“Māori and Pasifika” the new bywords for “working class”

When was the last time a journalist or commentator used the term working class in a news report or opinion column? A long time ago I’m guessing.

Not that the media has ever used “working class” to report on class issues. Middle class is commonly used but working class or ruling class don’t make the grade. One of our national myths involves European settlers arriving here determined not to replicate the bitter class divisions of the Britain they had left for a better life here. “Jack was as good as his master” was how this myth was expressed. Needless to say it was never a reality. Access to capital meant the social and economic structures of colonial settlement was based firmly on class. Not being seen to flaunt one’s wealth was the only concession to classlessness – a point abandoned since the 1980s Rogernomics revolution.

Possibly its only lasting legacy is the relative informality of dress here but that owes more to the climate than avoiding class divisions. John Key drinking beer from a bottle at a barbecue is meant to tell us we are all equal when in reality we are one of the most unequal countries in the world.

Today’s media reporting of economic and social issues never uses the term working class but instead focuses on the disproportionate impact of government policies on Māori and Pasifika. The problem is seen as the disproportion rather than the policies themselves.

This focus on the disproportionate impact of economic and social polices on Māori and Pasifika is not a problem in itself – it reflects institutional racism and our long history of colonisation which are critical issues Aotearoa New Zealand must tackle head on. Te Tiriti o Waitangi has been abused for 180 years and facing this and its legacy which reverberates in the present is critically important. The new developing and redeveloping partnerships between Crown and Māori point to a positive way forward.

Many bloggers, myself included, have focused on this in many different contexts such as when talking about housing, imprisonment rates, health, education and even taxes.

Yes – it’s true that Māori and Pasifika pay a higher proportion of their incomes in tax than anyone else – not because the tax system discriminates against them on the basis of race but because they are disproportionately in the working class who are the target of savage tax rates compared to the super-wealthy billionaire class.

It’s also true that 62% of the state house waiting list are Māori and Pasifika but it’s also critical to note that 100% of those on the state house waiting list are working class New Zealanders.

At one time we would have expected the trade union movement to champion the needs of the working class as it faces discrimination in health, education, housing and taxation policies for example but the largest private sector union is joined at the hip to the Labour Party and the Council of Trade unions is dominated by the relatively well-paid workers in the public sector unions. There is no leadership on these issues.

The media use of Māori and Pasifika as bywords for working class has also been driven by the current focus on identity politics. Race, gender and even religious identity now occupy the high ground in political discussion while the working class as a whole are left to fend for themselves.

Issues of identity getting a decent and long-awaited public airing is a healthy sign because identity is important to all of us. We all deserve to feel accepted for who we are and comfortable in society’s view of us.

But why is the media focused so strongly on identity politics rather than seeing our economic and social policies from a working-class perspective? For the same reason it has always avoided talk of working-class struggles. The private sector media are dependent on income from the big corporates who advertise online, on radio and in newspapers. The first priority is to get our eyeballs on the advertisements they carry while the private sector media fill the decreasingly small gaps between the adds with news stories.

Identity issues are a more comfortable fit for the media, avoiding the awkwardness of upsetting advertisers and the big corporates behind them.

At least two initiatives I’m aware of will be attempting to engage the country on the key class issues of housing and taxation in 2022 where the focus will be on class rather than identity politics.

We will need to drive these issues ourselves – the media will be slow followers – if at all.


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