I almost didn’t post about this, because everyone’s talking about it and surely everything I could come up with will have been covered off most thoroughly by other, wiser writers. But I decided I would anyway, to add my small gust to the storm of disapproval. And because once I’ve written about it I can stop thinking about it.
Breakfast TV panderer Paul Henry dug gleefully into the mire yesterday morning, with comments amounting to a claim that a major public figure wasn’t a proper New Zealander because he didn’t have the right colour skin or an appropriate name.
Henry has a history of provocation, and the line has always been “he says what people are thinking”. Previously he’s caused fury by ridiculing a female guest for her facial hair, calling Susan Boyle “retarded”, and saying that homosexuals are unnatural. This, however, is a whole new level of controversy, as Henry and TVNZ are belatedly realizing.
Henry has waded deep into an argument about what it means to be a New Zealander; it’s something that has been bubbling under in this country for years now, pretty much since our immigration laws relaxed in the late 80s. You see it in the fierce opposition to “special treatment” for Maori; you see it in the eyeroll-inducing campaign to nullify the census ethnicity question by writing in “New Zealander”; you see it in the rough treatment meted out to Asian immigrants. We are becoming a more diverse people, and the Pakeha majority isn’t entirely sure what it thinks about that.
But, while there is anxiety and argument, the public discourse has very clearly settled on criteria for being a New Zealander that is not about skin colour or the number of syllables in your surname. There is argument about whether a proper New Zealander is one who supports the NZ cricket team over that of their own country; about whether a proper New Zealander needs to be fluent in English; about whether a proper New Zealander can wear the hijab. There is no argument about whether you can be a New Zealander if you’re Nigerian, or Japanese, or Fijian-Indian. New Zealandness is open to everyone.
Paul Henry’s comments reveal a nasty truth: that for many people, this isn’t true. New Zealandness isn’t open to everyone. Public discourse positions New Zealandness as behavioural, and therefore egalitarian and in tune with our national mythology. Unrepresented in the public discourse is the sense of fear and resistance to a diverse New Zealand, to an increasingly multi-coloured population, to racial difference. These sentiments are not suitable for public forums, and are kept out of sight. Henry has voiced the unvoiceable, casting a shadow over the entire discussion about multicultural New Zealand. Is it really about sports team loyalty and headscarves? Or is it truthfully about skin colour?
The comeback on this will come from both sides of the political aisle, quite simply because there is no party in NZ parliament that is aligned with racism. (At the moment.) National and ACT, our right-wing voices, are both clearly supportive of diversity, and have both made significant efforts to involve ethnic communities in their activities, National with quite some success. Their views don’t allow for “special treatment” and so forth, but they are quite clear that the door is open to people of any colour with whatever funny-sounding surnames they like.
There is, however, a substantial rump of Kiwis who will nod along with Paul Henry, who will agree wholeheartedly with the initial TVNZ spin line of “Paul just says what we are all thinking”. (And I hope there’s some thunder and lightning in the corridors of TVNZ, sterilising the place of that horrid suggestion.) They are a concern. They are feeling left behind in a changing nation, and resentful of their shrinking space in the public discourse. Perhaps this furore might provide an opportunity to address them, to dig into what is driving their reflexive resistance, and find a way to communicate better about what New Zealand is becoming and how much, much more is gained than can possibly be lost. (The equivalent rump in the U.S. was captured by demagoguery to become the raging tea party movement – that couldn’t happen here, but the emotions at work are the same.)
To address this unpleasantness would take leadership. And so I turn to the real scandal here, that of our Prime Minister John Key grinning and shrugging off Henry’s comments as if they were a mildly off-colour joke. Even now Key refuses to condemn Henry. That is what makes me furious – not Henry’s comments and his smug non-apologies, which are par for the course for a media personality employed to be controversial and earning massive popularity as a result. Henry is there to say awful things. But John Key should be there to lead, to take hold of a situation and stand up for the fundamental principles of our nationhood. Instead he folded and enabled. This is not what we should expect from a Prime Minister. Aunty Helen would have torn out Henry’s beating heart and incinerated it with lasers from her eyes. (Of course, Key’s current counterpart Phil Goff has been utterly useless even in opposition.)
So I’m pleased to see at least a little bit of heat directed at Key over this. But, frankly, there should be more. Key deserves a rebuke from New Zealand, from his supporters as well as his foes. He should be held to a higher standard.