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NZ race relations provide clearer picture for Australia's Voice denial

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New Zealand's A.C.T. Party leader, David Seymour (Screenshot via YouTube)

The inflaming of race relations in New Zealand provides a basis for repudiating the “No” case made against The Voice, writes Mark Christensen.

YOU DON’T HAVE to be a fan of The Matrix to appreciate that things aren’t always what they seem. For example, the Voice Referendum was, on the surface, about altering the Australian Constitution to create a body to represent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. But it also had a deeper purpose, the irony of which is difficult to spot.

A look across the ditch can help explain this.

With a more progressive framework in place, it’s been the new centre-Right Coalition Government stirring up race relations in Aotearoa. One of the junior parties, the A.C.T. Party, has promised to review the principles that guide how the Treaty of Waitangi is honoured. Squabbles over what was or wasn’t agreed between Māori and the British in 1840 have already begun to break out.

The real issue, however, is the big picture, something on which Joe Williams, the first Māori to sit on the Supreme Court bench, commented in 2020.

The Pākehā – or White – worldview presumes the relationship between human beings and nature can be expressed as individual property rights, that our well-being can be contracted for and controlled through black-letter law.

This is not how Māori and Indigenous Australians approach the world. While tikanga, said Williams, respects the “dignity and autonomy of the individual”, life only makes sense for Māori when part of a community. Meaning and purpose come from whanaungatanga, the law of kinship that can extend to both physical and spiritual reality, to what is knowable to reason and what is not.

The author and psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist has made similar observations based on the human brain. At the 2022 World Summit AI, he set out the key features of each hemisphere.

The left side deals in:

‘... what is familiar, certain, static, explicit, abstract, decontextualised, disembodied, categorised, general in nature and reduced to its parts. All is predictable and controlled.’

Its goal is power.

The right side, on the other hand, is concerned with ‘experience itself’.

It provides an imaginative understanding, in touch with:

‘...all that is, and must remain implicit: humour, poetry, art, narrative, music, the sacred, indeed everything we love.’

Western civilisation is, in effect, built on a prolonged juggling act between the two.

Imagine, if you will, being at the Council of Nicaea in 325. The church, holding exclusive marketing rights to what it believes is the world’s one true saviour, is asked by Emperor Constantine to develop a consistent Christian creed and canon.

Jesus was clearly a right-hemisphere kind of guy. A storyteller who operated in the present, he dismissed the ultimate importance of earthly power, in part because man is too limited in what he can know and control. The sensible option is to love one another unconditionally.

Alas, such an ethos didn’t sit well with the grand plan for universal salvation. Organised progress couldn’t rely on narrative or myth. The mission required an authoritative system with explicit, rules-based requirements to redeem the human race.

Western colonialism, whether under a religious or secular banner, is the product of the left brain.

As McGilchrist notes, after a period of fruitful harmony between the hemispheres during the Renaissance:

‘... our civilisation has, since the Enlightenment, moved further and further to the left, drunk on the belief that it knows everything and can fix everything.’

Furthermore, absent the reminders that used to ‘alert us to the inadequacy of our reductionist theories’, we are now at serious risk of sleepwalking into the abyss.

While it’s true the old fetters on hubris are no longer effective, there are new warning signs that it’s time to let go of the Matrix and its ‘left-hemisphere mechanisms: bureaucracy, micro-management and strangulation by systems’. They go unheeded or are misread because they’re, of necessity, tacit and circuitous, too subtle for many Pākehā, especially uptight culture war warriors who always need to win the argument.

At the Waitangi Day ceremony earlier this year, A.C.T. leader David Seymour invited New Zealanders to engage in a battle of ideas. It’s about the thought, not the person.

But what if the mana of life is, in the end, an organic experience that transcends all categories of thought? Why go on debating when the “answer” is something holistic and qualitative that must be lived in the here and now as a spiritual connection between individuals?

Partway through his address, a group at the treaty grounds, trying to communicate indirectly with his neglected right hemisphere, broke into song.

“You can sing,” responded the pathologically combative Seymour, “but you’re not going to beat an idea.”

New Zealand First, the other minor party in the National-led coalition, suffers from a similar failure of the imagination.

Cabinet Minister Shane Jones recently told a journalist that “with the creation of the Treaty there was the fusion of two traditions”. This is fanciful.

Being Pākehā isn’t about skin colour, it’s an attitude, one marked by at-any-cost resistance to alternative ways of approaching life and the universe. Though now outwardly respectful of other cultures, the West nevertheless remains committed, just as it was in 1840, to material progress, contract law and power.

A proper integration of traditions would call into question its defining quest to liberate humanity with abstract, one-size-fits-all solutions that are prone to render us soulless automata.

Māori and Indigenous Australians don’t see themselves as victims. Though it goes unstated, the real grievance concerns how White culture, ineradicably divisive, is driving us all into the abyss.

In refusing to relinquish left hemisphere superiority, Pākehā perpetuates race-based conflict, while its demythologising of reality belittles the spiritual knowledge, or mātauranga wairua, needed for genuine unity.

Joe Williams concluded that the influence of tikanga could be “civilising the more barbaric aspects of the individualisation of the Enlightenment”. While true enough, the final step that harmonises left and right, individual and collective, is a moral choice that can’t be made to happen ideologically through treaties or constitutions.

Per the Māori worldview, it’s dangerously ignorant to want to systematise the things we love and value, including equality.

Non-White cultures realise and accept, as McGilchrist states, that:

‘Only in encountering the uncontrollable do we experience the world in its depth and complexity and come fully alive.’

Ironically, this was the essence of the case made by conservatives against The Voice.

In the lead-up to the Referendum last year, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott claimed the proposal was a power grab that would add to the separatism and bureaucracy. While technically correct, he was unable to then go on and piece together the larger story being played out by those he supposed to be ignorant and self-serving.

As with many other Australians, Abbott couldn’t lighten up sufficiently to see the hidden intent. The Voice was always about reflecting back to Pākehā – in the form of a narrative, a song or dance rather than a political solution rooted in institutional power – the limitations and destructive effects of its own one-sided worldview.

Abbott, Seymour and Jones – along with the likes of Opposition Leader Peter Dutton – think they’ve popped a red pill and are now free of the Matrix. They haven’t and they aren’t. Their overbearing left hemisphere merely lets them believe what they want to believe.

All is not lost, however. The A.C.T. Party’s upcoming review is a fresh opportunity to awaken the sleepwalkers on both sides of the Tasman.


Mark Christensen has written on politics, culture, economics and religion for several outlets in Australia and online in the U.S.

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