent representation in the halls of power .
But a decades-long push to support Maori, New Zealand’s indigenous people – who lag far behind the general population in health and wealth and have higher incarceration rates – is now in peril.
Disenchanted with progressive politics, New Zealanders in October elected the nation’s most conservative government in a generation, one that says it wants “equal rights” for every citizen. In practice, this means abolishing a Māori health agency, abandoning other policies that benefit the community and ordering public bodies to stop using the Māori language.
One member of the new government, a three-party coalition, has floated a possible referendum on the Treaty of Waitangi, an agreement signed by Maori chiefs and the British Crown in 1840 and often described as the country’s founding document. Such a referendum, experts say, could tear at the very fabric of New Zealand society, send race relations to a new low and undo decades of work that have sought to right historical wrongs against Māori, who now make up about 17% of the population. population of the country. five million people.
“What this government is saying is: how can we increase errors?” said Dominic O’Sullivan, a Māori academic and political scientist at Charles Sturt University in Canberra, Australia. “It’s an extraordinary breakthrough.”
Prime Minister Christopher Luxon rejected such criticism. “It’s quite unfair, to be honest.” he told reporters this month, adding: “We’re going to get things done for Māori and non-Māori, and that’s what we’re going to focus on.”
In recent days, Luxon has suggested that a referendum on the treaty is unlikely. His party, the National Party, is the largest and most powerful member of the governing coalition, and must juggle his coalition partners’ desire for wholesale change on Māori affairs and his party’s reluctance to usher in a potentially distracting vote and divisive.
Māori, deeply shaken by the changes, took to the streets. The Māori Party, an indigenous sovereignty party, staged demonstrations across the nation in early December, blocking rush-hour traffic in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city. In Wellington, the capital, protesters gathered by the hundreds in front of the Parliament buildings.
Later that day, during the opening session of the New Zealand Parliament, members of the Māori Party performed a haka and pledged allegiance to the treaty before administering a modified oath to King Charles III, New Zealand’s head of state, in which they used another name for him which also translates as “scab” or “rash”.
Kiingi Tuheitia, the Māori king, who holds a significant symbolic role, said he would host a national hui, or meeting, for Māori in January, with the aim of “holding the coalition government to account”.
David Seymour, the leader of Act, the most right-wing member of the governing coalition, denounced the demonstrations, saying the Māori party was “protesting for equal rights”.
New Zealanders needed “a healthy debate about whether our future lies in co-governance”, where the government makes decisions together with Māori, “and diverse rights based on ancestry”, he said in a statement.
Seymour’s arguments echo those made this year in neighboring Australia, which flatly rejected a referendum on Indigenous representation in Parliament. Opponents had argued that a modern Australia should treat every person equally and avoid “special treatment” of its indigenous citizens, who are disproportionately more likely to be poor, suffer from disease or be incarcerated.
Indigenous New Zealanders also experience material hardship, poorer health outcomes and incarceration at much higher rates than the general population. But the country is an exception in the extent to which its citizens have supported their indigenous culture.
The mellifluous sounds of te reo Māori, the language, have become almost commonplace on the country’s airwaves, in its classrooms and even in official government briefings. Jacinda Ardern, the longtime leader of the previous government, promised that her daughter would learn it alongside English. And so many people tried to learn the language that the country experienced a teacher shortage.
For some, including Seymour and Winston Peters, himself Māori and head of New Zealand First, the smallest member of the coalition, there is a sense that the embrace of Māori language and culture has gone too far.
While campaigning before the election, Peters promised to replace the Māori names of New Zealand government agencies with English ones, arguing that this would cause confusion for the wider population. (About 30%. of the population speaks “more than a few words or phrases,” according to the latest census.)
Peters has disputed that it is an attack on language, telling supporters last month that “it is an attack on the virtue-signalling elite, who have hijacked language for their own socialist purposes.”
The Māori Party once tried to present itself as the party of the middle way, able to work in co-operation with one of New Zealand’s two major parties: the National Party and the Labor Party, which was in power for six years until this year, most of them under the leadership of Ms Ardern, to give Māori a seat at the government table. But in recent years he has taken a more radical path, one that critics describe as more theatrical, with more ambitious political goals.
This approach appears to have resonated with Māori voters, who elected Māori Party representatives in six of the country’s seven Māori constituency seats this year, having given them no seats in 2017 and two in 2020.
It’s unclear whether the party’s tactics will appeal to the wider New Zealand public – or risk turning them off altogether, said Dr O’Sullivan, the academic. “You have to convince people that there is a cause they want to support, including a significant number of Māori people,” he said.
Hana-Rawhiti Maipi-Clarke is part of the Māori Party’s new class of legislators and, at 21, is the youngest MP in New Zealand history. In her first speech to Parliament last week, she described how she had been advised not to take the twists and turns of political life too personally.
“In just a couple of weeks, in just 14 days, this government has attacked my entire world from every corner,” he said, listing proposed changes to Māori affairs. “How can I not take anything personally when it feels like these policies were made for me?”