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New Zealand Federation of Ethnic Councils

Issue date: 
Saturday, 15 November 1997
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

E nga mana tangata whenua, e nga reo, rau rangatira ma, tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.

Mr President, Your Worship the Mayor, Minister, other distinguished guests and visitors from near and far, ladies and gentlemen.

I greatly appreciate the opportunity to be with you this morning, for you are here to discuss one of the most important topics facing NewZealanders as we approach the 21st century. It is a topic that goes to the heart of our national identity.

As my fellow New Zealanders know, on 6 February 1840 at a place called Waitangi north of here, a Treaty was signed on the one part by Captain Hobson of the Royal Navy, on behalf of the Crown in the person of Queen Victoria, and on the other part by a number of Maori chiefs, with a great many more adding their names later. The Treaty has often been called the founding document of New Zealand, for it gave legitimacy to the British settlement that followed; and as well it created what is best described as a living partnership between the Maori people and those who were to come here in the years that lay ahead.

As the signatures were being affixed, Hobson, obviously using words supplied to him, said, in Maori, "He iwi tahi tatou", which is usually thought to mean "Now we are one people". But the meaning is more subtle than that. It is, rather, "Our peoples are joined together as one." Maori had not seen themselves as one people in any sense of nationhood, and there is no reason to think that they saw the newcomers any differently. Thus the concept of unity in diversity, the overarching theme of the Federation of Ethnic Councils, harks back to the beginnings of what became our nation.

Maori were able to accomplish their incredible feats of navigation because they were very skilled weavers and plaiters. And an appropriate image of what is meant by unity in diversity is the plaited rope, comprising many strands, each retaining its individual identity, but, bound together, achieving a strength that even exceeds the sum of the strength of all the individuals. The image can be taken a little further in the expression tui tui tuia, which is a binding together of two or more perhaps different objects for a definite functional purpose, such as a spar to a mast, or a head to an adze.

The plaited rope that is New Zealand society today has several major strands, but many others too, all giving strength and purpose to the whole. But the analogy of the plaited rope breaks down a little at this point, for its strands are all alike, whilst those of our society come in many shapes and many hues. The result of that is a unique national identity, in which two founding cultures, and many others that have come to meet us here in more recent times, are the inheritance of us all, to be appreciated and enjoyed by us all, and which cannot but enrich us all.

Sadly, this is a truth that many have still to learn. And rather tragically, some have a great deal to learn. Recently, the media reported several incidents of racist or cultural aggression. The sort of thing that happened cannot be too strongly condemned. There is no place for it, or for those who behave in this way, in New Zealand society. I am sure that almost all New Zealanders would agree with that, or at least in theory. I add that qualification because there was another very worrying aspect to at least one of these incidents. It is that there had been onlookers, and that they had simply looked, without offering any assistance, or even any objection, or any support for the victims. It's been said often enough that all that is needed for evil to triumph is for the good to do nothing. We have seen the terrible consequences of that truth more than enough in recent history. Wringing our hands will not do. Nor is "What could I do?" a valid excuse. It's an admission of abject failure.

One can only hope that we have all learnt something from these incidents; that there will no longer be mere onlookers, but supporters instead, people who do or say something, then and there. Physical intervention may be beyond us, but standing by in silent paralysis is not the only alternative. Speaking out on issues such as this, vigorously repudiating any form of racially- or culturally-motivated abuse or conduct, is very much the business of all New Zealanders.

But more than that is needed. We need not only know how to deal with visible manifestations of ignorance and prejudice, we need to address that ignorance and that prejudice. It is a essentially a matter of education and training, best dealt with at the stage in life when attitudes are formed. I must say how enormously encouraged, uplifted indeed, I have been as I have visited schools drawing on a multi-ethnic community, to see how the children accept each other for who and what they are. As in so many other ways, we can all learn much from the innocence of our children.

All too often we see and hear people emphasising the differences between New Zealand's peoples and cultures as if differences were undesirable; and we hear people talk about the friction that our cultural and ethnic diversity is somehow inevitably supposed to create. This sort of talk can only create disunity, whether through envy or fear or anger. And all thoughtful New Zealanders must oppose it at every opportunity.

