Tuesday, February 10, 2004


On the face of it, Don Brash's call for "equal rights for all" is uncontentious. Egalitarianism is one of the principles of our nation, and it's a good principle to aspire to.

But by ignoring the very real inequalities in health, education, and living standards that exist between Maori and Pakeha today, he turns it into nothing more than a sick joke.

Maori are grossly over-represented at the negative end of almost every statistic. Unemployment. Illiteracy. Life-expectancy. And as the Sunday Star-Times pointed out, it's not just about poverty - in many cases there seems to be a substantial difference between Maori and Pakeha of equivalent income. Race often serves as a proxy for need.

Fixing this requires targetted spending in the core areas of health and education. And we need to fix it, both on general welfarist grounds, and because the spirit of partnership underlying the Treaty demands it. Both reasons demand that Maori enjoy substantially the same life-chances as everyone else - Maori did not sign up to be an underclass, and we are not a society that wants one.

Such spending is of course unequal. So is a progressive tax system and targetting welfare benefits to the poor. We accept such inequalities on the basis that they primarily advantage the least-well-off in our society. So why the hue and cry over funding for disadvantaged Maori?

Brash is just the latest in a long tradition of beneficiaries of unequal status quos using egalitarian arguments to defend their advantages. But the sort of formal, legal equality that they espouse is about as useful as the formal, legal guarantees of human rights in the old Soviet constitution. There's an old line about the law, in its majestic equality, forbidding both rich and poor to sleep under bridges. That's exactly the sort of equality Brash wants to give us - the sort which allows both Pakeha and Maori to be poorer and die younger if they are brown.