For most of the country Waitangi Day is a holiday that comes at the perfect time, when we are in denial about returning to work. The action at Waitangi itself has become theatre of the absurd. This year, TVNZ is footing the bill by paying Tame Iti’s expenses. The reasoning is sound if not the ethics: he is good box-office and great visual talent. And by making the news rather than just covering it, those extra ratings bring in more advertising so that we can see more quality television. And, like Shortland Street, it lifts the numbers of Maori on our screens.
Writing about the demise of The Bulletin I mentioned my surprise at how long the slogan “Australia for the White Man” had stayed underneath its masthead: until the early 1960s. Even now you could expect to hear that line expressed along with a belch somewhere west of Alice. Maybe not in an “Abo bar”, but to see it in the hip ’60s, in a magazine that was helping to bring civilisation to the white Australian? No wonder Robert Hughes, Barry Humphries and Germaine Greer were shooting through to London.
Poneke emailed to say that the official White Australia policy wasn’t abandoned until 1973, by prime minister Gough Whitlam, and pointed to his blog about this, which detailed the overt racism in New Zealand within living memory. One legendary example was how difficult it was for a Maori to get his hair cut in Pukekohe in the early 1960s.
By coincidence, I had just come across this incident in the back pages of NZ Truth. It was in June 1961, a year after 150,000 New Zealanders had signed the No Maoris No Tour petition. (The All Blacks went ahead and toured South Africa without any Maori players, but for the last time. In 1970 Maori were included but as "honorary whites": Danie Craven needed Sid Going at the box-office.)
Pukekohe, declared Truth, “is a town with a colour bar.” Maori comprised one in seven people of the 5700 citizens in the market-gardening town just south of Auckland. Indians and Chinese were a good proportion as well, but the colour bar applied only to Maori. If you had the misfortune to be the tangata whenua of Pukekohe:
You cannot sit upstairs at one of the local picture theatres. You can go to only two of the town’s half-dozen barbers with the certainty that you won’t be subject to the humiliation of being refused service. Even some beauty salons have refused Maori women admission.
One young Maori truck-driver from nearby Waiuku told me that he went to the pictures in Pukekohe with two pakeha mates.
His two mates were told they could go upstairs but that he would have to sit downstairs. This has happened to dozens of Maori people.
A couple of years earlier, the cinema distributed upstairs tickets to some “selected Maori”. They didn’t like being singled out for special treatment, so sat downstairs with their friends.
Until recently, reported Truth, Maori men had also been barred from one of the local hotel’s two bars, while Maori women could drink only in the section next to the hotel (and then only if their husbands brought them out their drinks). And another cinema had opened up, in which Maori were welcome to sit upstairs.
Pukekohe’s Maori leaders have done their best to fight the colour bar that rends their town. But the fight seems hopeless. The Maoris have pocketed their pride and resignedly accepted the discrimination …
But imagine the shock and humiliation of an out-of-town Maori passing through Pukekohe who stops for a haircut. He walks into a barbershop, sits down, picks up a magazine to wait his turn. Then someone tapes him on the shoulder and tells him: “They don’t cut Maoris’ hair here, mate.”
For all the mud the paper slung at Maori on other issues, racism towards them was one cause that Truth didn’t mind campaigning about. (I suppose it made up for the “pai gorry Hori” jokes they ran into the 1970s.)
In 1954 the paper reported that at least one of Rotorua’s four licensed hotels wouldn’t let Maori drink in the lounge bar. A Maori returned serviceman was their example. He entered the bar on crutches and was meeting a European friend and his wife. The two men hadn’t seen each other since the war, where the Maori had been injured fighting for King and country in the desert. The publican said Sorry: your friends can stay, but you’ll have to leave …
“Admittedly,” [said Truth, letting itself down somewhat] “there are Maoris in Rotorua still more suited to an indolent, generous and carefree life that Polynesians are natural heirs to.
The events at Waitangi may seem like posturing, on all sides, but it doesn’t take much digging to see why it’s a necessary annual ritual. Some may be promising – or threatening – that the Maori seats are about to become history. But history isn’t even history yet.
“Whether this gives any one race the right to discriminate against them or the thousands of others who are useful and sometimes talented citizens, is a question that should be very quickly answered by the conscience.”