How many cultures make a culture? Mark Williams

Australians have been encouraged over the last decade to identify their economic destiny with Asia. Their last Prime Minister even had a habit of pointing to maps and proclaiming that Australia was part of Asia. The cultural and economic redirections undertaken by the Keating government were closely aligned and multiculturalism was central to the overall programme. The aim was to produce a modern, highly skilled economy directed towards the Asian marketplace and to fashion a sophisticated and modernised image of Australia both for export and for local consumption.

New Zealanders have been more ambivalently focused on Asia in the past decade. The cultural policies carried out over that period seem at odds with the economic ones. While the economy was modernised and the labour market aggressively disciplined, cultural policy looked towards the South Pacific. Paul Keating’s vacuous catchphrase, Australia is part of Asia, found its New Zealand counterpart in the phrase, New Zealand is part of the Pacific. Both presumably meant no more than that cultural authority no longer derived from former colonial sources.

There has been no articulate spokesperson in New Zealand for the concept of multiculturalism promoted so energetically by Paul Keating. Indeed multiculturalism has been strongly resisted, especially on the left. Republicanism, another Keating enthusiasm, arouses only desultory antagonism in New Zealand but practically no enthusiasm. Asian immigration has been strenuously resisted, notably by Maori who feel that substantial immigration will interfere with biculturalism and that wealthy foreigners will alienate still more land. Keating’s promotion of Asia has found no corresponding programme in New Zealand, in spite of the establishment of the Asia 2000 Foundation and scattered statements by Prime Minister Jim Bolger. While undergoing a much more radical transformation aimed at modernising, internationalising and liberalising the domestic economy, New Zealand has tended to look with unconcealed suspicion towards Asia.

New Zealand, then, has taken a very different direction from Australia over the last decade, economically, politically and culturally. Until the late 1970s the idea of racial amalgamation remained the dominant model in social policy. Maori were to be progressively “raised” to the level of Europeans by way of enlightened policies in education, health, housing and social welfare. Although some allowances for Maori cultural distinctness had been made from the 1960s, the official policy of integration meant that Maori were to be assimilated into pakeha culture. By the end of the 1980s the policy of racial integration had given way to the notion that New Zealand was founded on the basis of an agreement between two peoples and that this involved an ongoing partnership. New Zealand by 1990 was officially, and to some extent in practice, a bicultural society.


What does it mean to say that New Zealand is a bicultural society, or, to rephrase John Frow’s question about Australia, “What counts as ‘culture’ in biculturalism?”

For me the most important areas are those in which the policy [multiculturalism] has arguably been least effective: the areas of instititutional interaction where cultural difference should have had most to contribute. I’m thinking, on the one hand, of institutions such as the system of parliamentary government, the media, the law, the education system, architecture and town planning and agriculture, none of which, it seems to me, have been substantially changed by or have drawn inspiration from the experience of migrants who have grown up with very different models of what government is, or what a town should look like, or how the law should work. On the other hand, these institutions have for the most part done little to accommodate the demands of cultural diversity: Multiculturalism virtually never means multilingualism and the courts, the schools and the hospitals do little to cater for cultural and linguistic difference. It is presently unthinkable that there should be a real plurality of working languages.1

It might be argued that in New Zealand greater institutional change to accommodate biculturalism has occurred than has been the case in respect of multiculturalism in Australia. Arts funding and administration have been significantly remodelled to reflect the wishes and outlook of Maori as well as pakeha artists. Treaty of Waitangi principles are emphasised throughout the education system. Maori has the status of an official language.

Yet it would be difficult to point to changes within the governmental or legal systems that have fundamentally altered the existing European nature of those institutions. The treaty may have legal status but it has not significantly changed legal practice. Maori may be spoken in law courts, but a disproportionate number of the defendents are still Maori, most of the judges pakeha. There is considerable resistance to bicultural elements within nursing training or in the establishment of the new national museum in Wellington. If biculturalism means tinkering with existing institutions to include a Maori perspective and settling outstanding grievances, as many pakeha believe it does, then New Zealand is a bicultural country. If it means sharing resources and creating new institutional systems that reflect the interests and outlooks of both groups, as many Maori believe, then New Zealand is not truly bicultural.

