Since Christian Cullen made his dramatic debut as a Maori All Black, many have been asking about the legal definition of a Maori. The answer is in the Maori Affairs Amendment Act passed in November 1974. Prior to that, a Maori was defined as anyone who was half-caste or more. For electoral purposes, only those who were half-caste had a choice between the Maori Roll and the General Roll. After 1974 anyone with any Maori ancestry who chose to, could designate him/herself as a Maori. Norman Kirk who was Prime Minister when the Bill received its first reading, welcomed a measure that he believed would help Maori retain their cultural identity. Allan McCready, MP for Manawatu, known for his colourful turn of phrase, was astonished at the new definition of a Maori. "It appears now that anyone who rides past a marae on a pushbike can claim to be a Maori", he told Parliament.
Three decades later as we mull over the Maori All Blacks and the problems that bedevil many Maori agencies we can see there was an element of truth in both observations. Already by 1974 the rapid rate of intermarriage meant that a declining number fitted the old definition of a Maori. Enrolment in Maori electoral districts was collapsing, partly also as a consequence of the rapid urbanisation taking place. Intermarriage has continued since then, and special government campaigns are needed to maintain the Maori rolls.
There was a resurgence of interest in Maori culture after 1974. Many liked exploring the minority section of their ancestry. Some who were newly-entitled to vote in Maori seats championed their option. But another, less positive, development was also underway. Many who formerly would have been categorised as non-Maori, converted their small Maori portion into a privilege. Picking up on the world-wide surge towards "positive discrimination", euphemisms such as "we are an equal opportunity employer" began to creep into job advertisements. In coded language these told part Maori that their minority ancestry might help them jump the employment queue.
More Maori language and culture was soon being taught in schools. Was it a cultural celebration or a job-seeking aid? Both, actually. Most decent Kiwis applaud real Maori progress. But there have always been dangers in promotion on grounds other than merit. A predictable backlash developed. While some deserving got jobs who might not have, others fell into a moa trap beneath the innocent-looking forest floor. The push for special privileges, separate agencies, quotas, commissions and departments took off. Nepotism, tribalism and racism reared their ugly heads. The most able Maori were embraced by the professions. Others chased the Treaty gravy train, or found places in well-paid organisations like the Crown Forest Rental Trust or the Fisheries Commission. Lower-paid departments and agencies, however, face a constant struggle to identify able Maori managers. Some promote young people too quickly - which seems to be the problem with Te Mangai Paho. The core problem is that Maori have too many dysfunctional families and kids under-achieve at school. There aren't enough qualified job-seekers to supply the growing niche market. Maori society seems stretched to breaking point. Consequently there's a seemingly endless series of headlines very damaging to Maori.
Separateness will never serve Maori long term. Its most vehement proponents are more European than Maori. Most would benefit from being evaluated like everyone else, rather than subjected to preferential treatment. Separateness isn't required under the Treaty. There is no need for separate Maori and Pacific broadcasting agencies. Sections within existing structures can do the job. It's not the unnecessary costs involved in agency duplication - though this must be acknowledged. There isn't enough difference to warrant special agencies. As John Tamihere puts it, New Zealand's ethnicity is rapidly being reformulated in our bedrooms. Our society will always contain marked ethnic differences, but that will be because of immigration. Maori, Europeans and Pacific Islanders are melding before our eyes. Strident demands for preferential treatment have a hollow ring now we have so much in common.
Which is another way of saying that the Maori Affairs Amendment Act of 1974 wasn't the start of a significant new direction for Maori. Rather it was another milestone on the road to fulfilling Lt Governor Hobson's (premature) observation on 6 February 1840: "He iwi tahi tatou; we are now one people". Where Christian Cullen has gone, others will follow. And vice versa. And we'll all be better off for it.