The dogwhistling of the Treaty

Gareth Morgan has a four-part series in the Herald this month in a thinly-veiled ad campaign for his new book, Are we there yet? The future of the Treaty of Waitangi.

And there’s dogwhistle one: the smarmy comparison of Treaty grievances and settlements to a long car ride which we just want to be over, already.

This week’s effort seeks to establish Gareth Morgan, an economist, as an expert in the history of the Treaty, following on from his opining on the health system, the welfare system, and the inherent evilness of cat ownership.

That’s one thing about our society: we tend to assume that someone who’s been around for a while and made a bunch of cash is automatically credible, even in areas they have no background in. It’s the same thing that happens when we assume people from the business world (and woodwork teachers) are better governors of our nation than silly academics and unionists.

We also tend to assume that expertise, especially in an academic field, is a bit of a charade, and anyone can pick up enough of the intricacies of indigenous rights, case law, and restorative processes to form an informed opinion on them. It’s the same way everyone on Twitter suddenly becomes an expert in the Geneva Conventions when a report on CIA torture comes out.

There are a lot of downsides to these attitudes – most of which come under the heading of “not making personal/electoral/policy decisions based on proper information”. Another is that we accord people like Gareth Morgan the mantle of authority on issues just because he’s a rich old white dude.

(Yes, all four of those identifiers are necessary, because they all contribute.)

And that means he gets to write a book, and four columns in one of our major newspapers, which promote misinformation and racist stereotypes about Māori and the Treaty.

Morgan seems to be genuine in his concern. But despite referring to the “catastrophic effects” which Treaty breaches have wrought on our society, and seeming to praise the “fluidity” of current Treaty negotiations, the main takeaways from his column are:

  1. No one really knows what the Treaty means, so whenever people talk about “Treaty principles” they mean “stuff made up after the fact”
  2. The English and te reo Māori versions of the Treaty are different so no one can agree on which should take precedence (my understanding is that indigenous language versions of treaties do)
  3. Some Māori just want too much (“Even in its modern “elastic” form it cannot be credibly stretched to legitimise all Maori aspirations.”)
  4. The Crown has sovereignty now so stop arguing about it
  5. I, Gareth Morgan, am the best person to tell you how to achieve rangatiratanga and you’re currently doing it wrong

It’s possible I’m being too cynical. Maybe Gareth Morgan will surprise me with his subsequent columns on “the limits of the Treaty process” and “one country, two peoples”.

But what I come back to is this: I don’t think the Treaty discussion needs another white guy giving us his reckons. (It probably doesn’t need an uninformed white woman like me giving her reckons either.) I don’t think it informs the debate, and I don’t think the priorities of people like Gareth Morgan are particularly relevant to resolving, as he puts it, the catastrophic effects of Pākehā colonisation of New Zealand.

Also, he hates cats.

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