There has been a lot of nonsense from Jamie Whyte (leader of the ACT Party for the uninitiated) over equality for the law and the prevalence of Maori privilege in New Zealand. I’m not going to link to the speeches, but I do want to take him to task over his straw-man argument about Maori quotas at law school a) not benefiting the most disadvantaged Maori and b) serving to deny non-Maori a place.
Now, I’m no expert on the matter but I am Maori, and I did attend law school so I know a thing of two about how the system works. My grades were high enough to enter stage II law school under general admission – something I am proud about for two reasons. The first is that I was aiming for Honours and this helped me towards that goal, the second is that I did not take up a spot for another Maori to also join me in stage II.
So why is this argument a straw-man? Quite simply, he has set up the scenario to suit his own facts. I’ll deal with each in turn. First, the idea that the most disadvantaged Maori are not benefiting from the quota is nonsense. The large majority of my peers at law school were upper-middle class paheka kids from suburban Auckland. They came from the Grammars, or private school. Us Maori were almost all provincial kids, many on scholarships because our parents could not afford to send us away, and working several jobs to pay the rent. Most had grown up poor, brown, and considered unlikely to succeed by almost every teacher they met along the way. Most have gone on to working low paid law jobs as advocates for Maori – and the most disadvantaged Maori at that – before the Waitangi Tribunal, Maori Land Court, Family Court, and in the public sector. Law school was not a path to riches, it was a path to service.
Second, the Maori quotas do not deny non-Maori a place in law school. The quotas are in addition to the general admission places and are recognition of the need for Maori lawyers to serve Maori communities. There have been many years when the full allocation of positions under the quota scheme have not been taken up and at no point were additional places then provided to non-Maori students.
It is intellectually dishonest to frame the argument in such a way that Mr Whyte has. In distorting the facts to suit his argument he has failed to achieve what he set out to do – engage in an intelligent debate about race and law in Aotearoa New Zealand. What Mr Whyte refers to as “legal privilege” is nothing more than the protection of our rights. Rights guaranteed to us under Te Tiriti o Waitangi. The right to self-determination and self governance; the right to the protection of our taonga, our lands, our resources, and our home lands; and the right to not be subject to state-sponsored discrimination. His version of equality before the law means revoking the protections guaranteed under Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Let’s hope that this is not the ACT party’s bold new vision for our country.