RSS Feed

Category Archives: New Zealand society, culture, politics

What if the Crown is also Māori?

What if the Crown is also Māori?

A slightly edited form of this post has also appeared on E-Tangata.

Symbols come in many forms, tangible and the intangible. They tell us stories we may not even be aware of.

Here’s one. I work in a beautiful building. It is a building that breathes and moves about me. Occasionally, as I walk down the halls or the stairway I feel surrounded by a soft golden glow, created by the sensory fusion of kauri finishings, scroll-shaped corbels, the curved window bays, and sombre carpeting. Mostly, I just feel harried and inadequate, so I forget to marvel at this hand-wrought architectural icon.

“Icon” is the right word because these Old Government Buildings in Wellington operate as a transportive symbol; walk through the doors, and whether or not you are aware of it, you are carried to an era of history that consolidated New Zealand as a colonial nation. Built in 1876, the year provincial governments were abolished and a central government established, this place was the seat of administrative power. This building tells a simple surface story of a young nation finding its way, but the deeper and truer story is of Pākehā power and claim surmounting the messy, contested, and uncertain history of several peoples.

So I walk the victors’ halls. As a law lecturer I now teach aspects of the legal system that upholds that deeper story, as those halls now comprise Victoria University’s law school. You will see no koru, no tukutuku, no whakairo. There are Māori and Pasifika spaces tucked away, if you know where to look, fragile and lovely, retrofitted exceptions to this narrative of solidity and permanence.

Most of us who work and study in this place don’t pay attention to this one-sided battle of stories, and fair enough too. We have our lives to get on with and futures to imagine. It’s our building, we use it, we inhabit it for a brief time (or maybe for a long time) on our way to somewhere else.

Let’s not overthink things, right?

In the pre-election maelstrom you might have missed a pretty insignificant story. I nearly did, bewitched as I was by Jacinda, Gareth & Marama et al (not always in that order).

It was a little item on the TV news (and in the Christchurch press) in mid-September about people lining up to see inside the new $300 million justice and emergency services precinct, including the police watch-house and cells.

Thousands jumped at the chance, with the queue stretching down Lichfield St all morning and into the afternoon. […]

“It’s quite unreal really, definitely a different experience,” one said. “The kids love it which is great.”

They’ll just be hoping this is the only visit they’ll have to make to the police cells.

Somehow this event pierced my election-induced fog. I paused, wondering if I had heard it correctly. I waited for the punchline, or the ironic comment. There was none. This little unimportant story symbolised something larger. Apparently in my hometown thousands of happy people queued for more than an hour to see the inside of a legal system they accepted was theirs but was not designed to hold them.  To such people there is right, as well as rightness in the process and the outcome of law. Law is normal, formal, probably a bit absurd and creaky, but part of the natural order of things.

Five days later the almost exact opposite occurred, also at the symbolic level. In celebrating Māori language week a police car decked out in te reo Māori decals made its debut in Papakura, Auckland. The response was, shall we say, mixed:

“Been to Ngā Whare Wātea today and the kids were all over it. It was fantastic, they had a great time,” says police officer Ivan Tarlton (Ngāpuhi).

However, not everyone is smiling.

Khylee Quince, “Waitangi Tribunal earlier this year, only five months ago, makes recommendations about the Crown breach of Treaty relationships and Treaty duties, particularly active protection in relation to Māori and the terrible disproportionate rates of Māori offending. This is the first we see from the Police in response to that, so particularly poorly thought out strategy in my view.” […]

Julia Whaipooti of the youth-led rights organisation Just Speak is one who expressed concern.

“Putting a kupu Māori on a Police car doesn’t seem to form part of any strategy towards reducing the number of Māori we have entering and being processed in the system at disproportionate rates. It’s like having a pōhiri to come into prison. Putting a Māori name on a police car doesn’t do anything to address the issues.”

Similar feelings had been expressed months earlier when the Department of Corrections launched a new haka to find new recruits, in part as ‘a challenge for Maori to step up and accept the role of being a change agent working as a Corrections Officer’. Others saw such symbolic developments as ineffective bandaids to the vast problem of Māori hyper-incarceration.

The haka and the Māori design on the police car were symbolic, of a powerful story just as powerful as that represented by my workplace: Māori could only be subject to the legal system, never owners of it. Māori (most, not all) will never have unthinking ownership of Crown or government institutions. Most (not all) Pākehā New Zealanders, in comparison assume exactly such ownership.

An example from my own work-life I have blogged about before of daily and undramatic reality that underpins such symbolism. Every year I have a similar kind of student visit me, and we have a version of the following conversation:

‘I’m having trouble with my lectures. I just don’t get it.’

‘OK. What are you finding so hard?’

‘I don’t understand what the lecturer is saying. I write everything she says down. I read it, again and again, I highlight the words, and I write it out again and I still don’t get it.’

‘OK. Show me some of your notes.  Right. Do you know what this is [pointing to ‘Cabinet Minister’]?

‘Not sure’.

‘What about this [pointing to the word ‘statute’]?

‘Not sure about that either.’

‘How about this [pointing to the word ‘Parliament’]?’

‘I know where it is, I just don’t know what it DOES.’

This student may have already struggled with the education system, but not necessarily. She may well be a B student in her other subjects, but the ideas behind words like ‘statute’, ‘Parliament’ and ‘Cabinet Minister’, for the moment at least, defeat her: she has never, in her life, come across them before in a way that enabled her to understand them. Perhaps she didn’t come from a family where politics or voting, or even the news, were discussed, where Western ‘law’ was ever really thought of as something beyond ‘what the police do’.

This student is Māori, but her lack of exposure to the most basic ideas of Western ‘law’ don’t stem just from ethnicity, as I have also had these conversations with Pākehā, although far more rarely. She merely falls on the difficult side of social and educational history: like many other Māori in tertiary study (including me and my brothers) she is the first of her family to study at Uni, the first to study law. She has no template to follow, and for whatever reason school did not prepare her by introducing her to the ideas underpinning our institutional structures. Right now she has absolutely no confidence that this will ever be her world or her tool; how can she? She cannot even describe it yet. Our general system, our Law in all its manifestations is alien and abnormal; an animal to study behind safety glass; a poisonous exotic.

Strangely enough for those who do have that sense of ownership of our general legal system, Māori law has become the alien; the museum exhibit, the quaint but useless curiosity.

And yet there are signs that this kind of rigid dualism in thinking is outliving its usefulness.

There is a sentence in the reo section of the Wai 262 Flora and Fauna report that hit me upside the head one day in 2010, and I have repeated it many times to myself ever since.

Fundamentally, there is a need for a mindset shift away from the pervasive assumption that the Crown is Pākehā, English-speaking, and distinct from Māori rather than representative of them. Increasingly, in the twenty-first century, the Crown is also Māori. If the nation is to move forward, this reality must be grasped.

The Crown is also Māori. This extraordinary statement is at once surely true and surely incapable of being true. When exactly does reality collapses into one possibility or the other, I wonder? Acceptance of the notion that the Crown is also Māori requires reaching beyond the idea of simply negotiating better Māori space, or better concessions for Māori, or a Māori seat at the table. Such a notion requires the development of unthinking assumption that the table is Māori to start with; that the Old Government Buildings are to be understood to be as much a Māori, as a Pākehā construct.

A few weeks ago I was one of the moot court judges for the internal Māori moot at Te Herenga Waka marae; a competition where Māori students put arguments before judges in a mock court setting. Of the six mooters, four of the students mooted in Māori. Each of them was able to move fluidly between an unconscious ownership of the legal system and of tikanga Māori, and a blistering critique of the same systems. Just one small symbolic and up-ending moment of something better. There are other such moments waiting to coalesce.

In truth I doubt the Old Government Buildings can ever really be understood to be as much a Māori space as a Pākehā construct, even if we did add whakairo and other symbols of Māori ownership to it. I’m looking for the day when more Māori can walk through the doors with their culture intact, and are indeed transported: not to an era of colonial power made manifest in which they are an exception to an unwritten rule, but simply to a place they own. Unthinkingly.

Turning off the tap? Righting water wrongs

Turning off the tap? Righting water wrongs

A lightly edited version of this post appears on E-Tangata.

One of the things I’m really enjoying about this election season is how many cats are being thrown among the pigeons. Not all of the cats are welcome, or wanted, but they are making things interesting. One of those cats (although he’ll hate this description, I’m sure) is ol’ Gareth Morgan, that Pākehā curmudgeon who doesn’t give two stuffs for anyone’s sensibilities.

Morgan asked a bloody good question during the recent party leaders debate on Māori Television. First of all he got everyone’s dander up for baldly stating that only kaupapa Māori parties should stand in the Māori seats. While Kelvin Davis was dealing with a mild case of apoplexy at this presumptuousness, Morgan then went on to illustrate why he thought the Māori MPs of major parties were inevitably compromised in their representation of Māori voters. He asked this of Labour’s deputy leader:

[Gareth Morgan, accompanied by pugnacious finger wagging]: “What are you gonna do…hey Sunshine! What are you gonna do over water?”

[cue applause.]

“This is actually really important…what is Labour, what is Kelvin Davis gonna do, when the Labour Party says nobody owns the water and WE all know MĀORI OWN THE WATER.”

[cue quite rapturous applause.]

