the tino rangatiratanga movement of the 1990s

The British invaded Aotearoa in the 1800s. In comparison to many indigenous societies overseas, Maori were offered a Treaty – the Treaty of Waitangi of 1840 – that guaranteed Maori access to, and control of, traditional resources such as land, fishing areas, and so on. The Treaty was then systematically ignored by the English state. Maori were forcibly dispossessed of almost all their former resources. Because of this dispossession and near genocide, Maori have a long tradition of rebellion against the “colonial state.”

After 1945, many Maori migrated to urban areas, and consequently became more integrated into the working class. Maori became disproportionately employed in low-paid blue-collar manual labour and service industries, occupations such as freezing workers and timberworkers. Maori became a significant sector of the working class. Most blue-collar industries were “restructured” in the 1980s, and thus working class Maori bore much of the brunt of neoliberal reforms; indeed, Maori suffered significantly higher levels of unemployment and poverty than Pakeha from the 1980s.

Some commentators claimed Maori represented the biggest threat to the imposition of neoliberal regime of accumulation on the working class. Maori had a long tradition of autonomous resistance, were opposed to the colonial state, had only relatively recently been incorporated into capitalism, and had a distinct culture which valued communalism rather than individualism. For many Maori, neoliberalism was the continuation of long-standing theme of theft and colonialism. For Jane Kelsey, “It was not surprising, then, that the most (some would say the only) sustained political resistance to the structural adjustment programme had come from” Maori.25 Kelsey’s view is romantic because, as seen above, many working class Pakeha – together with working class Maori and Pacific Islanders – opposed the benefit cuts, ECA, and closures of hospitals and other rural services. The biggest threat to the imposition of neoliberalism, in my view, came from the self-activity of the working class as a whole, not just working class Maori. Yet Kelsey is correct in stating that a major form of resistance to neoliberalism came from Maori, although she overlooks the fact that the wave of Maori protest in the 1990s mostly came from disenfranchised working class Maori. While Maori protest is undoubtedly a reaction to colonialism and Pakeha racism, and cannot be reduced to class struggle, I argue that a clear division emerged between working class Maori and “corporate warriors” or capitalist Maori in the protests of the 1990s. Hence a class based analysis of this rebellion is relevant and useful.

From the late 1960s, Maori protest activity renewed. It was given impetus by the New Left, anti-Vietnam War movement, anti-apartheid movement, new social movements and the strike wave of the late 1960s and 1970s. The Tino Rangatiratanga (or Maori self-determination) movement had two major wings, both with substantial support. One wing was “middle-class” dominated and aimed to gain concessions from the state through legalistic activity; the other was firmly opposed to the state, and more focussed upon direct action to achieve its aims. This flaxroots based self-activity culminated in direct action in the form of land occupations in the late 1970s at Raglan and Takaparawha/Bastion Point in Auckland. Bastion Point was a particular highlight as it saw a fledging class based alliance between local iwi (tribes), trade unions, and Pakeha sympathisers. Unions placed a “green ban” upon construction at the site to support local iwi.26

In response, capital and the state aimed to co-opt and divert this movement. It attempted to achieve this through the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal (in 1975) and Maori Language Commission. From 1985, Labour allowed Maori grievances lodged with the Waitangi Tribunal to date back to the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. Thus from 1985 Treaty claims became a route for Maori to place pressure on the state to demand monetary compensation for the colonial theft of resources. The Labour Government of 1984 to 1990 also sought a policy of co-opting of Maori elites into the state, a policy that it called “biculturalism.” The result of this policy was the enrichment of a few Maori who controlled the neotribal capitalist businesses created by treaty settlements. Correspondingly, working class Maori were made much worse off.

In the 1980s most of the Tino Rangatiratanga movement was focussed upon reviving Maori culture and language. Hundreds of autonomous Maori schools were established, cultural groups were formed, and people fought to have Maori studies introduced into the state education system. However, this cultural nationalism often led to an exclusive focus on cultural change rather than a more holistic approach. As Teanau Tuiono states,

By focusing on cultural issues this allowed the co-optation of a Maori elite within the structures of the state and forced many Maori leaders to straddle the uneasy gulf between pushing the Maori struggle forward and maintaining the existing state of affairs. The prestige and wealth that went with such privileged positions in the settlement process meant that Maori leaders became increasingly removed from the concerns and vitality of the flaxroots Maori struggle. Tino Rangatiratanga could be then seen as economic independence because we were free to enter the ‘free market.’ Capitalism with a smiley (Maori) face. Bullshit.27

The National Government of the early 1990s saw the Maori movement for self-determination as a threat to its neoliberal policies. The National Government was concerned that the backlog of Treaty claims created a climate of uncertainty for capitalists because it left the ownership of a number of key resources in doubt. Treasury officials called major Treaty claims an “unquantifiable fiscal risk.”28 National thus attempted to put a lid on these claims by negotiating a final settlement of all claims – at minimal cost to themselves.

