THE HIGH ROAD
Laura Tingle’s splendid survey of Australia and New Zealand covers a lot of ground. Usefully, she addresses the great mystery of the two former colonies – their differing treatment of their indigenous populations.
Why was a treaty a foundational moment in New Zealand as long ago as 1840, when even today the subject remains taboo in Australia? It is an issue so fraught with suppressed rage there is not a barbecue in the country that could not be stopped by the mere mention.
The Treaty of Waitangi not only recognised Māori sovereignty over their lands and waters, it was negotiated and drafted in the Māori language by Europeans who had taken the trouble to learn it.
In his classic work Pakeha Maori, Trevor Bentley records treaty debates that were “attended by more than 2000 Māori and sixty chiefs.” Acting as translators were some of the escaped convicts, deserters, whalers and adventurers who had found their way to New Zealand. One of them was Jacky Marmon – the son of Irish convicts in Sydney – who deserted the whaling ship Sally in 1817.
By the time he assumed his pivotal role at Waitangi, Marmon was not only acting as an interpreter for the chiefs but “vociferously opposed their signing the document,” writes Bentley. Marmon believed European colonisation “would degrade” the Māori. After some lengthy debate, they rejected his advice.
Laura Tingle accurately observes that for 135 years the treaty remained a mere bauble, routinely ignored as land-hungry settlers arrived in increasing numbers. But it remained in the national imagination. Every child learned about it. Unlike Australia’s shameful lack of curiosity about frontier violence, every Kiwi kid learned of the “Māori Wars” (later more neutrally reclassified as the “New Zealand Wars”) between settlers and the original inhabitants.
Tingle is right to observe that “New Zealand has embraced its indigenous culture over the past thirty years – and become both comfortable with and proud of it – in a way we have not.” This is clear in daily life.
When I returned to my old hometown of Christchurch in 2011 to cover the disastrous earthquake, it was striking how many city leaders used Māori concepts unselfconsciously to communicate with a largely Anglo-Celtic population.
Earthquake survivors were urged to look after their whānau – a concept of family much broader than the close blood relatives that still define the Australian ideal.
“Kia kaha,” people were encouraged. “Be strong.” It is telling that this Māori phrase became the touchstone for the city, both then and during the even more shocking mosque attacks in 2019.
Also telling was that in the hours and days after the mosque attacks, when Christchurch citizens came to lay flowers and pay their respects, I witnessed two spontaneous outbreaks of the haka – one from a group of senior school children, boys and girls. Laura Tingle makes note of it.
Australia has nothing to match it. The haka, best known to Australians as the ritual that precedes an All Blacks international rugby match, is used increasingly widely in New Zealand to release inexpressible emotion.
In 2015, at my old school, Christchurch Boys’ High, the head boy Jake Bailey delivered the end-of-year address from a wheelchair. Bailey, just seventeen, was afflicted with Burkitt’s non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a cancer so vigorous that in a matter of weeks he had gone from a fit young man to a shrunken figure, almost lost in his school blazer.
With great poise, he addressed the staff and his fellow pupils. He urged those who were leaving for the last time to “be gallant, be great, be gracious and be grateful.” As he finished, the boys in the hall launched into a haka. As the last sounds faded, Bailey mouthed, “Thank you,” and he was wheeled away. It is hard to do justice to the power of the moment.
I have seen the haka performed elsewhere, spontaneously, for a retiring headmaster and for fallen Kiwi soldiers. The latter lives on YouTube. You can see for yourself.
When I asked the man who led a haka outside Christchurch’s Al Noor Mosque why he had done it, he said he was throwing out mana to all those suffering from the massacre. Mana is another Māori concept that defies simple translation but which every New Zealander understands. In this case, through the haka, the people were projecting their own empathy, their spiritual power and strength, onto a shattered community.
“Māori culture,” as Laura Tingle notes, “is increasingly seen as New Zealand’s culture.”
For someone largely raised in New Zealand, but who has lived as an Australian for nearly forty years, I cannot help but lament our Australian impoverishment.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart says Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sovereignty “is a spiritual notion.” It goes on: “We believe this ancient sovereignty can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood.”
Given a chance, how could it not?
New Zealanders have long since abandoned the pernicious notion that there is nothing to be learned from Māori culture. Māori concepts pervade daily life. Australians, on the other hand, remain overwhelmingly closed to the interior world or practices of our sovereign elders. One notable exception, after the bushfire horrors of 2019–20, was the sudden interest in Aboriginal mosaic burning techniques as a means to limit the largest fires.
It is time for Australians to look east and learn from our strange-vowelled cousins. We are nearly 200 years behind them. Surely it is not too early to start.
Hugh Riminton is the national affairs editor at Network Ten and author of Minefields: A Life in the News Game. He lived in New Zealand between the ages of five and twenty-two.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 81, Getting to Zero.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY