The last week has given me a few reasons to think about race relations with good progress in some areas and setbacks in others.

The joint visit by leaders of the National Party and the Maori Party last week provided an opportunity for us to reflect again on how Maori and non-Maori get along locally.

The same week we heard the apology issued by the South African government and two national Rugby Unions to the families of players denied the opportunity to face South Africa because of their ethnicity.

In spite of all its obvious failings, the current government has provided an example of how people with very different priorities can cooperate for the benefit of the whole society. So while John Key may have undermined the good faith of Treaty negotiations with Tuhoe, his government committing New Zealand to support the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples provides a universal standard by which the decisions of government can be judged.

The Treaty claims process has been incredibly important for local tribes, but one of its many problems is that the process is quite removed from most Gisborne residents. There is a large part of our community who, unless they are highly motivated, will not have a chance to hear the stories or find out how the process arrives at its outcome. Te Ūnga Mai has done some good work in this area over the past few years in terms of trying to create greater appreciation of local history and focusing on schools is a good place to start.

My Facebook page recently became a forum for two extreme ends of the cultural politics continuum and, perhaps not surprisingly, the people who at first traded insults and stereotypes eventually found a way to coexist and reconcile some of their differences. It must be to our peril however if we have to rely on electronic communication to improve race relations in our country! Our leaders could make more effort to create safe space for everyone who wants to share family stories, express concerns and articulate hopes for the future. Instead of assuming that if we leave it long enough, the fear and misunderstanding that still exists will subside – history shows it usually just festers away and gets handed on to the next generation.

My message to John Key and Dr Pita Sharples last week was to encourage their respective local branches to work together around the country. Is anyone else interested in creating spaces that are safe for people from different cultural backgrounds to talk carefully about the things that are important to us – the stuff we have in common and the things we are not all agreed on? If we are going to mature as a country and a local community, we need to learn how to talk about the important stuff respectfully and build trust so we can all move forward together.

The best definition of a leader that I have come across is ‘anyone willing to help’, so I would be keen to talk to anyone else interested in progressing a meaningful and respectful conversation on local race relations. It is difficult. Maori are busy with their own issues and often non-Maori see it as a non-issue, but the conversation is essential if our region really does want to prosper.

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