Natural disasters sometimes help troubled governments. They can be circuit breakers when bad news engulfs ministers. The Lange Labour Government experienced one in early 1987 when Winston Peters was making headway with the Maori Loans Scam - the brainchild of muddled officials and conmen. Suddenly there was an earthquake in the Bay of Plenty. Broken homes, twisted rail tracks and unsafe hospitals swamped the news, stopping Winston's juggernaut in its tracks.
The recent floods could have been a path to the high ground for Helen Clark's beleaguered ministry. Instead it responded late because ministers were too preoccupied with U-turning in response to Don Brash's Orewa speech. In the process Cabinet forgot the catastrophic polls resulting from David Lange's back-track on Rogernomics in 1988. He never recovered, and it will be a miracle if Helen Clark survives the current panic attack. Why follow a leader who loses the way?
Don Brash touched a raw nerve at Orewa. All the warnings Labour has been given by friends, and by their own polling, were ignored. Race-based policies don't command broad public support. Labour's recent sudden collapse in the polls was an accident waiting to happen.
Contrary to the left's snide remarks about "red-necks", most New Zealanders have always wanted to be fair to Maori. Despite multifarious injustices to Maori in the nineteenth century, ministries frequently tried to fulfil their understandings of their obligations. Sir Apirana Ngata was right when he told Maori they were fortunate to get the British rather than any other colonisers. The high rate of intermarriage and the prominence of Maori culture in our everyday lives, and on formal occasions, suggest we have much in common. The establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal demonstrated willingness to be both fair and inclusive. Moreover, there was a preparedness thirty years ago to discriminate in favour of Maori in employment and health because the then prevailing wisdom was that affirmative action would even up achievement levels between the races.
The key reason why Don Brash had such an impact is that those policies have clearly been ineffective. Of course a few Maori benefited. It's impossible to spray money around without someone profiting. Treaty lawyers and researchers, and the consultants who contract their supposed Maori expertise to ministries, cream it. But the overall improvement in average Maori incomes this last decade results from a well-performing economy, not from affirmative action. Sensible people now realise that racial preference produces a cargo-cult mentality among Maori that hurts, rather than helps them. Well-intentioned assistance has fostered a sense of entitlement. Today some believe it's their Treaty right. "They aren't handouts, they're paybacks", a foolish young man told a Herald journalist recently. This is pernicious nonsense. The cargo cult has debased the authority of traditional Maori leaders, and is destroying the notion of personal responsibility in peoples' lives.
We'd all support affirmative action if it worked. But there's thirty years of evidence that it doesn't. After billions spent, Maori form a bigger portion of the prison population, and feature more prominently in dysfunctional homes, domestic violence and car accident statistics than ever before. Fifty percent of new applicants for the DPB are Maori. Tariana Turia told us recently that since twice as many Maori died of cancer as non-Maori there was "discrimination" in the health system. Nonsense! Maori smoke heavily and are more feckless about diets and life styles. The Prime Minister pays a high price for treating the class dunce as a pet.
The leading "lights" in this government did their seminal thinking in the 1970s. They have read little about world trends in social (or economic) policy since then. Pushing on with race-based, rather than needs-based assistance in health education and employment already looked dogmatic by the eighties, and old-fashioned when National persevered with it in the nineties. Today it is dangerously obsolete. Belatedly, National seems to have come to its senses. How long before Labour realises that fostering an erroneous notion of Treaty entitlement is more damaging than the problems it's meant to cure?
Can Labour recover? Having first panicked, it could now regain dignity by re-structuring its Maori priorities. Ministers thought they'd reined in the Crown Forest Rental Trust that became a slush fund for many undeserving people. It should be scrapped and a proper inquiry held as to how its funds are disbursed. Cabinet ought to revisit the current preoccupation with iwi. Those organisations don't reflect modern-day urban Maori realities. The racially-tainted consultancy culture within the public service should also cease. Trevor Mallard has his hands full.