New Zealand Initiative on immigration: Part 1: The place of Maori

(This is not a new post.  It simply lifts the New Zealand Initiative focused material from a post I wrote on 7 February on Maori and immigration, so that all my comments on the Initiative report are in this numbered series, and are thus able to be tracked down –  including by me – in future.)

Last week, the New Zealand Initiative released their advocacy report, making the case for continued – or perhaps even increased –  high levels of non-citizen immigration.  It is an unsatisfactory report in several respects –  for example, the subtitle “Why migrants make good kiwis” seems to rather deliberately(?) miss the point that should guide policy; do migrants make existing New Zealanders better off –  and I’ll have quite a bit to say about various aspects of it over the next week or two.    But today I just wanted to focus on the treatment of the Maori dimension.

As the report notes

Many Maori too are concerned about immigration, seeing it as a threat to their unique position as the first people to settle in New Zealand


The Election Survey reveals that Māori are significantly less favourable towards immigration than other New Zealanders, and Māori are significantly more likely to want reduced immigration numbers. They are also less likely to think immigration is good for the economy, and more likely to see immigration as a threat. This finding remains even after controlling for age, religion, marital status, home ownership, household income, education, gender, and survey year.

The authors note

This is clearly a concern for New Zealand, where Māori and the Treaty of Waitangi occupy a special cultural and constitutional role in society and national identity. Given the low barriers to obtaining voting rights in New Zealand, there may be a fear that allowing migrants to express these views at the ballot box would dilute Māoridom’s special standing.

That is all fine, but what sort of response do they propose?

The range of policy responses to this problem are fairly limited. Cultural education programmes for migrants may sound appealing, but it is unclear how successful they would be in changing views. Some migrants may simply see it as a tick box exercise to be endured to gain entry into the country, and may not have the intended effect on
migrant attitudes towards Māori and their place in New Zealand.

Indeed, and even if it it had the “intended effect” that wouldn’t alter the inevitable shift in the population balance.  Maori –  like others –  might reasonably be assumed to want power/influence, not just understanding or consideration.

We have also considered a values statement, such as the one used in Australia. All visitors to the country are required to sign this document, affirming to abide by Australia’s largely Western values. Although this idea is appealing, it has two main weaknesses. First, New Zealand has yet to formally define its cultural values. Unlike Australia, or many other nation states, New Zealand does not have a single constitutional document. Instead, New Zealand’s constitutional laws are found in numerous documents, including the Constitution Act 1986, the Treaty of Waitangi, the Acts of Parliament, and so on. This allows the nation state of New Zealand to function, but does little to define what it is to be a New Zealander, and what set of national values need be upheld. Until this is done, it would be difficult to craft a robust and useful values statement. Even if it were possible, without constitutional protection, it would be subject to change according to political whim. Second, any values statement would still suffer from the pro forma weakness that a cultural education programme is subject to.

I don’t disagree that a “values statement” isn’t the answer, partly because in a bi-cultural nation there will be differing values –  things that count, ways of seeing and doing things –  even between the two cultures.    But they go on.

A partial answer to this problem may be to shift the burden from the immigration system to the education system. The national curriculum, which acts as a reference guide for schools in New Zealand, places significant emphasis on learning Te Reo and the cultural practices of Māori.   This may do little to address concerns about the attitudes primary migrants have towards Māori in New Zealand, but may influence the attitudes of second generation migrants. This is far from a complete solution, and monitoring attitudes of migrants to Māori, and vice versa, is advisable.

Indoctrination by the education system would seem equally likely to provoke backlashes, and –  of course –  does nothing to deal with the population imbalance issue.  As the final rather limp sentence concedes,  the report hasn’t actually got much to offer on this issue at all.  They go on to conclude

There are also cultural dilution concerns of the Māori community regarding high levels of immigration threatening their unique constitutional position in New Zealand. These areas require attention from policymakers if the current rates of immigration are to be maintained.

But surely if think-tank reports are to be of any real value they need to confront these issues and offer serious solutions, not just kick the issue back to busy and hard-pressed policymakers?

By the time we get to the conclusion of the whole report, things are weaker still

Māori views on immigration policy should be welcomed. A more inclusive process is needed to instruct migrants on the key place Māori hold in New Zealand society.

It is both condescending in tone –  both towards Maori and to migrants –  while not actually substantively addressing the real issues, which aren’t just about sensitivity, but about power.

It is difficult not to conclude that in putting the report together the New Zealand Initiative had a strong prior view on the merits of large scale immigration globally, but could do no more than handwaving when it came to an important consideration in thinking about immigration policy and its implication in New Zealand.   Of course, libertarians –  as most of the Initiative people would probably claim to be, or accept description as  –  tend to have little sense of national identity or sub-national cultural identity; their analysis all tends to proceed at the level of the individual.  But most citizens, and voters, don’t share that sort of perspective.

I don’t want to sound like a bleeding heart liberal in writing this, or to suggest a degree of identification with, or interest in, Maori issues and culture which I don’t actually have.  My family have been here since around 1850, but I have no family ties with Maori, whether by blood or by marriage, and am quietly proud of my own Anglo heritage.  In many respects I probably identify more easily with people and cultures in other traditionally Anglo countries than I do with Maori.  But this seems to me a basic issue of fairness, including a recognition that (empirically), there is such a meaningful group as Maori, and that on average they see some –  but far from all – issues differently than non-Maori.  No doubt there is about as much diversity among Maori as there is, say, among Anglo New Zealanders, but the differing identities are meaningful and show up in various places, including in voting behaviour.    And the inescapable point remains that New Zealand is the only long-term home of Maori.

I’m not one for apologising for history, and of course we can’t change history.  But current policies changes the present and especially the future.  Every temperate-climate region in the Americas and Australasia saw indigenous populations swamped in the last few centuries –  between the power of the gun, and the prospects of greater prosperity that superior technology and economic institutions offered.  Compared with, say, Canada, Australia, the United States, and Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, the indigenous population remained a larger share of the total in New Zealand.

This isn’t mostly a post about economics.  It is impossible to do a controlled experiment, but I think there is little doubt that the indigenous populations of all those countries of European settlement are better off economically today than they’d have been without the European migration –  even though in each of those countries indigenous populations tend to underperform other citizens economically.  But, those gains have been made, and at what cost have they come in terms of self-determination and control?    It isn’t easy for members of majority populations to appreciate what it must mean for a group to have become a disempowered minority in their own land.  For some it is probably not an issue at all, for others perhaps it is of prime importance, for most perhaps somewhere in between, important at some times and on some issues, and not important at all on others.

If there were demonstrably large economic gains now, to existing New Zealanders, from continued (or increased) large scale immigration there might be some hard choices to make.  Perhaps many Maori might even accept a further diminution of their relative position, as the price of much greater prosperty.   But there is simply no evidence of such economic gains –  whether in the New Zealand Initiative report or in other analysis of the New Zealand position.     If so, why should we ask of –  or simply impose on (we don’t have a federal system, with blocking power to minorities) –  Maori New Zealanders a continuing rapid undermining of their relative position in the population, and in voting influence in New Zealand?

Much of this comes to, as in many ways it always has, fairly crude power politics.  But the quality of a democracy should be judged in significant part by how it protects, and provides vehicles for the representation of the interests of, minorities.  A minority population, that was once the entire population of New Zealand, seems to have a reasonable claim to a particular interest in that regard.  Advocates of large scale immigration to New Zealand –  whether politicians or think tanks or business people-  might reasonably be asked to confront the issue, and our history, more directly.


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