Weathering Catastrophe: Writers’ Week panel discussion

This Writers’ Week panel discussion, recorded and aired on Radio New Zealand, centres around Simon Winchester’s book Pacific: The Ocean of the Future. Radio New Zealand International journalist Koroi Hawkins and academic Pala Molisa discuss the environmental, legal, political and practical issues related to how we in Aotearoa currently respond to natural catastrophes around the Pacific Rim. RNZ National’s Lynn Freeman chairs.

Waitangi Alert

 

Here is the audio of this talk given by Pala Molisa at the Waitangi Alert protest stand on the Wellington waterfront, February 6.

 

Kia ora koutou, ni sa bula vinaka, talofa lava, halo olgeta, Fakalofalahi atu.

I want to speak today about colonisation in the Pacific. I want to do so as an indigenous person of the Pacific, but I also want to acknowledge the significance of the date today – February 6, where we mark the Treaty between the New Zealand crown and the tangata whenua of Aotearoa. I want to acknowledge the iwi of Petone, the iwi of this rohe, te Atiawa, Ngati Toa. And I also want to acknowledge the bro, Te Kupu – it’s really important to organise initiatives like Waitangi Alert, for the simple fact that there have been a lot of nationalistic myths that have grown up around Waitangi about te Tiriti, and these are the myths that have passed down through our schooling system.

When I came out here in 1993 I went to Nelson College, and going through all the social studies, the history courses at secondary school, it’s an extremely sanitised version of New Zealand history and Pacific history. In fact we do not learn about Pacific history at all in secondary schools. We do not learn about colonial history particularly, from the point of view of indigenous peoples of the Pacific.

We learn history as told through the dominant viewpoint of Pakeha society, and we learn about colonisation being essentially a benign process, a process that is fraught with certain problems, but from a cost-benefit point of view, it washes out as fairly benign because it established a state that’s built on biculturalism, on an agreement between Maori and the European crown. That’s what we get taught at school.

From an educational standpoint though, it’s always really important to question dominant narratives. It’s not really a true education if you get told a certain view of history and you are not given the tools to question the underlying values that that narrative is based on and also the underlying viewpoints. There are different ways of interpreting history, and a properly critical educational experience has to expose students to these multiple perspectives. And we do not get that at school. We do not get that at secondary school, we do not even get that in tertiary education, unless of course you are lucky enough to come across an exceptional teacher who takes the liberal arts and the ethos of the humanities seriously. These are all about critical thinking, critical analysis and exposure to different perspectives.

The same thing should be said for Waitangi. If you look at the dominant narrative of Waitangi it actually provides a view of te Tiriti and the Treaty as two documents: one written in English, one written in Maori, but essentially the same thing. With certain contradictions, but contradictions that can be reconciled through what they call – in jurisprudential discourse – Treaty principles.

What I’d like to suggest today is that idea that you can actually balance or reconcile these two documents through mechanisms such as the Treaty principles, is fundamentally misguided. Because if you look at the text of te Tiriti, the one in Maori, it actually incorporates, recognises and affirms – like the 1835 Declaration of Independence – it affirms certain values and principles grounded in tikanga Maori that are fundamentally irreconcilable to anything in the Treaty.

That is something that really doesn’t come out in our schooling systems, in our mainstream media, and also in national political discourse. I’m talking here about the language politicians use in parliament, generally speaking.

If you look at te Tiriti – like the 1835 Declaration of Independence – it affirms tino rangatiratanga of Maori. Whereas if you look at the dominant narrative in mainstream media and political discourse, the idea is that Maori gave up sovereignty to the New Zealand state. The English crown, at the time.

You cannot actually square those two key contradictions. If you think about the social, economic, political and cultural effects of that, it has had incredibly detrimental effects for Maori. Losing at least 97% of the land – but not just that. If you look at all our contemporary statistics around social wellbeing – from health, from poverty, unemployment, vagrancy and so forth – the effects of that colonisation and disposession still plays out today and it is fundamentally justified by this dominant narrative.

One of the other things that mainstream political discourse tries to sell us especially on days like this, Waitangi Day, is this idea that colonisation is a thing of the past, and it’s something that we need to get over, put behind us and almost forget – because we need to move on, and we need to build a unified New Zealand. And of course there are connotations here, with Don Brash’s speech back in Orewa – where he calls for a “One Nation, One People”. And you hear echoes of that too, with successive governments leading up to the present, where they really try to push this idea of “One Nation, One People”.

There’s nothing wrong with that – but if we are to build a culture that is founded on unity, that can only be done if we actually face up to and are able to honestly confront some of the ongoing realities of colonisation today. That’s another thing I’d like to suggest: that colonisation is still an ever-present reality. You can see that manifesting itself in many different ways. Colonisation isn’t just a process of outright genocide, land dispossession and the destruction of economic, cultural and political institutions of indigenous peoples – it is also a process of sanitising history and of presenting to people ways of understanding the world that actually overlook a lot of the mechanisms of colonisation today.

Te Kupu referred to the TPPA before, which if you boil it down to some of its basic elements, it is fundamentally one of the biggest corporate power grabs in global history. But of course the New Zealand government is passing it off as a necessary trade deal in order for us to remain competitive in a globalised world. Of course what they never mention in their own rhetoric is the fact that globalisation is about a race to the bottom. It is about cost-cutting, reducing wages in order to attract foreign investment, and now through the TPPA it is all about trying to protect the financial interests of multinational foreign corporations.

