Stephanie Lawson wrote in the introduction to her 1996 book ‘Tradition versus Democracy in the South Pacific’ that many scholars have criticised the way in which “the invention of tradition” has been used to legitimate certain forms of political authority. Lawson’s book examined Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, but does the same ring true in New Zealand? it certainly looks that way when Maori Party co-leader and minister of Maori Affiars Pita Sharples tells a Maori economic workshop, as he did yesterday, that Maori are in better shape to face a recession, because they have the “Maori edge” and that “A tradition as explorers and entrepreneurs enables Maori to develop their growing asset base in innovative ways,”
The claim of an entrepreneurial tradition is not entirely without basis, some Maori have been entrepreneurs from the early days of European settlement in New Zealand, as has been noted by historian James Belich. However in the subsistence farming society of pre-colonised New Zealand, the concept of ‘entrepreneurialism’ would be unheard of. Today, Maori are disproportionately part of the working class, making it interesting that Sharples advocates ‘entrepreneurialism’ as a method for dealing with the recession, rather than collective organising and industrial action in support of better pay. Its not that surprising however, given the Maori Party attacked the organised labour movement before last years election.
The Maori Party continues to prove itself as representing the small layer of Maori elite and the Maori middle class, when it needs support from workers it can invent a tradition which supports the political and economic interests of the class it represents, along with the invented cultural trait of the “Maori edge” (whatever that means). When Maori Party member Amokura Panoho said last year that “Maori workers have a history of being pawns in someone else’s political agenda” one wonders how many people detected a hint of irony.