Where the New Zealand case is close to the Australian is that biculturalism, like multiculturalism, has allowed the dominant Anglo-Celtic group to redefine the history and contemporary identity of the nation so as to move beyond the shameful associations of the past. Australian politicians and diplomatic staff addressing foreign audiences eagerly stress the benefits of multiculturalism in creating a new, fairer, more diverse and attractive country. By acknowledging the errors of the past the virtues of the present are made more apparent. New Zealand diplomats and officials tend to be less sanguine about the present and more conscious of the ongoing need to address the troubling legacy of the past. Yet here, too, biculturalism has clearly been advantageous in fashioning an acceptable national self-image in a world where colonialism and racism are bad for business.

Within New Zealand biculturalism is generally seen, whether negatively or positively, as a revaluation of society according the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi. During the century and a-half that followed the signing of the treaty Maori had lost much of their land along with the power to determine their own fate. By the 1970s Maori were still grossly disadvantaged in material terms. Maori were greatly overrepresented in all negative social statistics: crime rates, imprisonment, unemployment. Maori people died younger than European New Zealanders, their children were more likely to suffer from preventable diseases. The language had suffered commensurately. By the 1970s only a tiny percentage of Maori children used Maori as their first language.

In spite of these seemingly unavoidable facts demonstrating Maori disadvantage, the dominant view in New Zealand up to the 1970s, both for export and for home consumption, was that race relations were exemplary. Perhaps more than any other single characteristic of the society it was the announced good intentions of the pakeha which meant that Maori grievances could not be acknowledged. Moreover, as Colin James observes, New Zealand in twentieth century developed a consensus about society and government that stressed prosperity and conformity. “Even the presence of the Maori minority did not seriously challenge this agreement to agree. Maori values persisted on the marae but they were either actually irrelevant to the dominant system or treated as irrelevant. Maori values were not evidence of diversity so much as a sideshow”.2

The breakup of this consensus occurred from the early 1970s. Perhaps the most telling blow was Britain’s entry into the European Community in 1973. Together with the oil shocks of the same period, this signalled the end of the prosperity and the need for radical changes within the economy if New Zealand was to find new markets and new, more sophisticated products to supply to those markets. Psychologically, Britain’s abandonment left the pakeha adrift. Among European New Zealanders a strong tradition of resistance to England had never developed, by contrast with Australia where the memory of transportation and the proportionately larger number of Irish citizens kept alive republican, nationalist and vigorously democratic traditions.


The breakup of the prosperity consensus in New Zealand also coincided with a reassertion of Maori culture, in artistic, literary and political terms. In the early 1970s Maori authors Witi Ihimaera and Patricia Grace emerged as major fiction writers. These were joined over the next two decades by painters, dramatists, novelists and film-makers. Maori “culture” in the expressive arts flourished.

But culture is also about power and the institutions through which power is exercised. This dimension of power came to the fore throughout the late 1970s and into the 1980s. In 1975 a Maori land march drew attention to Maori grievances over the loss of their land. In 1979 a Maori political party, Mana Motuhake, was launched aiming for Maori sovereignty within a bicultural society. This understanding of culture was also reflected in the growing politicisation of literary and other expressions of Maori culture. Throughout the 1980s more forcefully nationalistic works by Maori writers appeared, ranging from Donna Awatere’s polemical tract, Maori Sovereignty, to Ihimaera’s epic novel, The Matriarch At the same time the political voice of Maori people, expressed through younger and radicalised leaders and through writers and artists, grew more and more urgent.

On the pakeha side, at least from 1975 when the Muldoon government took power, there was little response, other than a negative and irritated one. In 1984, however, the new Labour government undertook to address long-standing Maori grievances, especially those concerned with land. The scope of the Waitangi Tribunal, established in 1975 to investigate claims by Maori people, was broadened. In 1988 the Government declared the Treaty to be “part of the basic law” of New Zealand. New Zealand in the late 1980s underwent a dramatic cultural shift away from colonial allegiances and nostalgias and the newly discovered status of the Treaty of Waitangi was central to this shift. Biculturalism became entrenched institutionally through the replacement of Maori Affairs Department with the Iwi Transition Agency, a move which recognised some degree Maori self-determination.

As is usual in any ambitious attempt at cultural redefinition there were explicit and hidden agendas, conscious and unconscious ones. The result was less a single coherent programme of revision and redirection than a complicated and in some respects contradictory set of reassessments. The effects of this cultural redirection were generally positive, as multiculturalism in Australia, for all its limitations, was generally positive. The cultural pattern that was opposed and replaced by the new cultural movement was redundant and oppressive. The society it produced was dull, complacent and backward-looking.