[Kelvin Davis, only several minutes later when the furore had abated] “…we have said that Maori have interests in water, we agree with the Waitangi Tribunal and the Water Forum in that we need to sit down and work out what those interests are with Māori…”.

Sitting down and talking in the future about the extent of Māori rights to fresh water is something, I guess. But one senses all kinds of bets being hedged in that response.

Morgan is right to raise the issue of Māori ownership of water. For this election water really matters, and not just for Māori.

So much so, that one of the first things Jacinda Adern did as the new Labour leader was to announce a new policy: a Labour-led government will charge royalties on water taken for irrigation and bottling. Cue successive rounds of (a) pearl clutching or (b) airing of valid concerns (depending on your perspective) from farmers and commercial water bottlers.  This policy taps into a growing sense of outrage throughout New Zealand that water bottlers are profiteering off the back of one of our prime natural resources, and been doing so quietly for years – fee free.

Māori have appeared cautiously welcoming of the policy, although the Māori Party has been somewhat cynical,  warning of foreshore and seabed-style unilaterialism under Labour that will impact on Māori claims to water.

To be honest, Māori water rights do comprise a multi faceted and labyrinthine issue. If I start thinking about them too much my left temple starts throbbing. But I think it is worth illustrating that Māori, as might be expected , are subject to different kinds of  injustice that require tailored political and legislative solutions that are simply absent, as yet. So bear with me, for this necessarily brief foray.

Let a single story stand in for the whole.

Such a story has been unfolding about 20 kilometres east of Whāngārei at the base of Whatitiri Maunga in Northland. It’s a story about water; the water of Porotī springs and its peoples, the hapū of Te Urioroi, Te Parawhau, and Te Māhurehure. This story has been in the making for many, many years.

The waters of Porotī are special. They have, according to their peoples, life-giving qualities; the waters are clean, they support important mahinga kai, such as watercress, kewai and tuna. These waters are also used to bless and purify those who need it, in times of trauma, illness, and spiritual need.

There is no dispute about the special nature or importance of these waters; nor as to whether Porotī Māori have retained sufficient connection with the water to have some degree of right to the water. In 2012, the Waitangi Tribunal has found for Porotī Māori (and other claimants to freshwater) that the Māori proprietary right in water guaranteed by the Treaty was ‘the exclusive right to control access to and use of the water while it was in their rohe’.

But that exclusive right has been of little comfort to Porotī Māori. So far, at least.

The ability of the hapū to manage and protect the Porotī springs has been stymied by many things, not the least of which has been the current government’s steadfast refusal to accept that any person, let alone any Māori, can own water.  The famous Red Book puts it this way (at p103)

…the Crown acknowledges that Maori have traditionally viewed a river or lake as a single entity, and have not separated it into bed, banks and water. As a result, Maori consider that the river or lake as a whole can be owned by iwi or hapu, in the sense of having tribal authority over it. However, while under New Zealand law the banks and bed of a river can be legally owned, the water cannot. This reflects the common law position that water, until contained (for example, put in a tank or bottled), cannot be owned by anybody. For this reason, it is not possible for the Crown to offer claimant groups legal ownership of an entire river or lake – including the water – in a settlement.[emphasis added]

Chris Finlayson, the Attorney General is very fond of p 103, and the Supreme Court affirmed this position in 2013, accepting that the job of the Crown was not to reverse its position on the common law, but to recognise those rights albeit in a way that falls short of recognising true property ownership.

So no one owns water. Until you collect it, that is. We’ll see how this affects the people of Porotī shortly.

Another factor that has prevented Porotī hapū from being able to protect the springs includes the application of the Resource Management Act 1991. The RMA includes provisions that are supposed to provide recognition of Māori interests. Professor Jacinta Ruru gives a great account of such protections, along with other water governance issues here.

In short, when formulating district and regional plan rules and guidelines, and issuing resource consents, decision-makers have to take into account several matters to enable Māori interests to be protected. For example:

  • Section 6(e) says that all persons exercising functions and powers in relation to managing the use, development, and protection of natural and physical resources must recognise and provide for matters of national importance, including the relationship of Māori and their culture and traditions with water. This sounds great, but is just one factor of ‘national importance’ among many to be weighed up in making such decisions.
  • Under section 7(a) of the RMA all persons exercising functions and powers in relation to managing the use, development, and protection of natural and physical resources shall have particular regard to kaitiakitanga. Again, it is one of several factors that must be considered.
  • And then, under s8 all persons exercising functions and powers under it, in relation to managing the use, development, and protection of natural and physical resources, shall take into account the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.

These provisions are supposed to create a set of protections for Māori, but in the case of Porotī Springs though, they have not amounted to much.  The Porotī people cannot prevent the springs on land which they own from being tapped.

You see, they can only control access across their own land, where the springs reside.

That’s why in 1971 the Whangarei district council drilled into the aquifer only metres upstream, on the edge of the hapū land, to draw for town supply.

Subsequent decades saw the council sell the bore to a private company (New Zealand Spring Water, formerly known as Zodiac Holdings), who then set about plans to sell the bore and to establish a 3600sqm bottling factory. They received the necessary consents to take 3-5 million litres annually, by way of the bore, and there has been nothing, so far, that the Porotī hapū have been able to do about it, detailed in this report by Paul Hamer. As he observes:

In 1960 the hapū controlled access to the springwater through the trustees and the Maori Land Court, and local farmers and the school applied for the right to draw water. Today, by contrast, the entire ‘available resource’ – 19,000 m³ per day – has been allocated to others for the next three decades. The relationship of Porotī Māori with the springs is regarded as one of the best examples in the country of a Māori proprietary right to water, and the Waitangi Tribunal has upheld the basis of Māori claims to the ownership of freshwater. The consent authorities, however, have steadfastly refused to be influenced by such considerations.

In allocating water consents, decision-makers have consistently ignored or underplayed Porotī concerns, and the Porotī people cannot stop the water being taken because they don’t own it, and even in possession of a recognised exclusionary Treaty-based right they can do nothing because the water is simply taken beyond their hapū boundaries anyway.

Maybe the RMA is simply the wrong mechanism to protect water. Mind you, occasionally things can go right, such as in the past couple of weeks, when an application to take millions of litres of water from a South Waikato source has been put on hold. In that case the Waikato Regional Council said the local Raukawa iwi were “affected persons” under the RMA and required their consent for the operation to go ahead.

Some would say also that the pressures faced by Porotī are being replicated all over the country beyond only Māori communities. Solutions must, therefore, meet the needs of the most, not merely the needs of the few. Such a majoritarian pressure is increasingly intense.

But only Māori are subject to Treaty-based obligations, such as kaitiakitanga, required to be exercised over bodies of water such as rivers and springs which, like Porotī are taonga. Arguably, the loss of water in these circumstances and the loss of ability to enforce unrecognised rights create different and new degrees of grievance. Such loss and breach requires specific solutions.

Recent developments can offer some hope for the design of such solutions. For (a very brief) example, the RMA was amended this year to provide for new agreements, called Mana Whakahono-a-Rohe, as mechanisms for iwi participation in local government decisions. The Freshwater Iwi Leaders Group has endorsed these new agreements, and is continuing in discussions on water allocation models.

But the pressure on Labour, or National, to craft solutions to the problems of water taking and water rights that meet the needs of the many over the needs of the (relative) Māori few will remain intense.

And Gareth’s question should lose none of its bite for any Māori in government by the end of September.




Breaking Bad Law?

Breaking Bad Law?

[An edited version of this post appears on E-Tangata.]

In the opening moments of the 1970s my father left my mother and followed his elusive business dreams to Australia. I have read several letters between the two of them, hurt and angry exchanges, and in all of them she asks him for financial assistance to raise their three children. He sent her a few payments, and eventually the letters and payments ceased.  At some point my mother went on the new domestic purposes benefit for sole parents (well, new in 1973). She stayed on that benefit until I left school, and then she shifted to the DPB woman-alone benefit, and on to superannuation. She was a beneficiary for about 41 years.

During that whole time my mother remained alone. She had offers of marriage but turned them down in part because she did not want to be beholden to richer men. Ironically the State support represented independence for us, despite all the rhetoric about reliance on benefits creating soul-suckingly dependent beneficiaries. My mother taught me about fighting for independence precisely because she was a beneficiary. She did not have to find succour from, or be exploited by, other people, just to survive.

I grew up watching her account for every 1c and 2c piece in our household budget, writing in little notebooks that, over decades, grew to fill drawers in the wall unit in the smoke-yellowed dining room. (And yes she was a beneficiary that smoked, and drank, and we never went hungry, m’kay?) She earned extra money by taking in boarders.

Our mother was deeply concerned to ensure she never overstepped her earning boundaries, and that she never found out where our father had gone, after those early letters stopped coming, so she could honestly report on the benefit forms that she did not know where he was. I clearly remember her actually putting her hands over her ears at one point just so she could not hear us discussing where he was living. ‘Sydney somewhere’ was the most specific fact she allowed herself to learn about him.

In this current period of time, dominated as it is by partisan breast-beating over the speeches, actions and inactions of Metiria Turei, some people might be tempted to use my mother’s story of law-adherence as some kind of moral lesson and counterpoint to Metiria’s.  Don’t. She was not a beneficiary saint or sinner. She just was who she was; she is no paragon or flag-bearer for anyone or anything. Her status as a beneficiary neither enhances nor degrades her moral character and more than her driver’s licence did.

