The death last week of New Zealand’s Maori Queen drew attention to a little-known aspect of the country’s indigenous culture, even among New Zealanders themselves. Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu wielded a subtle power within Maoridom that passed under the radar of the rest of the nation except on special ceremonial or political occasions, such as the settlement with the Crown (New Zealand’s ultimate head of state is still the British Queen) of a land claim on behalf of her own tribal group, the Tainui.
But no-one could miss the passing of Dame Te Ata. The official mourning and funeral rites of Te Arikinui were attended by tens of thousands of people — not only Maori — and drew an estimated half a million viewers (nearly a quarter of the whole population) to the daytime television coverage. A further 3300 watched it streamed live on the internet. One ex-pat wrote to TVNZ in gratitude for being able to "feel a real part of the emotion," and another wrote that she and her family were grateful for being able to cry along with everyone in New Zealand.
What we saw and heard, beyond tributes to a woman who was clearly loved and respected, was Maori ceremonial in all its traditional depth and expansiveness. For those who are only aware of the fearsome haka performed by the All Blacks before rugby games, it may come as a surprise to discover that Maori ritual is generally a subtle affair, with countless details of dress, speech and movement that require space and time to have their full impact. And, as with all cultures in their original form, it is a spiritual thing, always accompanied by karakia, or prayers, and reference to the sacred. It is the sense of a people reaching into the depths of their culture and individual selves that makes rituals like the funeral of the Maori Queen so moving and spine-tingling, so riveting, even on the small screen.
This all stands in sharp contrast with the generally secularist tenor of public life here. Indeed, while the funeral karakia were still echoing in our living rooms this week the Education Ministry indicated it would issue guidelines to state schools advising that prayers at school assembly are illegal since the Education Act stipulates that teaching in all primary and intermediate schools must be "entirely of a secular nature". The established practice of allowing Bible in Schools volunteers to run clubs, and any event with religious content — such as carol singing– must be fenced off from the official school day and offered only on an opt-in rather than opt-out basis, according to the latest edict.
This interpretation of the secular clause in the Education Act is, as you might guess, a recent thing. The original intent, 130 years ago, was to exclude competition between the Christian denominations, not to exclude all religious expression, which would have been unthinkable then. However, the Ministry informs us that the 1990 Bill of Rights Act — we don’t have a Bill of Rights as such, let alone a written constitution — has narrowed down the discretion available to school boards in this area. Just what one would expect of rights defined only 16 years ago.
But secularism is not as straightforward as it seems, thanks to the Maori. Since karakia are a standard part of Maori culture, and since Maori culture has assumed an important place in schools as in other institutions, the Ministry guidelines make an exception for Maori ritual, saying it should not be "fenced off" from mainstream school life just because it may contain "elements that are religious or spiritual or both, such as karakia". The fact is that, unless you understand the language, you cannot be sure whether karakia are being addressed to the gods of nature (and are thus "spiritual") or to the Christian God (and thus "religious"), but either way the Ministry boffins don’t seem to mind. Or didn’t, until reporters started quizzing them about the obvious double standard being applied, at which point the chief boffin stuck his neck and said, with a certain courage, that it would be inappropriate to deliver the Lord’s Prayer in any language. It will be interesting to see what finally comes of this diversion — provoked, we understand, by a handful of determined secularists.
If prayer in schools is forbidden, it is one of the few expressions of personal values or taste that is. Kiwis are as grown up and broad-minded as anyone in the Western world, we frequently hear and, as if to prove it, Dame Te Ata was barely under the sacred sod of Taupiri Mountain this week when a parade of topless prostitutes on motorbikes made its way down the main street of the main city, Auckland, at lunchtime, mid-week, to advertise an exhibition of pornography at the city showgrounds. The combined objections of hundreds of citizens, the mayor and most of his councillors were unable to prevent this porn being dumped on the city because the police said it was not illegal. And it was not illegal because, by today’s standards, it was not indecent, they said. A staff columnist for the city’s only daily paper, the New Zealand Herald, poured scorn on moral objections and opined that Auckland must relax about such things if it wants to be a "world class" city. I am perfectly certain that 90 per cent of my fellow citizens reject this puerile notion of class.
The incident is consistent, however, with the legalisation of prostitution three years ago — by just one vote, in a Parliament of 120 members. If the country’s only Muslim MP had not abstained from voting, it would have been a dead heat. That we are now in the company of "enlightened" nations such as the Dutch and the Germans is little consolation to ordinary Kiwis dismayed at the spread of these activities in residential areas. Two court appeals by local councils to curb it have failed, one has succeeded, and the matter is under parliamentary review.
Because of its early development of a welfare state, New Zealand long ago earned the reputation of being a "social laboratory", so it goes without saying that prostitution has been legalised only for the most rational and most compassionate reasons: it is held that a legal regime is safer and healthier for the women and everyone involved, and removal of the stigma of illegality will allow the sex workers to hold their heads up and demand good working conditions. The question of whether the "work" itself is good is considered beyond the competence of politicians.
A similar kind of thinking has pushed us to the front in the gay marriage movement. The Civil Union Act was passed in December 2004 by 65 to 55 votes, leading to homosexual and heterosexual de facto couples having the same rights as married couples. According to polls conducted before the move, a bare majority (around 56 per cent) of the public supported it. Afterwards, asked were they "happy or unhappy" with the way the law was "working", 46 per cent said they were happy, while 35.7 said they were not, and 18.1 per cent said they didn’t know or refused to comment.
One of the problems with democracy in New Zealand is the small size of the country. We are only 4.1 million people living on a couple of odd-shaped islands near the bottom of the world. We are a single jurisdiction with a single-chamber Parliament, and although we now have a form of proportional representation, it is still possible — as the above examples show — to push through legislation dictated by minority points of view. Traditional party loyalties and a peace-at-any-price attitude amongst many older Kiwis, combined with the "toleration of diversity" imbibed by the younger set from their earliest years in school, helps a certain type of progressivism to dominate. In Lord of the Rings terminology, made famous by Kiwi film-maker Peter Jackson, there seems to be "one ring to rule them all".
Things may be changing, however. A five-yearly update on New Zealand "Consumer Lifestyles" just released by Otago University remarks on a noticeable trend towards more conservative or traditional viewpoints. "There is more agreement that the pace of change is too fast and that New Zealand has taken too liberal a perspective on many issues." There is increased support for censorship, a feeling that the young have too many privileges, and that there is need for more discipline in the schools. Also: "There is less concern with equality and inner harmony as guiding principles, but more emphasis is being placed on tradition, authority, politeness, honouring one’s parents and attaining social recognition." There is less agreement with the notion that marriage is an outdated institution — consistent with a rise in the actual number of marriages — and a more pronounced orientation towards home and family life.
For the convenience of the marketing sector, the report categorises Kiwis under their dominant lifestyle characteristics. "Educated Liberals" — the group from which the prostitution and civil union laws, and no doubt the school prayer issue, originate — account for only 9.4 per cent of the sample. "Traditional Values" people making up 17.5 per cent have almost twice the strength. How they use it in future may determine whether this part of Middle Earth throws off the mantle of "social laboratory", with its overtones of social engineering, and adopts a more organic and values-based approach to change. In this, the instincts of the Maori community, as celebrated recently, could be an enormous help.
Carolyn Moynihan is Deputy Editor of MercatorNet. She writes from Auckland, New Zealand.