As a result, National offered a $1 billion deal in secret negotiations with a number of “corporate warriors” and “tribal executives” called the fiscal envelope. It also brokered a deal with middle class Maori to end fisheries claims through the Sealords Deal. The 1992 Fisheries Settlement Act included a settlement between the state and some Maori to purchase a $150 million share in a major New Zealand commercial fisheries business, Sealord Products Limited.

As the state publicly admitted the existence of the fiscal envelope in 1994, Maori protest swung into action. On Waitangi Day in 1995, a militant protest of 500 Maori turned into a full-scale battle with police. The protest group Te Kawariki explained their grievances:

The recent deals struck by Maori leaders have done nothing to reverse that trend, and in fact those deals have been disasterous for all future generations of Maori people. These so-called leaders must be sidelined, and ALL Maori given a chance to have a say in determining what our destiny will be…We were conned by false Maori leaders into thinking we were on the road to success. We were told that Maori were ‘coming out of grievance mode and into development mode.’ We were touted as the ‘New Corporate Warriors’. Maori graced the covers of all the ‘right’ [wing] magazines…It seemed that after 150 years of oppression, we’d finally made it. Unfortunately, for Maori people, all the promises, all the hype, turned out to be a load of BULLSHIT!!!…There are Maori for whom cutting a deal with the Crown has been a sweet little number. These people are traitors and sellouts. They sold the Sealords Deal to our people, and picked up a cool million bucks for their treachery…As we prepare to fight against the Crown Proposals, we must also exposethe treachery within our own ranks.29

Whanganui Maori occupied Moutoa Gardens in Wanganui for 79 days in early 1995. They renamed it Pakatoire, after the site of a Maori pa that was located in the gardens. Pakatoire had been a disputed site between local Maori and the state since 1887, especially over control of fishing rights in the Whanganui River. This occupation “was to emerge as the Bastion Point of the 1990s and represented the single largest collective act of ‘civil disobedience’ since the anti-Springbok Tour protests of 1981.”30

The occupation involved thousands of Maori from all walks of life – church groups, gang members, trade unionists, as well as Pakeha sympathisers. Evan Poata-Smith paints a picture of the hive of self-activity during the occupation:

The gardens resembled a motor camp with tents and caravans set in place, with work crews responsible for different tasks throughout the day. Cooks prepared meals for a steady stream of visitors who arrived to give their support to the tangata whenua. A makeshift kitchen was constructed and the dining room was able to hold up to 150 people a sitting. Rented ablution facilities were placed at one end of the gardens and electricity was supplied with a generator. Security surrounding the gardens was tight [there was the constant threat of forcible removal by the police, as well as constant police harassment] with people rostered on shifts throughout the day and night. There were people stationed at every entrance and corner of the gardens.31

Hundreds of people visited the occupation. Far from being “separatist”, the occupation was open to the public.32 When the Wanganui District Council, who formally “owned” the gardens, gave the occupiers a deadline to leave, numbers swelled from 150 to 2000. A festive atmosphere ensued on the day of the deadline. Occupiers organised an impromptu concert and sung waiata until the deadline past.33 The result was that the Council decided not to force the eviction, and entered a process of negotiation. Numbers of occupiers declined. The Council then acquired a court order requiring the occupiers to remove all the buildings they had erected and leave the site. On 18 May 1995, almost three weeks after the failed attempt at eviction, protesters voluntarily left the site “saying they did so reluctantly but in preference to being moved on by the police.”34

The occupation of Pakaitore triggered a series of occupations by Maori in the North Island. By April 1995, there were six major occupations in progress. Many Maori saw that the legalistic framework set up in the 1980s for treaty grievances was not delivering any real benefits to working class Maori and hence took direct action. There were occupations of schools, Marae, courthouses, farmland, railway yards, airports, and even the site of the Taumaranui police station. The police evicted protesters from some of these occupations, resulting in dozens of arrests. The 25-week occupation of the former Takahue School near Kaitaia in 1995 resulted in the occupiers burning the school down after police moved in to evict them. Children set alight tyres that had been stockpiled outside the school. Sixteen arrests resulted. As well, some more novel forms of autonomy were established, with the Tuhoe tribe setting up their own embassy at Tanetua in the East Cape of the North Island, and issuing property owners with eviction notices.