She chose to adhere to the laws of benefit eligibility. And I wonder if it might have cost her dearly to stay alone, as she did, until her death in 2015. She was a gregarious person who shunned many relationships and became quite isolated in her later years. I’ll never know whether she might have been different had she not considered herself bound by such laws.

The only usefulness of her story in the public arena is maybe to prompt discussion about change. Her story is not an end in itself, and never should be. One one further thing: it highlights that the relevant laws in her case have, from their very inception, been doomed to be broken.

Well, to be honest, that is a pretty trite statement. All laws only exist because someone out there will want to break it and do the thing she’s not supposed to do, or fail to behave in the way she is supposed to.

But humour me…and forgive me if you have heard this one before. Instead of looking just at the end result of a given law, it helps to see why it is exists in the first place.

In our heavily targeted benefit system, widows’ benefits and domestic purposes benefits uphold the long-standing social presumption that a husband would, as the primary breadwinner, support his wife and children in the usual nuclear family formation. To be eligible to get a benefit under the Social Security Act 1964, therefore, an applicant must not also be receiving significant financial support from someone else standing in for the missing husband. Applicants must be effectively unsupported if the State is to provide that missing support and effectively ‘step into the shoes’ of the absent husband, or the person who should be providing such support.

The gender-based language has gone, but the absence of support requirement remains. Widows, single people formerly married people, formerly de facto people, must now all be in the same unsupported boat to be eligible for sole parent support (now under s20D of the ’64 Act, formerly known as the DPB sole parents benefit).

If these people do get into a new relationship they must not cross the line into emotional commitment and financial interdependence with another person. To do so would mean they are receiving support from that person. If they do, they must inform that the State of that change in circumstance, be income tested and accept the consequence, including the probable loss of the entire benefit.

And even if eligible, these people can lose some of their benefit if they fail to, or refuse to, name the other parent or to file for a child support assessment under the Child Support Act 1991. And if you thought that was some new neo-liberal rule, ah nope. It has been around since at least 1936, and even earlier, when some deserted wives were able to claim a widow’s benefit provided they could not find the husband who deserted them, and they filed for the earlier equivalent of child support.

Effectively these prohibitions uphold a general rule against resource-pooling designed to ensure that no-one is better off with State support than others would be without it.

In my view these rules shepherded or perhaps forced my mother into a solitary life that I don’t think she really wanted. In many ways she was acting against what we as humans usually do. Regardless of financial circumstances, people try and create bonds and relationships with others. We are social and we need each other. Yet compliance with the laws in this kind of case sets up a stark choice for the sole parent:

  • either live alone with no substantive contact with a romantic partner that crosses an imaginary line into emotional commitment and financial interdependence, and accept support from the State;
  • OR enter such a relationship and lie about its existence, accepting support from the State;
  • OR confess the relationship and lose eligibility.


It has amazed me, the extraordinary rhetoric that has swelled in the wake of Metiria Turei’s politically-driven account of her own circumstances in the early 1990s. In particular there has been a broad presumption in the public discourse that the laws that applied are either morally good or morally bad and that by breaching or adhering to such rules people like Metiria and my mother somehow reveal their moral character.

Sometimes morality and law does coincide and it is right that we should punish or promote certain behaviours as a society, if only to discourage others from doing bad things or to encourage others to do good things.

But let’s not fool ourselves that any law is a guide to the human heart.

I generally try not to kill people. That may reveal that I’m not a habitual murderer, but says nothing else about who I am. I regularly break other kinds of laws, or regulations. Over the years I have smoked and ingested drugs, I have trespassed, driven carelessly, assaulted people, sat on a kai table, used obscene language in a public place, walked over someone’s legs in a wharenui, and transgressed all sorts of lines of decency. I’m sure the list goes on and on. My mother used to get me to buy her alcohol and cigarettes after school. I’m pretty sure she wasn’t supposed to do that.

Not one of us leads a life in which we break no law.

By the same token there no point in pretending that any law is neutral. Laws are created in their cultural and political context. While the laws prohibiting resource-pooling appear gender neutral, they are enforced primarily against women and far more rarely against men. The benefit laws reflect a presumption that people live in nuclear families and can therefore struggle to deal with the notion of whāngai (Māori adoptions), for example.  This context doesn’t make the laws moral or immoral, but can lead to consequences that enforce a particular societal structure or view of that structure.

Māori are well aware of the oppression of seemingly ordinary laws that undergird the structure of a society that was never designed with Māori in mind. We ought not forget that Māori survival and social progress in this country has depended in part, at least, on Māori flouting laws; such as pulling up survey pegs, or  occupying land that laws said were no longer theirs, holding so-called illegal protests, and the like. We owe our law-breaking tūpuna a debt of gratitude, in many cases.

Nor am I drawing a false analogy between politically necessary lawbreaking by some in important parts of our history and the actions of genuine benefit fraudsters. I’m not a fan of benefit fraud (for example), and there are people who have been rightly punished for it.  But there is merit in identifying where  laws can set people up for inevitable failure, or have, with the passage of time, created social problems that can only be solved with sufficient political will.

I think our heavily targeted, morally directive welfare system is replete with laws that encourage failure, non-compliance and moral self-absolution.  We need policies that will incentivise law keeping rather than law breaking.

And we don’t need to be distracted by the current storm of moral one-upmanship that helps no one and clarifies nothing.





I am ambivalent about the hashtag du jour (#IAmMetiria) and the issue that gave rise to it. In case you have been under a rock, this hashtag refers to the declaration by Metiria Turei a few days ago that she had over-reported her housing costs, thus claiming a greater degree of social assistance than she was entitled to during her time as a solo mum on the DPB. Metiria made this declaration in the context of the release of the Greens’ welfare policy. I’m ambivalent because there are thousands of people living in poverty in this country, and we need to talk about it; and there is no doubt that Metiria’s kōrero has struck a cord with many. But I am uneasy because many of us now engaged in the discourse created around her statements have found ourselves trapped, as I’ll explain in a moment.

I don’t know Metiria personally.  I do love the fact she graduated from law school to become not only a solicitor but a doyenne of the McGillicuddy Serious Party.  I have no reason to disbelieve these statements about her life prior to her entry into politics:

In three of those flats, I had extra flatmates, who paid rent, but I didn’t tell WINZ. I didn’t dare.

I knew that if I told the truth about how many people were living in the house my benefit would be cut.

And I knew that my baby and I could not get by on what was left.

This is what being on the benefit did to me – it made me poor and it made me lie.

It was a stressful, terrifying experience.

At any moment, WINZ could have caught me and cut off my benefit.

They could have charged me with fraud and made me a criminal as well.

Metiria told this story presumably to highlight the pressures that beneficiaries face in surviving life on a low income coupled with the intrusions of the State in the personal lives of all those who receive this kind of support. Not long after her speech, the IAmMetiria hashtag appeared and social media is replete with people feeding into one of two main narratives:

  1. Metiria is a bad beneficiary, she rorted the system she should pay the money back, resign, or be sacked (and yes, they also have their own not-very-popular hashtag: #IAmNotMetiria)
  2. Metira only did what she did to survive and look after her baby, she stands for us; for my mum, my family, she is a good beneficiary (#IAmMetiria)

My first point of unease is that there is no real dualism in this kind of issue yet we pretend there is. Beneficiaries are neither saints nor sinners.  I resent any narrative that forces me to pick imaginary sides. Bugger off and leave me with my shades of grey and lack of certainty, please.

Further, we are turning the welfare debate yet again into competing salvos of personal stories that are deeply affecting and get us nowhere along the road to working out good solutions or even critiquing the Green Party’s policies in any depth.  Stories are useful if they illustrate the issues of law and policy that need to be changed, but the resulting debate must be disinterested (in the sense of not being influenced by personal involvement in something or impartiality.).  Public debate should not just consist of a rhetorical fight to the death between my personal interests and yours; or between degrees of disadvantage, or rely on prurient, even invasive, fascination with the most heart-wrenching accounts of poverty, disability, survival and difference.

I guess I also struggle with how easy it is for us to exploit our personal stories, and sometimes I wonder about the whiff of instrumental hypocrisy. Many of the people congratulating Metiria for her honesty and candidness no doubt also criticised John Key for using his ‘being raised in a state house’ narrative in the political arena, or Paula Bennett’s ‘struggling solo mother’ narrative being used for similarly political ends. Just because we might empathise more with either one of those individuals’ politics doesn’t make it consistent to have criticised the others for the same damn thing. I’m guilty of the same damn thing in the last week. I lashed out at ACT leader David Seymour for his statements that poor people should not have children if they can’t afford them, getting gratifying likes and retweets for doing so. But he was doing something very similar to Metiria; using carefully chosen words that tap into a deep reservoir of resentment among a particular group of people, inviting me to respond in a tribal manner. This I did, pointing to my own background as evidence of the rightness of my own position. What a sucker I can be.

I can’t be too hard on myself, or any of us really who retreat to our moral high grounds at such moments. We have pasts and they matter to us. We have extraordinary connection to the people, places and experiences that formed us. We all have lived lives that inform our decisions and influence our alliances, hell, fair enough. Our stories can inspire us to lead, too. And those stories are revealing.