Nevertheless, the general programme of reform on which the Labour Government rapidly embarked brought together several discrete, in some ways opposed, cultural attitudes. Anti-racists and unreconstructed socialists jostled with free market reformers. The government was able to appeal to the Greens with its anti-nuclear legislation, all the while preparing the ground for the selling off of forests to foreign interests. A right-wing economic programme was carried forward by a party that as late as 1985 resolved that it was “socialist” in character.3 Labour continually traded in images of pristine landscape and an upbeat bicultural society, all the while busily creating an economic climate that savagely disadvantaged Maori people.

The need for a new sense of nationhood and a new national image to project abroad was determined above all by the loss of colonial allegiances and preferences that died when Britain abandoned its old colonies for Europe.  Especially traumatic was the progressive loss from the mid 1970s of the British market for New Zealand agricultural produce. As colonial patterns of production, business and economic management became increasingly unsustainable, in spite of Sir Robert Muldoon’s desperate efforts to preserve them, so, too, colonial cultural patterns became redundant.

The early days of the Lange Government responded to these twin needs — economic and cultural — as part of a concentrated effort to reposition New Zealand in the world and in the world economy. At the same time, as James puts it, the ecomomic policy changes of the Labour Government “prompted in a stratum of New Zealand business operators a confidence in their ability to foot it in the outside world that was almost entirely lacking in New Zealand’s period of economic colonialism”.4 A new set of images, stories and myths was required. It was a heady period as the Lange government, with considerable marketing skill, promoted a new imagery of a bicultural, anti-nuclear, technologically innovative New Zealand, at once entrepeneurial and caring. The America’s Cup challenge and the bone people were central icons of the emerging nationhood.

John Frow has observed of the Keating period that “the priorities of trade have significantly skewed the focus of cultural identification to Asia”.5 New Zealand went further in economic restructuring than than Australia but did not adopt a multicultural social model or emphasise Asian participation within New Zealand. Nevertheless, the Keating era in Australia and the Lange era in New Zealand involved different responses to two common problems: how to redefine the nation in postcolonial terms so as to resolve longstanding uncertainties about identity and self-image; how to reposition it in a regional economic order no longer dominated by Anglo powers.

Biculturalism and multiculturalism preserve Anglo-Celtic identity in terms of binary oppositions (even multiculturalism involves a binary between the “we” who invent it and all the others who benefit from it). In New Zealand the Maori have been enlisted in the settler plan to find a new self-image as the immigrant communities have in Australia. Both allow the projection abroad of a modern imagery, purged of the negative associations of the past. In these respects biculturalism in New Zealand is analogous to multiculturalism in Australia.

Ghassan Hage has argued that at the time of its emergence and well into the Hawke prime ministership multiculturalism was predominantly a nationally directed discourse. That is, “we are a multicultural society” was largely an answer to the question: “What are we?”, a question that nationals ask themselves about themselves. More recently, “we are a multicultural society” has also become part of a new internationally directed discourse: “Look at us, we are a multicultural society”.

In New Zealand a fairly similar pattern may be discerned but some rephrasing is necessary to accommodate the differences. The old answer to the question, “What are we?” was: “We are a racially harmonious society”.  Since the 1980s the answer has been: “We are a bicultural society”. In both answers the “we” implies a pakeha consensus and both allude to tolerance and virtue. The latter answer, however, while seeking to resolve a longstanding internal dilemma of identity, is more selfconsciously directed outward. The major difference between the two countries is that the Australian solution to the problematic of identity avoids what the New Zealand solution stresses: the claims of the indigeneous people to special status.


What of Canada? How do the terms biculturalism and multiculturalism, both of which have had purchase in the debates about nationhood, address the question, “What are we?” Augie Fleras and Jean Leonard in a generally affirmative study of multiculturalism in Canada supply a possible answer: “Our collective self-identity has undergone something of a change in response to a policy that is widely regarded as quintessentially Canadian. Our commitment to multicultural policies is viewed by many at home and abroad as a dimension of our national identity that purportedly sets us apart from the United States”6 In other words, the correct answer to the question, “What are we?” is that we are not Americans. “How are Canadians different from Americans?” — by virtue of having a more tolerant attitude towards “our” minorities. The “we” here sounds suspiciously like the Australian and New Zealand pronominal usages.

