Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Peter Spoonley: Standing up for who we are

Gerry Brownlee is right. To be given a response category such as "New Zealand European" in the 2006 Census does not make any more sense to me than it does to Mr Brownlee. My ancestors might have originated from Europe and I am proud of that heritage. But my ethnic identity is a product of being born and raised in New Zealand.

Others who have migrated from Europe might want to use the label "European", although even here, I would have thought that the term is meaningless given the cultural and national diversity that exists there.

My concern is that Statistics New Zealand do not allow the option of using a response category such as "Pakeha".

In fact, they no longer use the term in any of their documents despite its growing public use and the fact that in the last census, more than 8000 ignored the "New Zealand European" label and wrote Pakeha. Others would not identify in this way and that is fine.

But Mr Brownlee is wrong to think that "New Zealander" is the most appropriate alternative. Most of us are New Zealanders because we have been born here or have taken out citizenship, and we identify with this country. It is our nationality, and one that we should rightly claim.

The issue is to establish how many of us claim an ethnicity, that is, do we see ourselves as members of a particular cultural tradition and community.

To insist that we should be only New Zealanders is to deny Jewish, Samoan, Dutch or Maori New Zealanders - and others - an identity that is important to them.

The census is one opportunity to indicate that they remain proud members of such communities. But that, in my experience, is not at the expense of also being proud New Zealanders.

Is giving people an opportunity to identify as New Zealanders of a particular ethnicity divisive? Why not turn the question around?

If they are not recognised, in the census and elsewhere, then what does it say about New Zealand as a country with a significant Tangata Whenua population and a growing ethnic diversity from immigration?

The liberal democracies that are successfully encouraging social cohesion are those that balance ethnic community interests with individual and civil rights. That is the challenge rather than to privilege one over the other.

Mr Brownlee's timing is poor. Statistics New Zealand has gone through a long and involved process, including inviting public submissions, on ethnic statistics and how they should be collected. It is great that he has expressed an opinion, but just now?

Perhaps we should agree that the debate is important and that we should provide a chance for it to occur. In the meantime, a lot hinges on an accurate census of our population, in all its diversity.

* Professor Paul Spoonley is Regional Director of Humanities and Social Sciences at Massey University's Albany campus.

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