In 1969 Carol Hanisch penned a famous paper called ‘The Personal is Political’. In her experience personal problems were important because they could reveal the structural and societal issues that created those problems in the first place.

I’ve been forced to take off the rose colored glasses and face the awful truth about how grim my life really is as a woman. I am getting a gut understanding of everything as opposed to the esoteric, intellectual understandings and noblesse oblige feelings I had in “other people’s” struggles.

And so that phrase ‘the personal is political’ developed a lot of momentum, and became a maxim. And like all maxims, it lost something in the repeat telling. Because Hanisch also said that we couldn’t rest on those personal laurels:

…personal problems are political problems. There are no personal solutions at this time. There is only collective action for a collective solution.

We have to take the leap from using our own personal experience to identify structural problems in our society to being able to consider collective political solutions that might be best for people different to ourselves. If we keep failing to take that leap, we head down the road to sterile tribalism, if we are not there already. And I think, for many of us, we already are.


Mana wahine, the legal system & the search for better stories.

Mana wahine, the legal system & the search for better stories.

Let me tell you a short story about an old court case. This case is well known to those familiar with New Zealand legal history. It involves a woman called Waipapakura from the Ngāti Hineuru hapū of Te Āti Awa. One day in 1911 she used nets on poles to go fishing in the tidal waters of the Waitōtara River. History doesn’t tell us if the fish were biting that day., just that she stuck her poles in the bed and got to work. At some point, a fisheries officer came along, told her she wasn’t allowed to do what she was doing, and took her poles and nets away. Just one small story of Māori having their practices interrupted or obliterated by Those Who Knew Better. On this occasion the woman bit back and sued the officer for the return of her nets. Keep her story in mind. We’ll return to it shortly.

The stories that others tell about us can also come to define us; even when they are false, because they often hold pieces of truth that wound, like tiny unseen shards of broken glass.

Our legal system is the source of many stories about Māori in New Zealand society, including the broad and depressing story of how we have become, in the last 40 years, a hyper-incarcerated people, arrested, locked up, and more heavily punished for criminal behaviour than our population numbers warrant.

There are other older stories too; of how Maori have been excluded, ignored, discriminated against and plundered, by way of the legal system over the course of the past 175 years or so. We need little reminding of these bad and true stories; of the lands stolen, confiscated, and lost, often completely “legally”, of customary marriages and family relationships being ignored, or trampled, of the depletion of our language and cultural practices.

In this powerful story of exclusion and loss, the position of Māori women has often been unseen, because the New Zealand legal system has also long failed to recognise women and children anyway. The notion that Māori women could have specific rights, authority, cultural expressions,  tikanga, or even opinions that required protection or attention was usually anathema to the New Zealand legal system in the the 19th and 20th centuries.

This exclusion of the voices and mana of wahine Māori began very early. In the 19th century Māori society important decisions were often made in hui rūnanga. Māori women were integral to such gatherings, as noted in one of the pro-government Māori newspapers of the time bemoaning such mana being afforded women’s voices:

…with the Maori Runanga, all must assemble together, the small and the great, the husband, the wife, the old man, the old woman and the children, the knowing and the foolish, the thoughtful and the presumptuous : these all obtain admittance to the Runanga Maori, with all their thoughts and speeches: this woman gets up and has her talk, and that youth gets up and has his…

Who ever arranged it that the (whole) village should turn-out for the settlement of disputes?…And who ever supposed that all the women and children should go and listen to the adulterous cases of bad men ?…The Pakeha’s plan in such a case is different. When a case of adultery is to be heard, neither women nor young people are allowed to hear the evidence; it is called out that they must all go outside…there are none left sitting in the Court-house on such occasions, but the male adults only. Let the Maories do likewise. Let them, by no means, allow the women and children to hear what is said about such an evil, lest they should understand all, and desire it themselves. (Te Manuhiri Tuarangi and Maori Intelligencer 10 (1 August 1861), p. 10)


The writer ultimately got his wish, and as the constitution developed over time, including the court system in New Zealand, the mana, needs and rights of Māori women became all but invisible.

Back to Waipapakura and her confiscated fishing nets. Here’s what happened.  The Court said Waipapakura had no right to use her own nets as she did, even though she was a customary owner of the land on which the fishing took place. The Court found Māori had no right to sink fishing poles into the foreshore and seabed. Only Māori rights specifically affirmed by statute could be recognised in the New Zealand courts. Her rights were not affirmed in statute, so were ignored. (Waipapakura v Hempton (1914) 33 NZLR 1065 (SC))

Many would say, rightly, that this decision occurred because the legal system has always been institutionally racist, unable and unwilling to recognise Māori customs, values, tikanga and concepts, let alone the lives of Māori women. Would things be different today? There is now precedent for recognising Māori rights over and above the Treaty, and for recognising such rights outside the express terms of legislation.

But much depends on the storyteller. The story-tellers par excellence in the legal system are judges. Judges hear the stories brought to them in the courtroom, and in judging, construct a narrative that becomes law. The majority of judges writing the stories that flow out of our courtroom and into our law are still male and Pākehā. Those factors alone don’t preclude true justice being to those affected by their decisions, what does so are the values and beliefs that such judges inevitably bring to the task of judging.

By virtue of the cases handed down to us, we know that New Zealand judges, over the course of our legal history have rarely held values and beliefs that recognised let alone respected the particular needs and roles of Māori women, or Māori generally, for that matter. But we are not bound to repeat the blindness of the past.

A forthcoming book: Feminist Judgments of Aotearoa New Zealand: Te Rino: A Two-Stranded Rope (Hart Publishing, 2017, editors: E McDonald, R Powell, M Stephens and R Hunter) shows how changing our stories can be possibleIn an exercise of imagination, participants took 25 judgments from New Zealand legal history and  rewrote them, as if each judgment author was one of the judges sitting at the time of the original decision. 19 of the judgments applied a feminist lens through which to view the exact same material as the original judge. The book also incorporates 6 judgments rewritten from the perspective of mana wahine; applying thinking and analysis that upholds the mana of Māori women and centralises Māori experiences and Māori world-views in the rewriting of such judgments.

So what happened when the Waipapakura decision was rewritten as a part of the Project? Well, the judge (Emma Gattey, in this case) decides that, as an exercise of a customary right, Waipapakura was entitled to fish (even if general fishing regulations don’t allow the use of her nets) especially because she is a customary owner of the land on which the fishing takes place. In making this decision, the Court declined to follow numerous doctrines of colonial law, finding them contrary to higher authority or principle. Waipapakura, in this alternative reality, got her nets back, and her story as a provider for her people was allowed to continue.

This rewritten judgment is not mere wish fulfilment. A mana wahine-based reading of the law was possible at that time, even within the strictures of the colonial legal system.  It could have happened. So along with the other mana wahine judgments, and feminist rewritten judgments ranging between 1914 and 2015, these new (albeit fictional) stories of what could have been gives hope that the story of Māori women, and Māori generally and the legal system can change; can become different.

Time, as always, will tell her own story.


This post was originally published in the June/July issue of Mana Magazine.

Photo, Left to right: Julia Whaipooti, Mihiata Pirini, Jacinta Ruru Māmari Stephens, Lisa Yarwood, Emma Gattey. (Courtesy VUW Image Services)

An Australian marae – a dangerous dream?

An Australian marae – a dangerous dream?

This post was originally published on E-Tangata.

Our father died in 2012. He had been living in Australia for about 42 years. He had only rarely returned to his birthplace (Waihopo) and our ancestral tūrangawaewae in Ahipara. My 5 siblings and I, as children of the post-war urban migrations, were all raised in different landscapes, with different air and different light, but we have all, in our own ways, returned, and kept returning to that place, forming and reforming ourselves.

So when Dad died, we came together to hui. To decide what we would do. Bring him home to New Zealand (a possibility he had sometimes spoken of with wistfulness), or to bury him in Australia. We tried not to let cost drive our decision, and in the end we decided to bury him in Wamberal cemetary near Gosford, where whānau could be near him more often. It was the right call, we all felt it, and so we held a tangihanga for him at his Terrigal home. To do that we had to, as best we could, observe tikanga, with the separation of tapu and noa, the use of ritual, karakia, and manaakitanga, and we followed the direction of our oldest brother Tainui in what best to do. There was no obviously ritually bounded marae-ātea space outside the house, but visitors were called over the threshold and honoured with whaikōrero and hosted with kai, stories and laughter.

At that event, the nature of the house was irrelevant, our tikanga could weave around and through it, because we, the people, carried it, leaving no marks, no indentations in the soil.

I was reminded of those sad days recently when I heard that the dream to build a marae complex in Greystanes, western Sydney, had been dashed.

And I’m not sure I’m sorry about it. More on that later.

The dream was one cherished by three organisations, Ngā Uri o Rāhiri Inc, Te Aranganui and the Sydney Marae Appeal, to establish a marae on leased land at the Hyland Road Reserve in Greystanes.

From what I can tell this dream took a lot of time, energy and fundraising, and at the last hurdle the local authority, the Cumberland Council rejected the proposal. In the sometimes cruel and bloodless language of power that erases years of hard work, it was:

Moved and declared carried by the Administrator that Council:

1. Abandon the current process relating to the proposed leasing of the subject land

The grounds for rejecting the proposal? Well, you can burrow through this 500+ page report on the council proceedings, or just take my word for it. The main reasons given were (broadly speaking):

  • lack of sufficient cultural connection between the immediate area and the local Māori population;
  • issues of due diligence;
  •  questions about the amalgamated groups’ ability to fund the project.