There are two problems here. One is the degree to which a cultural formation such as multiculturalism can successfully distinguish a country like Canada from a much more powerful neighbour such as the United States during a period when economic integration between the two countries has advanced as rapidly as it has over the last decade while the means of dissemination of American popular cultural forms has increased exponentially. The second problem has to do with the bearing of that “we” on Canada’s indigenous populations, for whom maintaining a difference from Americans is perhaps not such a priority as it is for Anglo-Celtic Canadians.

Robin Fisher in a comparison of aboriginal policy in New Zealand and western Canada has observed that although “the main general issues may be similar in both countries, many particulars of the Canadian case are different from New Zealand”. Notably, there is the difference that the “concerns of the indigenous people have not come high on the political agenda in Canada”.7 If multiculturalism in Australia has been a means of downplaying indigenous land claims, it might be said that biculturalism in New Zealand has allowed the overlooking of the claims to attention of immigrant communities, both recent and longstanding. In Canada multiculturalism appears as a response to the dissatisfactions of various immigrant groups and first nations peoples with biculturalism. Yet neither biculturalism nor multiculturalism in Canada have been fundamentally concerned with aboriginal peoples.

The differences between the countries are marked from the beginning. In Canada the conferment of nationhood in legal terms made the situation of aboriginal peoples worse than it had been. The small protection that had been afforded by the Royal Proclamation of 1763 was removed. Furthermore, the prairie treaties of the 1870s aimed not to confirm aboriginal title, as the Treaty of Waitangi had, but to remove the remaining impediment of Indian claims so that settlers could take over the land.8

What both processes of treaty-making have in common is the different understandings of what the treaties entailed on the part of two signatory groups. In Canada and New Zealand the indigenous peoples tended to see treaties as establishing the basis of an ongoing partnership rather than as final settlements. They envisaged that the separate character of the two cultures would continue — their distinctness, integrity and self-governance. These qualities are the defining characteristics of sovereignty and herein lies the source of the problem for indigenous peoples: the other party had a quite different understanding of what sovereignty involved. For the white founders of each of these three nations sovereignty meant indivisiblity.

The policy towards indigenous peoples adopted in New Zealand from the beginning of organised settlement was amalgamation, a policy that Canadian government agencies adopted much more recently. This policy led, as in Australia, to the worst excesses of government bureacracies towards indigenous peoples, in particular the alienation of children from their families. Amalgamation in New Zealand was invested with higher ideals and was pursued by less severe means than in Canada or Australia. Nevertheless, its effects on many Maori people were very similar to the effects of government policy in Canada: the steady degradation of Maori access to their traditional means of supporting themselves and maintaining their separate way of life.

Nevertheless, in New Zealand Maori were consistently taken into account in the various efforts at nation-making. This was not the case in Canada. Canada’s founding document was the British North American Act of 1867 which was designed to accommodate French and British citizens in a single federal system. Indians were not consulted and as late as 1982 were excluded from the ill-fated Meech Lake Accord. Again and again French-Anglo priorities have determined constitutional arrangements in Canada to the exclusion of aboriginal interests.

This struggle between Anglo- and French-Canadians also shaped the arguments over and policies about language and culture in more recent times. In 1963 a Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism was established against a background of the perceived threat to national unity from Quebec. The commission set out to find what steps were needed “to develop the Canadian Confederation on the basis of an equal partnership between the two founding races, taking into account the contribution made by the other ethnic groups to the cultural enrichment of Canada”.9 This is very close to biculturalism as it developed in New Zealand in the 1980s but the transition from one cultural model to the other worked in reverse order between the two countries. In New Zealand multiculturalism ran into opposition from Maori people favouring biculturalism. In Canada biculturalism ran into opposition from a range of excluded ethnic groups, including first nations peoples.


