I’d like to share a story. A surreal story bound up in necessary struggle about realities. I am reminded of educational philosopher Alison Jones (2007), who writes about the never-ending struggle-relationship between people; between Māori and Pākehā in particular:
“In ka whawhai tonu mātou we are engaged in a relationship. This has to be seen positively, given it is engagement; it is not dis-engagement. To struggle with another is to give active and proper attention to the other, to relate to the other. Even as an enemy you are hoariri or hoa whawhai – an angry ‘friend’: one with whom it is worth engaging, someone with who you have a relationship of struggle… Ake ake ake makes the engagement or relationship permanent; this must be like a marriage of some sort! (and not a divorce).” (original emphasis, p. 12).
Here’s my true story about my necessary and energised engagement with Don Brash, and about contradictory realities.
It was a Saturday morning in 2008. I had just arrived and checked in at the Wellington airport. I made my way to the departure lounge for a routine flight to Auckland. When I got through security I realised how packed it was with people! Then…
BOOM. There is Mr Don Brash, or Dr Brash. He was on his phone finishing up a call. A tall slender man, with a slight smile on his dial. He says goodbye to whoever he was talking to. I started to wonder to myself, “hmmmm, shall I do it?”. I do.
“Hi there Mr Brash… Ahhh… Let me introduce myself… My name is Alex Barnes [pre-marriage].” He was personable: “Well hello there, Alex.” Me: “Mr Brash, I’d just like to talk with you about your Orewa speech from a few years ago.”
I felt people’s ears prick up. The energy force changed. It was like people were thinking “
Oh no, this guy IS ACTUALLY DOING IT.” The space suddenly opened up. People scrambled from the left and right. I found myself up and close and intimate with “The Don”. It was strange, unnerving, yet full of possibilities. My heart was pounding. It was just me and him. I had seen and heard so much about Don Brash over the last 4 years. He was a caricature in my mind; not a real human being. In a weird way, I was star-struck. There was so much political juice flowing around this guy.
He responded to my plea to discuss the Orewa speech: “Why yes, of course”. Me: “Don, that speech was really unfortunate. As a young European New Zealander (I was in my mid 20s at this time, and choosing my words carefully), I was really disappointed with its content.” Don: “It certainly created some debate. I have no regrets, and stand by every word.”
At this point I just remember feeling so lonely at that departure gate. Time slowed right down. We retired from standing, and took up some seats.
Me: “No regrets? Really? I guess in my experience, the content of that speech doesn’t hold true. I work a lot with different Māori people on social and educational issues… And well… I don’t see them as having any special privileges. In fact I see the opposite. The vast majority of Māori I’ve worked with are doing their best to improve their situation, usually with very little material resources.” Don: “Hmmmm”.
We both looked out the window, together. There was a lull. This was a key point in the conversation, because I was so energised and obsessed with my line of argument. In fact, I can’t really remember what he said next. My mind goes kinda hazy; it was like me and Don were in a dream-world together. All I recall was that he responded, backing his position with a wall of sound, something to the effect of:
Don: “Special Maaarrriiii rights undermine our Democracy…. the Treaty is a grievance industry and it leads to racial segregation… Maaarrriiii are welfare dependent and receive special privileges; in the 21st Century we need one law for all…”
I came back to my own personal experience, and talked about how I’d seen so many Māori and non-Māori working hard to improve peoples lives in the 21st Century: that I had gained and learnt so much from my varied experiences with Māori. This had enabled me to understand myself better, and work more effectively to create peace. My main point was that the speech reminded me, and so many of my Māori and Pākehā friends and colleagues, about the ugly and fearful underbelly in New Zealand. The intent behind his speech, bringing us together via “one law for all” (subtext: a racist imposition of a monologic/monoculture over everything), actually created more division and anger within and amongst people. I said that this was another great example of people talking past each other; the result being a type of suffocating smog choking the airwaves, and limiting (in)sight. He rebutted and came back to his points. At this time the discussion risked becoming circular. Me talking, and not listening to him, and vice versa. I realised this. I changed tack, and asked about his own multi-ethnic family. He talked lovingly about his son’s dual European and Singaporian-Chinese heritage. Ironically his boy was actually in Singapore at that very time, learning more about that side of his family. We connected! We talked about how great that is: how knowing ones multiple cultural identities is important in a global world. I shared with him about learning Māori and becoming familiar with tikanga from a young age; how these multiple exposures meant I could (some of the time), walk in many cultural worlds. While not always easy, I was better off as a result. We agreed on that. Then came the call over the PA: “Kia ora. At this time we would like to invite all Gold Card and Koru members to board…” Don got up. I thanked him for his time. He thanked me. He went to the front of the line. I waited for the cattle-class to board. Oh the irony. My heart re-gained equilibrium. My mind became clear again. I smiled.
On reflection, I saw in Don a naive but human man. We were entangled in a struggle over truth, justice and reality. My reality is that I continue to be choked by the smog when I think about “the Orewa Speech”. Don’s people and my people live in different worlds. I am his permanent angry friend, and he mine. Yet, through the interminable tension, I got a glance at his humanity, and my own. I can only hope he had a similar experience. Ka whawhai tonu mātou, ake, ake, ake.