Those backing the project disagreed, of course, but for now at least, that dream sleeps.

But this was not the only marae project in Australia.  There’s one in Melbourne, with a flash website here, one in Western Australia, and probably others in the pipeline too.

It is hardly surprising, in a way, that such plans are afoot. As Paul Hamer tells us, from 2006 to 2011 the Māori (ancestry) population recorded by the Australian census grew 38.2 per cent, from 92,912 to 128,434. In fact, Paul reckons, Māori in Australia are now at least 18 per cent of all Māori. As my Dad would say, “crikey”!

Ah, wake up, says Tā Mason Durie. this kind of development was bound to happen. As he points out, there are already overseas marae. I presume he is referring to places like the highly successful Aotearoa village at the Polynesian Cultural Centre on Oahu in Hawai`i. This overseas spread is just the next step in in what Tā Mason calls ‘sustaining the Māori Estate.

Marae have been constructed in overseas countries where significant Māori communities now reside and as global travel increases, it is likely that overseas marae will be part of a world-wide network of marae, some based around hapū, others around communities of interest, and others still around global travellers who seek to retain a cultural anchor in an otherwise assimilating environment.

And certainly Māori have had a couple of centuries of deep connection with Parramatta in New South Wales, which was celebrated in 2014. In 1811 Ruatara had established a small farm near the banks of the Parramatta River (originally the territory of the Burramattagal clan of the Darug people) while staying with Rev Samuel Marsden, and Marsden, having purchased the land, had used the area to set up a Māori Seminary, supported by other Northern Māori rangatira such as Kāwiti Tiitua and Hongi Hika.  This area is known still as Rangihou. There are tūpuna buried there, and if there was to be a place with a strong claim for a marae, quite possibly, that was it. And those trying to establish the marae at Graystanes tried to show connection between that project and those historical roots at Rangihou, a mere 8 kilometres away.

So setting up a marae complex in overseas soil can make sense, right?



It doesn’t quite feel right.

Marae complexes, as built creations, are not just cultural centres. They are our cultural lifeboats; and they reach deep into the land on which they sit. As Te Rangihī​roa put it, in 1930, in written conversation with his mate Apirana Ngata, while living in Hawai`i:

Kia mau ki te pupuri i nga Marae o koutou kainga. Ko tena te mauri hei paihere i to koutou maoritanga kei ngaro ki te kore. Ko o koutou whanaunga o nga Moutere e noho mai nei ahau, kua kore nga marae, a kua noho tautangata i roto i nga Iwi nunui o te Ao.”

Hold steadfast onto the Marae of your homes. That is the essence to which you bind your Maoritanga that nothing may be lost. Your kinsfolk in the Islands where I have lived have now no marae, and have become assimilated into the dominant nations of the world) Te Toa Takitini, 1st April 1930, p. 2029 (translation by Te Mātāhauariki)

The marae complex, including the whare nui and marae ātea certainly embody sacred space for Māori today.  The complex provides us with an earth-connected foundation point in the world for whānau, hapū and iwi.

And I wonder about the cost to the Indigenous peoples of Māori creating such permanent foundation points in Australia.

Let me illustrate my concern.

In May 2014 Ngāti Toa, the Porirua City Council, the Blacktown City Council and the local Blacktown community celebrated the erection of two pou in the New Zealand South Pacific Garden in the Nurragingy Reserve. The Reserve is in Blacktown, west of Sydney (roughly 25 kilometres from Rangihou), and also part of the Darug people’s land. The pou were erected to commemorate the 30-year sister-city relationship between Blacktown and Porirua.

The lead-up to this event was a little fraught. Well-known Darug elder Aunty Sandra Lee left us in no doubt as to her opinion on what was assumed to be the original proposal to have the pou erected at the entrance to the whole reserve:

“Would the Maoris like me to go over to New Zealand and hang ring-tail possums all over the place? Or kangaroos? No they wouldn’t, I know they wouldn’t, so why are they doing it to us?” she said

Ms Lee said situating the poles at the front gate would diminish the Aboriginal symbolism of Nurragingy and continue the ongoing genocide of her people.

“I’ll stand there and I’ll burn them down if I have to,” she said. “They can put them anywhere inside, no worries – but not at the gate.”

The stoush was settled, insofar as the pou were eventually erected at the entrance to the New Zealand garden only (not at the entrance to whole reserve), and there they stand today. Māori wardens rose to the fore and helped ensure Darug people were involved in the opening and unveiling of the pou.

The opening ceremony was impressive. It included a wero, karanga, an ope of dignitaries that moved to what looked like a designated marae-ātea space, a smoking ceremony fire, a Welcome to Country from Darug Elder Aunty Edna Watson, karakia, whaikōrero,  hongi & hariru. If most of those elements largely seem like the usual running of a pōwhiri to you, that’s pretty much what it looked like.

Now, there is no doubt that this event was supposed to affirm Māori identity as manuhiri, not at all as tangata whenua. But watch the ceremony and see for yourself. The overall impression (rightly or wrongly) is one whereby Māori hold the reins, control the narrative, and allow the Darug people to participate. Skip to 49′ 40″ on the video and you will see the council dignitaries, and a couple of the Darug representatives (Auntry Edna and her daughter) progressing along the hongi line and being greeted as if they were the manuhiri. 

Tears started into my eyes at that point and I felt anger. I know huge effort went into this ceremony, and I know there was aroha present and the best of intentions, and as a viewer, I couldn’t see if the other Darug elders were still on the ‘tangata whenua’ side. So my information was limited. But when should it ever be tika (correct) that any Darug elder (upon whose shoulders Māori legitimacy of place lies, after all) have ever been expected to assume the status of a visitor in this visual narrative?

The answer is never.

This is the risk we run, as Māori, when we dig into Australian soil to create places or points of belonging, no matter how well we think we have consulted with indigenous peoples. That soil is not ours and will never be ours.

That doesn’t mean to say we can’t be Māori on that soil. How can we not be? We should guard and protect and develop our cultural expressions, why not have cultural clubs and centres?

We should protect our language, our rituals, our mourning and our celebrating, even in little ways as our whānau did for our Dad in 2012.

And there he lies, ever, ever, the manuhiri.

But we must be wary of transplanting our notions of being tangata whenua to the whenua of others, and risk wreaking yet another layer of colonisation upon those home peoples.

We must never forget who we are. And we must never forget who we are not.



What some bloody awful cartoons can tell us about ourselves.

What some bloody awful cartoons can tell us about ourselves.

(Please note: an edited version of this post has been published on E-Tangata.)

I don’t get personally offended easily. I learned a while ago not to buy too much into the fever-dreams of keyboard warriors, and most of the people around me who do say outrageous things are not loathsome people, so I don’t care to waste my energy in policing them. And, I’m lucky, I think, to have avoided some of the more obvious slings and arrows of racist misfortune in my life.

Except, I haven’t. Not really. I’m a child of the urban migrations and the lost WWII generation, before that, a descendent of colonial wars, and before that, of inter-tribal musket wars, and all the upheavals and trauma, political, demographic and spiritual, in between.  I am who I am because of the collective Te Rarawa and Māori experience of intergenerational losses; including the loss of language, place and space, tribal connection, knowledge, and sheer entitlement.  As an Anglican I’m also heir to the good and the bad of church history, particularly in the North and Waikato.  Of course, I am the sum of other things as well, my Irish and German forbears and their respective histories, but those things lie lightly on me.

Just because I have a pretty peaceable nature, it would be easy to mistake someone like me on face value as someone ‘balanced’ not likely to fly off the handle, someone who isn’t too ‘PC’. Probably so, but I carry the weight of Māori history, like any other ‘descendent of a New Zealand Māori’, to use that quaint phrase of legislative definition.

And for many of us from Māori families and communities, the historical losses don’t tell the whole story, compounded as it is, by the accumulation of many little and large unintentional slights, deliberate hurts, and omissions over years of racism and bigotry that can be forgiven, but can’t be wished  or washed away; or unfelt, unseen, or unheard.

Yet we are expected in the eyes of many (not all, of course) simply to be ‘good sports’. Come on, let the mispronunciation rest, let the accusation of theft pass, let the suspicious glance lie, live down to that low expectation, let the stereotype alone, oh, grow a sense of humour and just let the past be, don’t be so easily offended. No matter how that past calcifies around us like an oddly inefficient shell: porous enough to let the hurt through, and unyielding enough to last through generations.

So, as ‘good sports’ we know the engineering students’ bastard “haka” performed annually for 25 years, ending in ’79 was just a generation-long harmless joke; the deliberate & non-deliberate butchering of Māori names on our airwaves and in our classrooms is just something to be borne, don’t make a fuss; naked selfies on a sacred maunga are just awesome T & A photo ops; artists, academics and government officials alike can, like magpies, pinch the shiny bits of the language out of dictionaries for their signs, their academic papers, their artworks without ever being able to speak a complete sentence in the language, let alone know what it means; yes, we will sit for your portrait, we will die on your canvas, your tote bag, your tea-towel, we will be the noble savage of your dreams.