Many of these occupations and protests led to direct and open conflict between Maori capitalists and working class Maori. For example, the occupations of Coalcorp land at Huntly and the Waikato University Marae were in direct opposition to the $170 million Raupatu settlement between the state and the Tainui Trust Board. Iwi were transformed into corporate bodies (such as the Tainui Trust Board for the Tainui tribes) to manage settlement assets and negotiate with the government, but everyday Maori were excluded from having a say in these boards. They claimed they were not being “represented” by the corporate bodies, but being “sold out” by them. Maori were placed under intense pressure by capital and the state to choose commodified forms of iwi. Hence while corporate warriors were (and are) in control of corporate iwi, these new governance structures are also largely shaped by the Office of Treaty Settlements. As such, corporate iwi ought to be seen as the creation of capital and the state.

Working class Maori often occupied land in direct protest against proposed settlements between their local corporate iwi and the state. Their protest was directed at their own capitalists as well as the state. For them, the hapu (which can be loosely translated as sub-tribe) and not the neo-tribal capitalist elite was the legitimate kaitiaki (guardians) of the land.35

Rata has called this new Maori capitalism created by treaty settlements a “neotribal capitalist regime of accumulation.”36 This regime centres on the transformation of tribes into capitalist enterprises, and the creation of a new tribal based capitalist elite. This elite emerged in the treaty negotiation process of the 1980s and 1990s: namely, those Maori lawyers, leaders, and bureaucrats who used their privileged positions to become the chief executive officers of neotribal capitalism. Yet Maori iwi as a whole were guaranteed access to their traditional resources, fisheries, land and so on under the Treaty of Waitangi. Under neotribal capitalism, this access to what paltry resources have been returned to Maori is effectively exclusively controlled by the new tribal capitalist elite. Even if ownership of resources is nominally owned by the whole tribe (the corporate tribe, and not an individual, is the legal owner), and even if iwi members have a shareholding in the business, the undemocratic nature of neotribal capitalist business ensures that working class iwi do not have any real say in the corporate iwi head office.

The link between economic development and wealth accumulation meant that economic development could not occur without commodity production, and commodity circulation must occur within the capitalist sphere of accumulative exchange. Commodification, with its intrinsic split between buyers and sellers of labour-power in the creation of surplus value (i.e., of wealth that can be used as capitalist investment), means class exploitative relations and not communal relations [prevail], despite the existence of communal ownership of the means of production. 37

Such a claim is somewhat debatable as the means of production is effectively owned and controlled by tribal capitalists.

Initially, many working class Maori supported neotribal capitalism because they saw it as a means to economic independence, a route out of poverty, and the basis for a revival in Maori society in general. Yet overall neotribal capitalism has amounted to a new dispossession of working class Maori. “The neotraditionalist ideology of communal kinship relations, originating in the pan-Maori ethnificiation and indigenisation movements of the 1970s and 1980s, has become the means of access and privileged relationship to traditional lands, waters and knowledge by particular groups of retribalised Maori…Communal relations of families and kin-based communities revived within the prefigurative movements are conceptualised as ‘softening’ and humanising counters to the dehumanising class relations.”38 As well, detribalised Maori, who make up the majority of the Maori population and are primarily concentrated in working class urban areas, have been excluded from corporate iwi.

Class relations within tribes are concealed by an ideology of a revived Maori culture and community. Working class Maori are encouraged to identify with their tribe as a whole, overlooking exploitative class relations within their own tribe. Thus working class Maori are encouraged to identify culturally with Maori capitalists. Maori capitalists can falsely claim that working class Maori resisting their business are resisting traditional Maori society and culture. However, many working class Maori, especially in rural areas, use Maori culture as a card to undermine capitalist Maori who they see as having ‘colonised thinking’. Corporatism is often associated with ‘Pakeha colonised’ thinking and therefore as ‘bad’. In that respect, Maori culture is used by both capitalist and working class Maori. Capitalist Maori use it to mask their own privileged position within tribes, and working class Maori use it to criticise capitalist Maori.

Corporate iwi claim to be the legitimate inheritors of the traditional iwi that were dispossessed by the English state since 1840. This is highly questionable, as traditional iwi were not corporate in structure. In fact, they practised some aspects of anti-state communism. For example, traditional iwi had a moneyless gift economy and communal ownership of property; however, early Maori society was still some form of class society, complete with chiefs, commoners, and slaves. Perhaps this hierarchy within Maori society meant it was easier for the Pakeha elite to co-opt Maori leaders in the 1980s and 1990s.

By the late 1990s, the occupation movement had largely died down, although disgruntlement and a number of occupations directed against the state and sometimes the new Maori capitalists continues to this day. Militant Maori had become isolated and temporarily defeated. Protest against neotribal capitalism became increasingly difficult as it was so personalised, as often working class Maori opposed Maori capitalists within their own extended family. Yet the massive Hikoi of May 2004 against the privatisation and commodification of the seabed and foreshore, attended by 20 000 to 30 000 people, even more than the land march of 1975, shows that working class Maori resistance is alive and kicking.

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