Thursday, April 05, 2007

OPINION: Try Kiwi values, mate!

New Zealand has a crucial advantage over Australia when it comes to trying to define its values for newcomers, writes IRFAN YUSUF.

Both Australia and New Zealand are young nations built by indigenous people and migrants. Both are former British colonies. Both are English-speaking liberal democracies with legal systems based on the English common law.

But unlike Australia, New Zealand's early European settlers entered into some kind of treaty recognising the special association of indigenous people to the land. The cultural tang of Waitangi is absent from Australia, where indigenous peoples, by and large, live in a state of institutionalised disadvantage.

For an outsider like myself, it seems the influence of Maori culture on all New Zealanders is far more apparent than the influence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders on mainstream Australian culture. Further, Maori culture is shown a greater degree of both official and unofficial respect than Australia's indigenous cultures.

Hence, it doesn't come as a surprise that recent moves to educate migrants on New Zealand values include a strong emphasis on Maori culture. What will make New Zealand values more meaningful is that New Zealand doesn't pretend it is a Western cultural monolith sitting awkwardly in the Asia- Pacific region.

If multiculturalism in Australia had one big failing it was its emphasis on migrant cultures and its lack of emphasis on indigenous cultures. The Howard Government has now abandoned multiculturalism as an official Government policy, replacing it with policies based on "integration" and "Australian values" which have largely emphasised Australia's alleged "Judeo-Christian" heritage.

I say "alleged" because the whole notion of Judaism playing a key role in the development of Western European culture seems strange when one considers that it is only in the last 60 years, following the horrors of the Holocaust, that Western Christendom has finally faced up to the reality of anti-Semitism.

Australia's own values debate was also hampered by the Howard Government's inability to articulate distinctly Australian values.

Instead, when pressed on the issue, proponents of Australian values (such as Howard) have provided motherhood statements about "a fair go" and "mateship". It's as if only "Judeo-Christian" Australians understand fairness and friendship. The Australian push toward integration and adoption of "Aussie" values has also come as a result of an abandonment of multiculturalism. Unfortunately, this abandonment has been couched using divisive monoculturalist rhetoric, and has been especially targeted at Australia's nominally Muslim communities.

As if to add credence to this rhetoric, Australian Muslim religious leaders have also behaved irresponsibly. Recent sexist and racist comments by Sheik Tajeddine Hilaly, who continues to claim the mantle of Mufti of Australia and New Zealand (despite New Zealand's peak Muslim body rejecting his claim), haven't done Muslims any favours.

Australia's Muslims largely find themselves in this predicament because they have placed more emphasis on culture and language and less on adopting Islam's universal values which encourage cultural and linguistic integration.

New Zealand Muslims would do well to heed the warnings of the Mufti of Bosnia Herzegovina, Dr Mustafa Ceric, who warned that Muslim communities who insisted on behaving like tribal or ethnic communes within Western countries will only bring harm and resentment upon themselves.

As one young Australian Muslim told me:

These uncles think they can say whatever they like and get away with it. If things go bad, they can always go back to Suva or Karachi. But where will I go?
New Zealanders of all faiths can be grateful for the sensible approach taken thus far by their Government. Unlike the Howard Government, whose rhetoric has been divisive, New Zealand's Social Development Minister David Benson-Pope has used the language of inclusion when he reiterated that a

... sense of inclusiveness and an acceptance of difference has always been a part of New Zealand's national identity.
That sense of inclusiveness will be on display in May when Waitangi hosts the Third Asia-Pacific Inter-faith Dialogue, in the place where Maori and European entered into a treaty of peace and security based on mutual respect.

Australians love to take the best of New Zealand and pretend it's their own. I hope Australian political leaders can see if there is something they can adopt from what appears to be a more inclusive Kiwi values debate.

*Irfan Yusuf is a Canberra lawyer and associate editor of This article was first published in The Press of Christchurch on Monday 2 April 2007.

Words © 2007 Irfan Yusuf