Wednesday, March 03, 2004

The Orewa speech and all that
I’m really a little saddened by the Government’s so-called “about-face on Maori issues” following the reaction to Don Brash’s Orewa speech. We had moved on too far; we were out of step with public opinion, says Helen Clark. We’re not reacting to polls; we just want to take account of what people are saying…
Leaving aside the disingenuousness of that statement, why is there no reasoned account of why they might have “moved on too far”? What happened, not only to having the courage of one’s convictions, but being prepared to explain how those convictions were formed in the first place? If a government isn’t prepared to give a reasoned defence of its policies, what does that tell us about how they were formed?

Now we have Trevor Mallard combing legislation and departmental policies for “race-based” approaches. Overnight, “need-based not race-based” has become a sort of catch cry, while it has been left to the unlikely voices of the Dominion Post and Sunday Star Times leader writers to point out that any apparently “race-based” targeting in health and education is well and truly justified on the basis of need. But the Government knows that, surely? Didn’t they implement the policies?

What is truly surprising is how easily Brash has been allowed to define the terms of the debate – the first time in my memory that the Opposition has managed to achieve such an advantage over this Goverment. His Orewa speech may have been inflammatory and divisive – but it was certainly rather vague and waffly. Most people who were polled as “supporting Dr Brash” haven’t read the speech itself but were responding to choice soundbites served up by the media (“Brash tells Maori they’re not special”, etc.). Yet instead of calling Brash on the facts and arguments, the Government has thrown itself into an embarrassing retreat based on vague public reaction to a vague speech. Michael Cullen did have a column in the Dominion Post in which he attempted to dispel some of the misunderstandings about the foreshore and seabed (which is a completely different issue from public policy in health and education but has been allowed to be bundled together with them under the heading “Maori Issues”). In general though, there has been precious little attempt to engage in clarification, explanation or debate. This seems to imply one of two things. Either the Government really doesn’t believe its policies are defensible. Or it has an insultingly low opinion of the public’s intelligence. Neither option is particularly inspiring for the citizen and voter.

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