New Zealand in the early 1960s was still firmly monocultural, although signs of a very tentative acceptance of the failures of racial amalgamation were already evident. In 1960 the Hunn Report evaluated the effects of the Department of Maori Affairs over the course of a century and advocated a move away from the existing policy of assimilation towards what was called integration. Integration signified that a distinct Maori presence was to be tolerated. This tentative acceptance of pluralism was the beginning of an evolutionary process leading to a guarded support for multiculturalism by the 1970s. An Education Department report in 1981 encouraged pluralism “to create a society in which respect for other cutures is accepted as a basic premise and the majority of the citizens are familiar enough with at least one other culture to be able to interact comfortably with with its members on the latter’s terms”.10

Initally there was some prominent Maori support for multiculturalism. But strong opposition quickly arose from many Maori who felt that multiculturalism was another strategy to bypass the demands of tangata whenua and an avoidance of the partnership principles embodied in the Treaty of Waitangi and of the bicultural basis of New Zealand’s founding. There was a suspicion of the idea of equal treatment for every group, a concept condemned by Sir Tipene O’Regan in 1982 as a “pakeha cop-out”.11 By 1985, as Andrew Sharp points out, “it was clear that an official movement away from the ideal of multiculturalism towards an accommodation with the ideal of biculturalism had occurred”.12

The Canadian policy shift from biculturalism to multiculturalism has its background in the pressures exerted on Liberal governments from the early 1960s to address a variety of problems, in particular the Quebecois pressure on federalism and the perceived hegemony of American cultural influence. The solution was a policy of multiculturalism within a bicultural framework. In October 1971 Pierre Trudeau promoted multiculturalism to the level of official government policy in Parliament. A Ministry of Multiculturalism was established 1973. In 1988, precisely at the same time that biculturalism was becoming entrenched in New Zealand law, Canada became the first country in the world to pass a national multiculturalism law, the Multiculturalism Act.

By the mid-1980s multiculturalism in Canada was bringing considerable pressure on institutions to integrate minorities by way of affirmative action and equity programmes. “In addition initiatives were aimed at extracting commercial value from multiculturalism. Ethnic business and commercial enterprises were encouraged to take advantage of multicultural connections in the search for foreign markets and international investment”. 13 No more naked illustration of the link between trade interests and cultural policy might be conceived.

Fleras and Leonard argue that “multiculturalism and biculturalism are not merely opposite sides of the coin. Rather, they entail fundamentally different ways of looking at the world, with distinctive ways of dealing with diversity in terms of distributive ideals and entitlements”.14 It might be argued, however, that the Canadian mosaic, Keating’s multicultural Australia and bicultural New Zealand are all stages in and means towards decolonisation, but not the thing itself. To a large extent they speak to the ancient settler desire to effect a break with the parent culture that still symbolically preoccupies them. None represents the achievement of a definitive national self definition.

What, after all, does decolonisation mean? It might mean anything from a break with colonial administrative and legal systems, the liberation of the national economy from dependence on foreign capital, the development of new indigenous sources of institutional organisation and political power, to the freeing the minds of the citizens from the legacy of colonial self-doubt and the forging of wholly new cultural forms. None of these has been achieved completely in any former British colony with exception of the United States. Yet all have been partially achieved, even in the most reluctant of decolonising countries, New Zealand.

The success of these countries’ efforts to put behind them their colonial legacies will be a function of their ability to reconcile the interests of those who were there when colonisation occcurred with all those who came after. Yet other and more complex interests will also need to be reconciled if true independence is to be achieved. The trick will be to find a way of negotiating not only between the two categories of citizens defined by colonisation — immigrants and indigenes — but also among the ethnicities and tribes that compose each category.


Mark Williams teaches English at Canterbury University. 

John Frow, “Multiculturalism: The Politics of Cultural Diversity”, in “Multiculturalism South: Cultural Perspectives from Oceania”, special number of Poetica  (Tokyo), edited by Yasunari Takada and Mark Williams, forthcoming

Colin James, New Territory: The Transformation of New Zealand, 1984-92 (Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 1992), p12

Quoted in James, p141

James, p122

Frow, “The Politics of Cultural Diversity”

Augie Fleras and Jean Leonard Elliot, Multicuturalism in Canada: the Challenge of Diversity (Scarborough: Nelson Canada, 1992), p69

Robin Fisher, “With or Without Treaty: Indian Land Claims in Western Canada”, in ed William Renwick, Sovereignty and Indigenous Rights: The Treaty of Waitangi in International Contexts (Wellington; Victoria University Press, 1991), p49

Fisher, p57

Fleras and Elliot, p72

10  Fleras and Elliot, p260

11  Fleras and Elliot, p261

12  Andrew Sharp, Justice and the Maori: Maori Claims in New Zealand Political Argument in the 1980s (Auckland; Oxford University Press, 1990), p228

13  Fleras and Elliot, p75

14  Fleras and Elliot, p168

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