And they are trying to also put into place mechanisms where they can start to privatise, and start to get at, a lot of the money that’s come out from the blood, sweat and tears of Kiwis, of Kiwi workers to build up the public infrastructure of New Zealand. Education, healthcare, for instance – all these are worth billions of dollars, and foreign corporations are very interested in getting their hands on it.

Ever since the 1970s economic depression, we’ve had successive waves in shorter and shorter cycles of boom-and-bust markets, and each time companies are faced with profitability crises. And what they’re trying to do now is to liquidate the money, the wealth, the social wealth that is tied up in public infrastructure. So we are seeing the cannibalisation of the very public goods, the public institutions, that make liberal democracy possible.

That is only one of the most recent examples of colonisation – the taking over of public goods, the assimilation and destruction of indigenous lifeworlds. There are connections here that we need to begin calling attention to.

If we also think about the wider Pacific, perhaps the most egregious human rights disaster is the genocide that is going on in our own backyard in the Pacific – it’s the genocide that’s going on in West Papua. West Papua is a country that is occupied by Indonesia, and has been occupied by Indonesia since the 1960s when the Dutch government passed off West Papua to the United Nations, and the U.S. used its political and economic clout to convince the U.N. to give Indonesia a mandate to provide a referendum to West Papuans to see whether they wanted independence or to amalgamate, cede sovereignty and become part of Indonesia. They call that the “Act of Free Choice”.

That was supposed to be a referendum that was put to all West Papuans, 1 million people. What actually happened was the Indonesian government scrapped that idea – their idea of so-called “Free Choice” was to round up about 1,000 West Papuan representatives, who were supposedly representing all the other West Papuans from the communities they came from, and under gunpoint they were told to vote to amalgamate with Indonesia – if not they and their families would face military retribution.

So under gunpoint, those West Papuan delegates voted to become part of Indonesia and that was called the “Act of Free Choice.” Ever since then, and even beforehand, West Papua has had a never-ending independence struggle and an independence movement. Fighting for independence. But the reason why Indonesia was so interested in keeping West Papua – West Papua is part of the same land mass that Papua New Guinea is on.

We never learn about West Papua in high school or in tertiary education. But from U.N. reports, anywhere from 350 to 600,000 West Papuans have been murdered – slaughtered, ever since Indonesian occupation began. And it is an ongoing genocide. It is the Palestine of the Pacific. And I say it is the Palestine of the Pacific because alongside the continuous military repression – you can’t talk, you can’t speak in your indigenous tongues in West Papua without fear of reprisal, you can’t fly the West Papuan colours of independence without fear of military reprisal. That is something you can’t talk, you can’t speak, and you can’t think about in West Papua under this Indonesian occupation that is going on.

You also don’t hear about it in the New Zealand media and in the Australian media, because there are huge economic interests tied up with West Papua. West Papua is one of the most mineralogically rich areas of the Pacific. It is the Africa of the Pacific in that sense. Freeport, which is a U.S. multinational company, has the biggest goldmine in West Papua, and like Papua New Guinea itself, West Papua has so many other resources in the ground. That is why all these countries are there, and it is also why the New Zealand government and New Zealand companies do not want to speak out about West Papua. Fonterra alone has something like $300 million dollars worth of exports to Indonesia, and hence that is why in mainstream media in New Zealand, you will never hear about West Papua.

But West Papua suffers the most destructive processes of colonisation going on at the moment in the region, and I think one of the challenges we face today – and I think it is good to raise this on a day like Waitangi – is to start to connect movements that are fighting for decolonisation here in Aotearoa – with movements throughout the Pacific. Especially in a time like this, when we face not just one or two forms of social and ecological crisis, must multiple cascading crises, across the board. Climate change has been in the media, and it’s taking up most of the global discussion when it comes to environmental discussions, but all these things are linked.

The deepening inequality that we’ve had over the last 30 to 40 years, climate crises, the pollution that we’re seeing in the environment, the relentless topsoil loss, all that is an outgrowth of a system, an economic system that is predicated on relentless growth. I’m talking here about our global capitalist system.

You know, these are very simple truths. If you have a system that will collapse and convulse if it doesn’t meet the market imperative for a certain rate of growth each year, it is a system that has to continually expand on a compound scale in order to simply be self-sustaining. But of course, on a finite planet, you cannot have an infinitely expanding, materially expanding, system. That’s akin more to something like a cancer, rather than a healthy social system in line with ecological imperatives and ecological demands.

But of course again, you do not learn these simple truths in tertiary education, because we teach more to fit our students to be part of the system, to conform to the system, rather than equip them to be critical thinkers that can question the fundamental values and assumptions that their own disciplines are based on, and that the institutions that they are going to be manning when they leave our schooling system, to be able to question those as well. These are simple questions around power, around inequality, around exploitation.

Again, crises like the one that the people of West Papua are facing – these are connections that we need to make between what is going on further out in the region, and what is going on here in Aotearoa.

A big thank you again to Te Kupu, and the whanau who put this on, it’s such an important kaupapa to support. I’m really proud and honoured to be part of it. I also want to acknowledge all the other kaupapa around Waitangi today, tino rangatiratanga, and all our colonisation movements.

Tank yiu tumas, Papua Merdeka, and kia ora.