Hey, it’s OK. You’re welcome.

But a small thing is never just a small thing, right?

Of course Māori can never claim a monopoly on the experience of racism and bigotry, and grievance is not a state of grace we should seek to hold on to.  But just like the violent and heavy histories, the stories we tell and retell of small (and big) moments of everyday ignorance and racism are autochthonous; formed of this soil, and of this air, and in this land of shifting light. And sometimes, just for the purpose of release, those stories must be told and retold with fresh anger each time, as Amie Berghan Paulet shows by sharing some of the words on the tip of her tongue:

Racism is when you label my people ‘dole bludgers’.

Racism is when you tell my people to just ‘get over it, the past is the past’.

Racism is when you look at the ‘statistics’ and not the truth that is hiding behind the statistics.

Racism is when discussing history you expect my people to walk towards you for healing instead of you walking towards us.

Racism is when you take naked selfies on our sacred mountains and then label us as ‘prudes’ or pass over our offence as if it’s because we don’t understand freedom to self-expression.

It’s true that Māori are asked forgo much in order to preserve the sanctity of “freedom to self-expression”.  Up to the limit of the law, of course.

Right. So, what is the limit of the law? Al Nisbet can help us there.

Do you remember, from a few years back, his cartoon caricatures of waddling Māori bludgers with their smokes and their alcohol and the glint of greed in their beady, calculating eyes? The ones with the dull, bloated children with stunted futures and dubious parentage? Remember those cartoons? Well, unsurprisingly, some of us got upset when they were published back in 2013, and Louisa Wall and South Auckland youth group Warriors of Change took The Press and Marlborough Express newspapers to court. Well, more specifically, the Human Rights Review Tribunal.

A couple of weeks ago the decision came in: according to the Tribunal the cartoons, offensive as they are, did not breach the Human Rights Act 1993.

How does this happen?

First off, where does this right to freedom of expression come from anyway? This magic notion, that is as limitless as human thought and imagination, is set out in s14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, and let’s be clear; the right is not absolute, it has limits, including limits imposed by law.

Including this bit of law: s61(1) of the Human Rights Act 1993. According to this section it is unlawful for any person to publish or distribute written matter that is threatening, abusive or insulting; and likely to excite hostility against or bring into contempt any group of persons on [in this case] the basis of race.

It’s not hard to find those cartoons insulting towards Māori, and the Tribunal agreed. Those cartoons could indeed go straight to the top shelf of small and large things designed to add to the weight of everyday bigotry and racism. Straight to the poolroom, even.

It’s the last requirement that’s the hardest: it’s a causation test. Words (or images, as here) cannot merely be hurtful and degrading or insulting, they actually have to be likely to cause other people to become hostile against Māori on the basis of race.

To cut a long story short, the Tribunal said no. The cartoons did not reach that threshold. Case closed. And regardless of what I’m about to say below, in the main, I agree with the result. Simply to live in this society we have to allow those around us to say horrible things we don’t like, even if those things wound us; and they do. In turn we have the same ability to insult, wound, and offend. My Facebook feed is replete with people (often brown ones) gleefully taking up the opportunity to rip into others. This is part of our jostling co-existence and the cost to our own freedom to insult and offend and express whatever we want would be too great to close down the Al Nisbets of this world, even though his work adds to our burden of racist experiences.

But I did want to call your attention to something else in the Tribunal’s judgment.

In evaluating whether Nisbet’s cartoons were likely to incite hatred, the Tribunal, as directed by the Supreme Court in an earlier case, had to turn to that marvellous legal fiction, the ‘reasonable person‘. You see, how do we know if insulting words are likely to excite others to be hostile against Māori? Well that depends on someone who has never existed; the reasonable person, a kind of paragon of circumspect behaviour that just happens to be lurking around at the time when these published images hit the public arena. This sensible and sober person would have some knowledge, so would know that the cartoons show Māori people, would have some idea of the stereotypes in play, and would know about local conditions and community. Would that reasonable person, aware of the context and circumstances surrounding the use of the words, view them as exposing Māori to hatred among other people?

But here’s the thing. The ‘reasonable person’ is not allowed, in the context of the Human Rights Act 1993, to be Māori. Not in this case, and probably not ever. The focus is not on how greatly Māori were injured, but on how likely NON-Māori were to become hostile as a result. As the Tribunal said:

In the present case the cartoons were unquestionably about a subject of public interest; they were also provocative. That Māori and Pacifika were offended and insulted is not the point. Section 61 is directed not to the effect on them, but on the effect on non-Māori and non-Pacifika and the likelihood of their being excited to hostility against Māori and Pacifika or their holding Māori and Pacifika in contempt. In our view the cartoons were insulting but fell well short of bringing Māori and Pacifika into contempt.

See, I imagine a reasonable person that can be Māori, who can emerge out of the context within which Māori live, that can appreciate the weight of history and everyday bigotry on the hearts and minds of Māori people. I imagine a reasonable Māori person that can see that, and still value freedom of expression.

But the Tribunal couldn’t really explain to me why it is that the reasonable person in this case and in our general legal system is never Māori.

Perhaps we carry too much weight, too much hurt, you see, to ever be trusted to be truly reasonable. Or truly normal and ordinary.

Just maybe the Māori reasonable person, has no sense of humour.

Casual Racism & the Phone Message of Doom

Casual Racism & the Phone Message of Doom

I remember how much like a punch in the gut it felt to hear, at the age of 16, how my then-boyfriend’s mother had said to him, “Well, dear. It is not as if we will ever let you marry a Maori.” He reported to this me with a shake of his head and a laugh, until he caught sight of my reaction. I stared at him with my mouth open, my eyes welling with tears. I had been staying at his house with he and his parents in Wellington, and it was shortly before I was due to leave. She had said this awful thing even as I was staying under their roof. To be honest there was a little bit of context to that remark, he and I had been caught the previous evening in a little bit of a compromising position (cuddling on the same bed fully clothed, with door closed, in 1986, if you MUST know) , and he had been trying to mollify her annoyance. So that was her ultimate riposte; I wasn’t marriageable material anyway, so what did it matter what he did?

Once he saw my reaction my boyfriend realised, I think, how far over the line this comment was, and how painful it had been for me to hear. Actually, funny post-script..when I did leave, he and I went to the airport, and as we waited in the terminal, there was an announcement over the speakers that there was a phone-call for me at the Air New Zealand desk. At the other end of the phone was his mother, apologising to me, and saying how she really didn’t mean what she said, and what a wonderful person I was. And while I never married her son, in the years that followed, when I would visit, she always treated me with the greatest respect, and with real (so I felt) affection. I never held any long-term resentment over the comment; I just filed it away, I guess, under ‘moments that make us figure out who we are, and who we are not.’

I was reminded of that moment when I read about the Marae employee Blake Ihimaera receiving an unwelcome telephone message, when the employee of the car company she was hiring from inadvertently failed to terminate the call, and he and his colleague had a moan about Māori people; they needed to be sent to their own island, and why the hell did they want their own prison anyway. Blake describes the moment she heard the message as being one where the bubble she had been living in burst. She had lived, up until that time in a pro-Māori world, and this moment had shattered that bubble, maybe forever. I absolutely got that, that’s how I felt. I knew, at my tender age then, that there was racism and I knew Māori had had a bad deal (didn’t quite know the details back then) but this was the first time I had really felt belittled directly for simply being who I was.

What I have learned in the intervening 30 years is that this kind of casual bigotry is endemic, but that it is only rarely a means to its own end. When my boyfriend’s mother said what she said, of course it was racist. But it was also designed to hurt him because of the rule that we had broken. I was the means to her end of belittling him and his choices, more than anything else. We say the most awful things to the people we love the most. When I listened to the conversation between the car company employees, I heard that kind of racist ‘locker room talk’ between people that quite possibly don’t know each other all that well, and are looking for ways to connect. And Blake, like me, was the means to that ignominious end.

So in that sense it’s a mistake to call this racism casual at all, there was nothing casual about it in either event. The first example was one of deliberate punishment for transgression, and the second was a deliberate social strategy (so so it seemed to me). The awful thing in that second example is really how easily  Māori people, or any people for that matter, are sacrificed to that long social process of building useful relationships. The things I have heard over my life about Chinese, Samoans, Iraquis, Somalians, Aborigines, when the speaker thinks he or she need a bit of social lubrication to get by, are pretty depressingly awful. Many such bigoted comments have been made by Māori and Pasifika, unsurprisingly. And here’s the thing: they almost always work. The raucous “FAARKthat’s funny!” laughter, the common raised eyebrows, the nod, the half shrug, the quiet ‘yeah, well…’. I have never seen anyone walk out of that kind of personal conversation, and that includes me, although I’m a lot better now at calling that kind of talk bollocks when I hear it, than I was in my 20s or 30s. I have enough social capital that I can afford to lose some of it, you see.

It’s easy enough to say, ‘well just call it out. Call all that racist behaviour out, and if you put up with it you are as bad as they are. Boycott that car company for being racist bastards.’  Yep, good call, consequences change behaviour, right?