For the truth is that human diversity does not necessarily create disunity or division. Rather, with tolerance, understanding and friendship, we can, in all our diversity, learn from each other, and in harmony stand together as one nation.

The truth is that we are human beings first, New Zealanders second and only then may we justifiably separate ourselves into ethnic groups, races or adherents to different creeds. Because it is also true that it is not only our common humanity that binds us together; there are values, virtues, that cross all cultural boundaries. All cultures share the instinct for justice. All cultures honour the virtues of trustworthiness, honesty, fair-mindedness, compassion, caring for those less fortunate, willingness to learn, humour and good nature C all those raw materials with which to construct a truly sound society.

Without doubt, it is a natural and a healthy thing, to be proud of our own inherited cultures. It is very important, for our own sakes, and for the nation's, that we should retain and cherish our own particular cultural identity. But our culture must not become a cocoon, in which we wrap ourselves to the exclusion of all about us. We must be willing and eager to share it; and equally willing and eager to understand and share the cultures of our fellow citizens. None of us has the right to claim any cultural superiority. And of course it adds no status or worth whatsoever to our own culture, to disparage, let alone to insult, the culture of others. No human being has ever truly grown in stature, by standing on his or her neighbour.

Here in New Zealand, we are singularly fortunate, for all of us are beneficiaries of more than one cultural inheritance. We have the unique inheritance of Maoridom, stretching back into the Pacific mists of time and legend. We have the inheritance of Europe which has come down to us from the earliest days of recorded history. To these two main streams have been added the mainly more recent contributions of our Pacific and Asian neighbours. When I say that, I am not falling into the trap of assuming, as many do, that all our people from Asia and the Pacific Islands are recent arrivals. Many have been here for several generations and are rather, and justifiably, put out when it is assumed otherwise. Their progenitors did tend to keep to themselves but later generations have entered every facet of New Zealand life, distinguishing themselves in the professions, the arts and in many other ways.

I want to acknowledge too, the way in which more recent comers to these shores have entered so fully into the life of their communities, giving full support to community activities and enterprises and setting their neighbours challenging examples of industry, commitment and sheer hard work, along with strong values of home and family life. Ours is a rich heritage indeed. We have so much to celebrate together.

And even if true understanding of this reality is slow to develop, it is clearly the responsibility of each of us, to at least acknowledge our neighbours' traditions and beliefs. That is a basic measure of respect. And by showing that respect, we ourselves benefit immensely; for we elevate ourselves when we extend friendship to all; not just to our relations and to our friends, but to our neighbours, even to strangers: even when they are not particularly understanding or courteous themselves. As is too tragically obvious these days, countries that live in perpetual, or even in recurring strife, never prosper, never can achieve true happiness for any of their people.

This Conference, the third annual conference of the New Zealand federation of Ethnic Councils, has as its theme "Setting the Course." It is a course that has its destination acceptance by all New Zealanders of the truths I have endeavoured to express. I have generalised. You will be specific, with some very distinguished speakers, and workshops concentrating on the wide variety of issues that we New Zealanders, tangata whenua, descendants of early settlers, and newcomers alike, must work through together if our nation is, in the words of our anthem, to be good and great.

I am sure this will be a most productive conference, and that you and those with whom you live and work will benefit greatly from your being here. I wish you well. But I am sure that the benefit will be much greater than an individual, personal one to you who are here. I would like to think that what is said and resolved here will be made known to a wide audience, that it will be given equal prominence with that other conference on aspects of the same topic, that has just been held in Welllington. For what is happening here is of equal importance to New Zealand.

May I leave with you another Maori saying, which takes up the theme with which I began, and which may well prove a summation of your time together. It is:

He kopu puta tahi, he taura whiri tatou;
Whiringa a nuku, whiringa a rangi, te whatia e.

Issue of one womb, we are a plaited rope,
plaited on earth, plaited in heaven, we will not be severed.

Kia ora tatou.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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