Yesterday evening, over a magnificent dinner and in defiance of the common exhortation, several friends and I discussed politics and religion. Well, it was more like politics, the state of the environment and the issue of poverty, but a little religion did creep in at times. Despite some disagreement, we remain great friends (I hope!), proving that the common exhortation is wrong.
Much of the political discussion centred, of course, on the NZ Parliamentary election, which is to be held on 17 September. Sadly, there's a common expectation that the campaign will be ugly, and it's my fear that it may cause much, lasting damage. We've already seen Don Brash and his National Party tapping into a very unpleasant undercurrent of prejudice regarding “Maori privilege” and “the Treaty Grievance Industry”, thereby fostering those prejudices and, I suspect, leaving many (possibly most) Maori feeling victimised. I wish I could believe the approach was well-intentioned but sadly inept; however, a far more plausible analysis is to suppose it may have been initially well-intentioned but when it delivered significant results in the opinion polls, the focus changed to exploiting it to maximise political gain. What I'd like all political parties to remember is this: just because you know better than anyone else what's good for the country and how to deliver it, that does not mean you can employ any sort of political expediency to gain the power to exercise your superior abilities. Put simply: the end does not justify the means. Besides, you might be wrong (but that seems to be unthinkable for most politicians).
However, National's political expediency (or cynicism, if you're less charitable) seems petty compared to recent statements by the NZ First leader, Winston Peters. In an astonishing outburst (ironically titled "The End of Tolerance") he likened Islamic groups to “... the mythical Hydra – a serpent underbelly with multiple heads capable of striking at any time and in any direction” and accused the NZ Muslim community of being “...quick to show us their more moderate face, but [having] a militant underbelly here as well.” Typically, he refuses to disclose any details that might support his claim, and he's been well answered (more here...), but this sort of tirade can reinforce bigotry.
While this distresses me greatly, my hope is that the nett effect will be to encourage more people to demonstrate just how much we welcome people from other cultures. One of the great joys of my life recently has been the increasing contact I've had with others from overseas—for example, last Sunday I walked the Manawatu Gorge with a group of overseas students.
My role was to record the event in photographs, but it was hardly a job: there are few things I'd rather have done. We had people from 15 countries; from places like Bahrain and the USA, China and Malaysia, Chile and Indonesia, Nepal and Mexico and many others. As we walked through native forest and looked down at the river far below and shared lunches, I realised how much I was receiving from these wonderful people. The thought that some of them might be denied the experience and that I might also be denied it if Winston Peters had his way is simply too much to bear. Maybe, if he'd been with us and been open to sharing the experience, he'd think long and hard before delivering a speech like last Thursday's. It's a forlorn hope, though—I'm sure he'd think of me as just another of his “...Lilly [sic] livered liberal's [sic]...” Oh well, perhaps I'll just console myself by heading off to tonight's Aotearoa Environmental Film Festival, where I'll be meeting up with friends from all over the world—despite Winston's best attempts to deny me that privilege.
Photos and words copyright 2005 Pete McGregor