Now let’s look at our own lives and see how honest we really are in calling bigotry out when we see it. Or are we actually quite fond of it? Is this a dirty little secret tool that we actually do keep in our kete of social interactions? Maybe lots of us don’t. I hope so. But my theory is we will sometimes put up with or promulgate outrageously untrue statements about large swathes of people we gleefully put to the sword for a moment of fellow-feeling. Or perhaps we do it to make a point, or to punish someone, or whatever our immediate social need is at the time. And social media provides us with the massive echo chamber of bigotry to play around in. This comment on Facebook summed up the problem nicely:

they should be sacked from their job not good enough that this is 2017 and we are still experiencing these racists remarks in our own country Damn white trash is all i can say

Doing it for the likes, right? in fact, 29 as at last count at 5.28pm Monday and three comments; all vociferously in favour.

Ah, basic social anthropology I guess, in group/out group, nothing new to see here. But if we are to preside over the gradual death of ‘casual’ racism in our society we can’t shame it into extinction if we don’t also eradicate our own love of casual bigotry.

So. Sport and weather it is, then…



Religion in schools…what about karakia?

I am shamelessly recycling this post from a year or so back, only cos religion in school is now back before the court


My eye was drawn to a catchy headline thrown to me by my Facebook feed the other week. The headline read:

Karakia could fall foul of ban on Bible teaching in state schools

Upon clicking, I discovered AUT Professor Paul Moon had asserted  that: “Banning religious practices in schools, may inevitably extend to removing karakia from schools as well”. This piece was followed up by a report on Te Karere.

My first response to these reports was a swift stab of, “Oh, no you bloody don’t!” Many, many Māori would have had their hackles raised at the mere prospect of State interference in what many consider to be primarily a cultural, rather than a religious, practice. I can’t think of a serious endeavour, or hui, in everyday Māori cultural life, where karakia don’t have some kind of presence, even if a muted one. The most irreligious of Māori will often still take part in karakia. Would kids and teachers in kura kaupapa Māori, for example, really be faced with a ban on saying karakia? I wondered.

The article I read did not identify exactly how karakia might qualify as ‘a religious practice’ or how it could be controlled or banned, let alone if , or how, such a path could even be implemented. There are a few building blocks that need to be put in place before we can agree with the Secular Education Network’s confident assertion that McClintock’s case (if it does get heard) would not result in the banning of Maori cultural practices.

First of all; just what are we allowed to do, in our public education system? Some of the answer is in s77 of the Education Act 1964:

every State primary school shall be kept open 5 days in each week for at least 4 hours each day, of which hours 2 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon shall be; and the teaching shall be entirely of a secular character.

So, our primary public education system is a secular one, and has been since the inception of free, compulsory education in 1877; separation of church and state, and all that.Except..when it may not be.

(And interestingly, secondary education need not be secular, and Boards of Trustees have discretion to allow non-discriminatory religious instruction under the Education Act 1989; arguably a hangover from the days when education was not compulsory beyond the age of 13)

s78 of the 1964 Act says that primary schools can close for short periods of time during the day:

for the purposes of religious instruction given by voluntary instructors approved by the school’s board and of religious observances conducted in a manner approved by the school’s board or for either of those purposes; and the school buildings may be used for those purposes or for either of them.

So. religious instruction and religious observation can be carried out at secular primary schools during periods of agreed closure. As an example, during lunchtimes, schools are ‘closed’ for instruction, so available for Bible classes as matters of religious instruction (teaching children what to believe, not teaching about religions). This is when the children who opt out might be set aside to read a book, or even wash dishes, or some other alternative activity.

Yes, opt out. Under s79(1) children may opt out of any such instruction, as long as their parents or guardians request this, in writing, of the school. Not opt-in, whereby parents or guardians request in writing that children ‘sign up’ for such instruction.

Ah. You see; this system also applies to religious observation, not just instruction. And that is where we have to look more closely at what karakia may, or may not, be. Because if karakia count as religious observation under s78 then schools need to ‘close’ during the day in order to facilitate such observation, and parents have to notify their schools in writing if they wish their children not to participate in karakia. And if a case such as McClintock’s succeeds in prompting law change, for example changing opt out to opt in, then religious observation would be included, and parents and guardians would need to write in for their children to be able to participate in religious observation; IF karakia can indeed be called that. To say that such a change would threaten a chilling effect on cultural practices at the very least would not , to my mind, be scaremongering. A ban would not be technically correct, but it wouldn’t have to be.

So we have to grapple with this question: what the heck are karakia anyway? There is no doubt that sometimes prayers occur in New Zealand primary schools that are Christian in nature, but that called karakia (and sometimes called īnoi). As alluded to above, we have been down this track before. Three years ago, some staff at a Christchurch primary school were unhappy about prayer being used during school hours.

Children from the Avondale primary school’s Maori bilingual unit lead pupils and staff in daily prayer, a tradition stretching back two decades in a school that is a melting pot of race and creed.

Principal Heather Bell says beginning the day this way brings a sense of grounding to the school and creates a sense of belonging.

Translated, the brief Maori prayer penned by the school’s kaiarahi reo or Maori language assistant, says: “Lord look after us, guide us with your work today, in your holy name.”

Some, perhaps many Māori will say such prayers are not, in fact, karakia at all. Ngaire McCarthy is a keen proponent of the view that karakia have been co-opted by Christianity, and that at their traditional core, karakia are in no way religious:

The traditional karakia that is used to open and close ceremonies is not a Christian prayer, it is a ritual chant, a set form of words to state or make effective a ritual activity. Karakia are recited rapidly using traditional language, symbols and structures.

The early missionaries saw Maori traditions through a Biblical framework and believed that karakia was always a prayer, so they took the word and reinterpreted it to mean Christian prayer. The word karakia then became just another tool of colonization.

If the few kaumatua (elderly Maori) who articulate the karakia, are Christian, they will continue to misrepresent our customary karakia. This puts them into direct conflict with our pre-colonization customary traditions.

According to 19th century sources; karakia were used to ensure correctness of process, to mark transitions, to ensure safety (among many other things). Te Mātāpunenga defines karakia in the following way:

Karakia. A set form of words to state, confirm or make effective the intent of a ritual activity, and the reciting of these words, thus often translated by terms such as “incantation”, “charm”, or “spell”. In modern usage the term has been extended to include Christian and other religious services (for example, a church is often referred to as a whare karakia). In traditional ritual activity strict adherence to the proper the form of the karakia was essential; hesitation, mispronunciation or omissions in its recitation could negate or reverse its intended effects and bring harm to those involved. The word is Proto-Tahitic in origin, with similar meanings in Tuamotuan, Rarotongan and Mäori.

On one view then, karakia are cultural ritual without religion, and ought to be entirely safe for use within the primary school environment. On this view culturally bastardised prayers are masquerading as karakia, and fall foul of the law.

I really question this dualistic approach to understanding karakia. For one thing, the moment any traditional karakia envisages, propitiates, or acknowledges any power or entity outside of the human experience; that karakia takes on a spiritual dimension, and it becomes a matter of definitional point-scoring in determining when matters spiritual shade into matters religious.

Further, the presumption that Māori traditionally had no religion sometimes stemmed from ethnologists and writers of the 19th and 20th centuries (a great collection of such attitudes are listed and traversed in detail in Elsdon Best’s Māori Religion and Mythology) who assumed that Māori practices lacking temples, and in most cases, reference to a supreme being, could not comprise “true religion”. This attitude smacks of a similar insistence that Māori law could not comprise “true law” because there were no courts or Parliament. The extent to which Māori religion remains in modern New Zealand, as with law, is an open and fascinating question.

The courts in New Zealand, and Canada have all had to consider what counts as ‘religion’ as Fiona Wright identified in 2007:

Australian and New Zealand courts have said that religion involves belief in a supernatural being, thing or principle as well as canons of conduct that give effect to that belief…Canadian courts have described religion as a “particular and comprehensive system of faith and worship” combined with “belief in a divine, superhuman or controlling power” [..] In essence, religion is about freely and deeply held personal convictions or beliefs connected to an individual’s spiritual faith and integrally linked to one’s self-definition and spiritual fulfilment, the practices of which allow individuals to foster a connection with the divine or with the subject or object of that spiritual faith.

So depending on your definition of religion karakia can be defined as religious observations for the purposes of the Education Act 1964.  Or depending on your definition of religion, karakia are not religious and won’t count for the purposes of the Act.

On either reading, karakia are still cultural practices. This is arguably the line skated in Te Aho Matua (the curriculum followed by Kura Kaupapa)  which ascribes a special place to karakia:

5.2 Ko te tino painga o te karakia he mea whakatau i te wairua, whakawatea i te whatumanawa me te hinengaro, whakarata i te ngakau, whakataka i ngā raru, kia ngawari ai te whakauru atu ki te mahi kua whakaritea hei mahi.

[Kura kaupapa Māori] practise karakia as a means of settling the spirit, clearing the mind and releasing tension so that concentration on the task at hand is facilitated.

But there will be times when merely ‘settling the spirit’ involves invocation of a deity or deities, and the cultural thus arguably includes the religious.

So if the McClintock case ever does get argued, and if restrictions do end up being  placed on religious instruction in primary schools, in order to protect secular education, and to uphold the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (in NZBORA, s13), Māori cultural rights (protected under s20 of the BORA) will most definitely be under threat.

And I wonder (with my tongue in my cheek..but only just) about implementation. Who will put their hand up for the job of karakia police, patrolling schools and kura, watching and listening for karakia and those code words in Māori that sound suspiciously religious (depending which official is defining ‘religion’ that day), and must face strict control, rather than those that sound merely ‘cultural’, that can be left alone. How would any kind of regulation not involve cultural interference?

