Organisations and movements working for global justice in countries like Aotearoa New Zealand cannot talk of justice, democracy and liberation in a meaningful way until their starting point is the decolonisation of Indigenous Peoples and territories.

New Wave / Old Wave: Aotearoa New Zealand’s Colonial Continuum

by Aziz Choudry

“Colonisation is colonisation, whatever new name we may like to give to it. Globalisation, free market, neoliberalism, profitability, capitalism, it is all fundamentally about colonisation. The privatization agenda in this country did not start with the 1984 Labour government or the MAI or the GATT.” —Leonie Pihama (Te Atiawa, Ngati Mahanga), Maori academic and writer.

“Colonial leopards rarely change their spots. They just stalk their prey in different ways.” –Moana Jackson (Ngati Kahungunu, Ngati Porou), Maori lawyer and sovereignty advocate.

Like Canada, Australia, and the USA, Aotearoa New Zealand is a colonial settler state, based on invasion, dispossession and colonisation. Its past 18 years of free market fundamentalism must be understood in the context of an ongoing colonial occupation of Maori lands and resources on which the New Zealand nation-state is based.

The carefully crafted and maintained image of a clean, green, anti-nuclear, socially progressive Western democracy, enjoying model race relations, masks the genocide which has accompanied colonisation. Since the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, the British Crown and subsequently the New Zealand Parliament has denied Maori sovereignty. Introduced diseases, wars, dispossession and the profound disruption of Maori societies had threatened their very survival. In the late 19th century, Maori were pronounced a “dying race”, but now comprise around fifteen percent of the total population of under four million. Of the country’s 66 million acres, only around 3 million remain in Maori hands.

The Treaty, signed between Maori and Crown representatives, affirmed Maori tino rangatiratanga – their sovereign right of self-determination – and allowed Pakeha (European) settlers to govern their own. Auckland University academic and Maori commentator Ranginui Walker described the Treaty as the original immigration charter, any variation of which had to be renegotiated with Maori. Sovereignty was never ceded to the British Crown. Yet successive New Zealand governments have expediently interpreted the Treaty as a cession of Maori sovereignty.

While refusing to honour the Treaty, New Zealand governments have been much less reticent about making far-reaching binding commitments at international forums like the World Trade Organisation which lock in and further domestic neoliberal reforms, without consulting Maori or non-Maori.

The fact that New Zealand underwent the most radical free market reforms of any OECD country since the incoming (centre-left) Labour Government imposed “Rogernomics” on an unsuspecting population in 1984 adds another dimension to understanding the different manifestations of colonisation and resistance there.

Rogernomics – named after former Finance Minister Roger Douglas – included unilateral and rapid removal of virtually all restrictions on foreign investment, all import controls and most tariffs, floating the NZ dollar, an independent Reserve Bank with the sole objective to control inflation, extensive programmes of corporatisation and privatization and radical restructuring of the public sector. Tax cuts for the rich accompanied welfare cuts for the poor. The labour market was deregulated and trade unions decimated. The Economist praised New Zealand for “out-Thatchering Mrs Thatcher”. The weekly National Business Review likened the reforms to Pinochet’s Chile “without the gun”.

Between 1988-1993 New Zealand led the world in sales of state-owned assets, often at bargain basement prices, to overseas investors, mainly transnational corporations. Some NZ $14 billion (from a total $19 billion in asset sales from 1987-1999) was sold off during these years. Most of its productive, financial, energy, retail, transport, media and communications sectors are now in the hands of transnational corporations that have sucked huge profits out of the country. UNCTAD’s World Investment Report 2000 described New Zealand as the most transnationalised economy in the OECD.

While many non-indigenous people articulated a sense of loss of sovereignty and control over their destinies, for Maori this was nothing new. Many saw the commercialisation, privatization and deregulation process as yet another wave of colonisation, the further appropriation and commodification of their lands and resources. Prior to corporatisation and privatization, these had been stolen from them, only to become “public” or “state-owned” assets. Some of the strongest challenges to the economic reforms have come from Maori, through legal challenges, direct action and other methods. Many were outraged that now these assets were being bought and sold in a global marketplace, they were even further out of reach.

“Historically the same processes of commodification were used by Pakeha to access Maori land. This was achieved through the individualisation of Maori land titles i.e. to commodify or ‘package up’ what were collective or group held titles into individual holdings in order to facilitate their sale to Pakeha under Pakeha rules and custom”, explains Maori educationalist Graham Smith (Ngati Apa, Te Aitanga A Hauiti)

Like other Indigenous Peoples, Maori continue to be marginalized in their own lands. Contemporary health, education and employment statistics, arrest and imprisonment rates, speak of the impact of colonisation, racism and the imposition of an alien set of values and laws. Maori were disproportionately represented in the production, transport, equipment and labouring sectors which suffered the worst job losses during the economic reforms. Cuts to welfare hit Maori hard. Urban and rural poverty have spiralled upwards. While some Maori chose corporate paths and saw free market capitalism as a way to bypass the state, others have consistently been at the frontlines of resistance to neoliberal globalisation. Maori activists have often borne the brunt of highly politicised police and security intelligence agency surveillance and repression.

The parallels between the way in which Indigenous territories and resources have been colonised and expropriated are striking. The governments of Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the USA regularly share ideas with which to continue these processes, albeit couched in more sensitive, new age garb. For example, the New Zealand government attempt in 1994-1995 to settle all outstanding Treaty claims for a total of NZ $1 billion (the “fiscal envelope”) was modelled on US and Canadian policies. These cash for sovereignty deals were rejected by Maori up and down the country. Yet successive governments have pressured some iwi (tribal nations) into accepting “full and final” settlements which are essentially cut from the same cloth. Given their colonial mindset, it is hardly surprising that internationally, these governments are such ardent cheerleaders for neoliberalism.

Maori concerns about the GATT/WTO TRIPs (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights Agreement) regime and renewed threats to indigenous intellectual property have been widely expressed. With increasing pressures to harmonise intellectual property laws and growing commercial interest in traditional knowledge, Maori knowledge and native flora and fauna have already been targeted by transnational corporations. One Treaty claim lodged over native flora, fauna, traditional knowledge and intellectual property has enormous international significance. It is an assertion of sovereignty. And it is also a direct challenge to the corporations who are increasingly commodifying and privatising knowledge and biodiversity all around the world, helped by governments which are revamping their patent laws for their benefit, and the TRIPs agreement. Some of the most resolute and principled opposition to genetic engineering continues to come from Maori.

Moana Jackson wrote: “GATT is a direct denial of the rights of Maori as stated in the 1835 Declaration of Independence and as reaffirmed in the Treaty of Waitangi [and] is also a continuation of the ‘New’ Right policies of individuated colonisation.” In November 1994, the pan-tribal Maori Congress rejected the Crown’s ratification of GATT, exempting member tribes from its provisions. It criticised the Government for overstepping its Treaty responsibilities and democratic mandate by not seeking the public’s consent before signing.

Ngati Pikiao lawyer Annette Sykes challenged potential overseas investors and development bankers at a press conference held during the May 1995 Asian Development Bank’s annual meeting in Auckland: “It’s about time you sat down and talked to us because the present illegal government has no warrant to deal with resources, neither for the past, nor the present, and certainly not for the future.” Later that year the Commonwealth Heads of Government met in Auckland. 1995 was marked by an upsurge in Maori land occupations, which raised the issue of sovereignty in the context of the government’s unquestioning embrace of the global free market economy.

Graham Smith calls the Treaty a “structural impediment” to globalisation. Apologists for globalisation often talk about the need to remain attractive to foreign investors; to provide certainty and avoid “confusion” arising from the Treaty for actual or potential foreign investors. Under the provisions of free trade and investment agreements which New Zealand is signatory to, any preferences given to Maori under the Treaty may attract claims that it is a barrier to free trade and investment.

During the campaign against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), Maori challenged the government’s mandate to negotiate an agreement which would give foreign investors enforceable rights over resources and intellectual property which they were fighting to control. A hikoi (march) opposing the MAI gained support from Maori and non-Maori, while the agreement was roundly rejected at all seven hastily-organised official consultations with Maori which many condemned as a cosmetic afterthought. Maori Members of Parliament from across the different parties were openly critical of the substance of New Zealand’s commitments to the MAI and scathing of the way in which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade had treated Maori in relation to the agreement.

Maori resistance to neoliberal globalisation continued through 1999 when the New Zealand government chaired the APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) meetings. It has also focussed on bilateral trade and investment agreements such as the one signed between New Zealand and Singapore in late 2000.

In an August 2001 ZNet article (Bringing It All Back Home: Anti-Globalisation Activism Cannot Ignore Colonial Realities), I asked: “How can Indigenous Peoples be expected to validate, affirm or seek incorporation into national or international movements dominated by non-indigenous activists, organisations and agendas which are reluctant to address domestic issues of colonisation with the same vigour and commitment that they put into fighting transnational capital or the WTO?”

Maori have consistently challenged the supremacy and legitimacy of the colonial state. This is particularly important at a time when many “white progressive economic nationalists” in “anti-globalisation” movements advocate for retooling the nation state, democratic reforms, and greater state intervention in the economy as they frame the “problem” as corporate power and control and ignore the fundamentally colonial nature of the nation state and the rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Maori resistance to this latest wave of colonisation, and their insistent demands for self-determination serve as a warning that a mere reversion to a New Zealand version of social democracy based on invasion, injustice and dispossession – and denial – is not a sustainable or just alternative to the free market agenda.

Almost 20 years ago Cherokee scholar and activist Ward Churchill wrote: “If the liberation struggles of Native America are defeated while the left stands idly by debating “correct lines” and “social priorities,” a crucial opportunity to draw a line on the capitalist process in America will have been lost, perhaps forever”. I think the same is true in New Zealand.

While some non-Maori on the left in Aotearoa New Zealand have been engaged in solidarity and support work for Maori sovereignty, others have tended to frame discussion of Maori in a way which largely denies their rights to self-determination, and all but ignores the ongoing colonisation of Aotearoa. When I became involved in “anti-globalisation” campaigns as an anti-colonial activist I saw in the sense of betrayal and disempowerment among many non-Maori the potential for building broader support for Maori liberation and other independence struggles in the Pacific. Leaving aside the fundamental justice issue here, it seemed to me that the interests of the majority of non-Maori New Zealanders are more likely to coincide with the aspirations of Maori than with corporate capitalism.
Organisations and movements working for global justice in countries like Aotearoa New Zealand cannot talk of justice, democracy and liberation in a meaningful way until their starting point is the decolonisation of Indigenous Peoples and territories.

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