After all that, I think I’m back to my old gut instinct with which I started this piece: “Oh no, you bloody don’t!”


Max Harris & the virtues of being an ‘ihu-hupe’.

Max Harris & the virtues of being an ‘ihu-hupe’.

Max Harris is a good bloke who has written a book. He doesn’t need me to repeat all his other achievements for him, you can read about him here and here.  Bridget Williams Books launched the new book last week, where, quite literally, people were spilling out of the doors. That is not very typical of book launches I have been to.

The New Zealand Project is a heartfelt, wide-ranging, intelligent and idiosyncratic tour de force, whereby Max distills pearls of wisdom from interviews he conducted with at least thirty deep thinkers from across and beyond New Zealand’s political, economic, cultural and social landscape. He mixes those pearls with his own insights creating a kind of idealistic but somehow still possible agenda for making Aotearoa New Zealand a better place.

At the very heart of Max’s focus is his call for a return to values in the public sphere. As he states at p 13 of The New Zealand Project:

It is difficult to define values. I understand them to be principles that we hold dear that contribute to a life well led. A values-based politics, then, is a politics (in the activist and electoral spheres) that is motivated by values and that seeks to give effect to values through political action. It is related to, and inspired by, Māori approaches to ethics, life and collective action, which place values at the centre of behaviour and decision-making. [emphasis added]

His position is that New Zealand has abandoned a set of values that kept our society functional.  With this abandonment of positive and implicitly agreed values, New Zealand had been left, as a nation, with the cold comforts of arch-pragmatism, growing individualism and self-interest. This is not a new charge, and was expressed by Chris Trotter in 1975, somewhat prophetically over 40 years ago, at a time when there was both gloomy pessimism about NZ’s future, and a grassroots political movement to return values to politics.

Oh you who turn your faces

From the poet and the priest

You’re lost amongst the neon

Bloated by the feast

And the man who shouts the loudest

Is bound to win the strife

In one hand he’s a golden coin

The other wields a knife

[excerpt from Sons of Cain 1975]

As Trotter’s poem shows, written during the electoral run-up to the Muldoon era, the stripping away of civic values cannot be blamed solely on the rise of neoliberalism since the late 1970s. Indeed punitive pragmatism has been in the New Zealand psyche for a long time and our social welfare system, and our criminal justice system are soaked in it.

According to Max, in his modern vision, we need to once more orientate our actions and our policies according a set of commonly understood values, collected under the headings Community, Care and Creativity. In addition Max identifies Love as another value that should inform our politics, how we deal with each other and how we develop as a society.

Importantly, Max pays specific attention to Māori values; and that takes the potential of his work in a refreshing direction. (Although it has to be said, the expression of Māori values in politics is hardly new.) In Max’s view values-based politics can only make sense if they are decolonised values-based politics, with the power imbalance eradicated.

I have aimed to suggest, with humility and tentativeness (and as far as possible drawing on Māori voices such as those of Mikaere, Moana Jackson, Kim Workman, and others), that Māori values have much to offer New Zealand politics and society. Te ao Māori and tikanga Māori provide us with a model of the very idea of a values-based politics, […] . Specific Māori values like whanaungatanga, manaakitanga and auahatanga can enrich our understandings of the progressive values underpinning this book: community, care and creativity. Aroha underpins and deepens the notion of a politics of love […].

And Māori notions of kaitiakitanga can change how we understand human beings’ interaction with their environment, […]. New Zealand history should not be romanticised, and […] lessons of history should not be forgotten.

Tikanga Māori – the first law of Aotearoa – remains an important foundation and model for how politics should be done in the present.[p286]

I’m also interested in Max’s earlier statement that Māori ‘place values at the centre of behaviour and decision-making.’  Do we? I’m always a little uneasy about identifying values that we as Māori ought to uphold or should infuse our decisions with. What we value certainly can shape our actions, and our actions thereby reflect our values. However I think values emerge from what we really do. I’m less sure that statements about values alone are truly honest. I think they can be useful as a kind of confirmation, or even a kind of rallying cry. And there is something to be said about identifying values that we want to live by. But merely saying we operate according to principles of manaakitanga doesn’t make it so.

There’s another problem in my view with identifying values that are good and ‘contribute to a life well-led’. Setting values also import the risk of failure by establishing a set of standards that we will, more likely than not, fail. There is a reason why our criminal legal system, and indeed Māori legal precepts, both as codes for human behaviour, concentrate on punishing us for what we do or fail to do; it is just too difficult and intrusive to punish us for what we are and what we have failed to be. Yet arguably, identifying core values to live by sets exactly these kinds of unachievable standards. Truly, we are not worthy.

On the other hand I can see how our policy and law can be different if we seek to implement a set of values in their design. Imagine how different New Zealand law could have been if collective rangatiratanga had been a pre-eminent value of the New Zealand state instead of individual autonomy of the property owner? So a values-based constitution, or a values-based framework can have merit. We just cannot expect too much of ourselves in keeping to such values.

This foray into the matter of Māori values in politics, no matter how genuine, also inevitably raises questions about the person making the claim for such values. Here’s a good example of such a question, on Twitter, on the day Max’s book launched:

I like Max Harris & his work. I also  think we should talk abt why we listen when clever white men say things Māori have been saying for years.

It is a good question. Max’s advocacy of Māori values appears to be well received by those who like what he is doing, and his approach appears to be genuine and without arrogance. And I, for one, greatly prefer Pākehā who engage properly (and not thievingly) with Māori concepts and issues, rather than throwing their hands in the air, relegating such matters to the ‘too hard’ basket. But it is also true that Māori and Pasifika have not been particularly involved in the public discourse about his work thus far.

And it is true that Māori have been talking about values-based politics for a long time; the creation of the Mana and Māori parties are testament to that public and private debate.

So part of the problem identified by Tweeter Marianne Elliot’s question is not so much that Māori (for example) are not contributing to, or taking part in, debates about values and other issues of national importance.  They bloody well are. The problem seems more that the windows into such debates are inevitably framed by, and focused on, the doings and sayings of those in the majoritarian culture by those in the majoritarian culture. If we engage in mainstream discourse we are simply less likely to hear Māori and Pasifika voices in that discourse.

Of course here we get into familiar territory; the scarcity of Māori and Pasifika public voices in mainstream media, which is one of the very reasons we have E-Tangata, I might add, and why so much respect must go to Tapu & Gary for working so hard to create a window places places Māori and Pasifika naturally within the frame.

But Marianne’s criticism of Max also in part seems also to be about the fact that he is at the podium in the first place. It seems to me that Max is establishing himself, to some degree, as a kind of public intellectual, someone who sits outside societal institutions, offering not only a reasoned critique of those institutions but also generating ideas as to how those institutions and society as a whole can be better. This kind of figure has a long and respectable history in Western civilisation, and in New Zealand, notwithstanding our famed (and probably over-hyped) anti-intellectualism.

Speaking in regards to Māori, there is no shortage of Māori intellectual giants dotting our landscape; no lack of a Māori intellectual tradition. Dr Ranginui Walker, Moana Jackson, Donna Awatere-Huata, Dun Mihaka, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith have all provided strong voices and charismas, with identifiable intellectual positions and challenges to the mainstream, not reliant on any academic institution to provide a platform. All of these thinkers (and more besides) have provided a foundation for others to build on; their work does not end with them.

Yet it does seem relatively rare for Māori to claim such general public space simply as a matter of right and entitlement. I know plenty of extraordinary young Māori thinkers, I would struggle to think of any who would do what Max is doing just yet.  Perhaps Māori intellectualism is simply done differently.  Perhaps it requires a longer gestation period; due to more community checks and balances. It is difficult for rangatahi to stand in such a space without being called a tamaiti mōhio (know-it-all kid) or ihu hupe (snot-nose, similar to ‘wet-behind-the-ears’) by others in their communities.  Maybe Māori intellectuals also simply work differently. Perhaps they work within communities, rather than without them, naturally seeking less approval from mainstream forums. Doubtless there will be many possible answers.

In the meantime, congratulations are due to extraordinary individuals such as Max, and others as yet less feted, who are brave enough to fashion a vision, with no clear sense of whether anyone will follow. The hope is that at least some of us will. We need more, not fewer such ihu hupe.

Please note, a slightly edited version of this post was published earlier on E-Tangata.


Psychology in an Indigenous world

Reclaiming Māori worldviews on health, society, science, and everyday issues that affect our lives.

Hard lines, heavy times, and handblocks

Coping with depression through prayer, poetry, and flying plastic

Art & Theology

Revitalizing the Christian imagination through painting, poetry, music, and more

The Jesus Question

Tracing the identity of Jesus through history, art, and pop culture

Poetry Out West

Poetry & Prose by Jodine Derena Butler

Interrupting the Silence

An Episcopal Priest's Sermons, Prayers, and Reflections on Life, Becoming Human, and Discovering Our Divinity

A Tree's Roots

A Tree's Roots

Hikurangi Group

Naumai, haramai.

GD Bates

Artist and poet from Timaru, New Zealand

Strictly obiter

Legal nonsense

Black Stone

Talks and writings by Pala Molisa

%d bloggers like this: