Tīhema Baker’s experiences as a Māori public servant who’s been “laughed at, eye-rolled at, lectured on Crown policy I already know, shut down and so on”, has led him to write a satirical sci-fi novel called Turncoat, based on the trauma of Māori working in the public service.
The official raises an eyebrow, blinks a couple of times.
“Sorry?” he says, which isn’t an apology but a request to explain myself.
I tell him that the hundreds of pieces of legislation his agency is proposing to amend includes Treaty settlement Acts. Amending them will require the agreement of each iwi who are a party to them.
“But these amendments are only technical in nature,” the official replies. “They don’t have any substantive effect on the content of the Acts.”
What I don’t tell him is that Treaty settlements are supposed to represent the beginning of a new relationship between iwi and the Crown based on partnership. It’s hardly partnership when one side can just make changes to written agreements without the other side’s consent — would iwi ever be able to do the same?
Instead, I tell him that settlement legislation enacts the Deeds of Settlement reached after years of painstaking negotiation, sometimes down to individual words. Settlements are essentially contracts, so it wouldn’t be appropriate for one party to make changes — however technical — without the other’s consent.
“Okay,” the official says, in a drawn-out sigh. “So what does that engagement process look like? We are on a tight timeframe here.”
What I don’t tell him is that a “tight timeframe” is never a good enough excuse for the Crown to not do right by its Tiriti partners. In a true partnership, you don’t get to dictate deadlines to the other party. Again, would iwi ever be able to do the same?
Instead, I tell him that a good starting point would be a letter to each iwi informing them of the proposed changes and requesting to meet to discuss.
“Right,” the official says. “Well, we can certainly provide you with relevant information to include when you contact the iwi.”
What I don’t tell him is that I’m not doing his job for him.
Instead, I tell him that the agency I work for advises others on how to uphold Treaty settlement commitments. We might be responsible for the settlement Acts, but this project is his agency’s, not mine. Therefore, his agency should be the one to engage with the iwi whose settlements will be affected by this and explain why.
The official raises an eyebrow, blinks a couple of times. Then he laughs. He laughs and looks to his colleague, who validates his laugh with a laugh of her own.
When he is done laughing at me, he says: “That’s not how this works.”
This is just one example of the countless experiences I’ve had as a Māori public servant. Encounters where I’ve been laughed at, eye-rolled at, lectured on Crown policy I already know, shut down, and so on.
This is what it looks like to bring a Māori perspective to a job in government. To advocate for and advise on upholding the Crown’s Tiriti o Waitangi obligations. To simply be Māori in Crown spaces.
This, and being asked to give karakia or sing waiata or “translate this for me?” every other day.
To put it much more simply: this is what institutional racism looks like. It’s the systemic oppression and minimisation of Māori (or any minority) within the power structures by which our collective society operates.
And honestly, it’s fucking exhausting.
The danger of it lies in its subtlety. The interaction above could easily be passed off as a simple disagreement, a collision of differing worldviews that, perhaps, Smug Official didn’t quite approach as respectfully as he could have. But, at the end of the day, Smug Official’s view will outweigh mine simply because his is white, and mine is not.
Which is exactly what happened, because of course the Crown will just change the law if it wants to, with or without iwi consent. That’s “how this works”.
Institutional racism is also difficult to identify, because it’s often perpetuated by people who don’t realise they’re doing it. Good-hearted, well-intentioned people who don’t believe they are even capable of racism. I’m sure Smug Official is a decent man, maybe a faithful husband and loving father, who really believes he’s doing the right thing. But that doesn’t mean he’s incapable of minimising my Māori perspective, of exerting his inherent power and privilege as a white man to maintain the status quo at Māori expense.
It’s this belief — “I am a good person and therefore incapable of wrongdoing” — that makes institutional racism almost impossible to combat. The reality is we are all capable of perpetuating harm against one group of people or another, despite how “good” we perceive ourselves to be.
But there’s something about the white fragility of Pākehā in the public service that is particularly difficult to overcome. To call a Pākehā public servant out on their racism is, apparently, a greater offence than the act of racism itself. I once described a colleague’s unintentional dismissal of my Māori perspective as “white supremacy in action”, which resulted in a formal complaint being made against me, and the agency we worked for attempting to facilitate a resolution of my colleague’s grievance. There was no such effort made to resolve mine.
This is what led me to write Turncoat, a satirical sci-fi novel that lampoons the Māori public servant experience.
Over a decade in the public service has made me fairly cynical. The eradication of institutional racism will never occur so long as the current power structure remains in place — and the people who benefit from it continue to maintain it. This means people must change for the system to change.
And my experience so far — as a Māori, Tiriti-based policy advisor — is that simply telling Pākehā public servants how to do this isn’t working. There seems to be a growing understanding of the need for policy and legislation to be Tiriti-compliant, but understandings about what this actually looks like in practice are still worlds apart.
So, Turncoat is an attempt at a different approach. Set in a future where Earth has been colonised by aliens, I wanted to write something that puts Pākehā in the shoes of a colonised people. I want them to imagine a world in which their principles and values are routinely laughed at. Where their language is mangled, their history downplayed, the laws they hold sacrosanct and the truths they hold to be self-evident disregarded by an alien race that inherently sees its own as superior.
Will it work? Maybe not. I’m unsure if I will ever see a world in which te Tiriti o Waitangi will be truly honoured, and the tino rangatiratanga of my people will be restored.
But while I’m deeply cynical, I am still hopeful. If not for change in my lifetime, then in my son’s. Or his children’s.
At the very least, I hope the book gives people a good laugh. It’s nice, after all, not being the one getting laughed at for once.
Tīhema Baker (Raukawa te Au ki te Tonga, Ātiawa ki Whakarongotai, Ngāti Toa Rangatira) is a writer and Tiriti o Waitangi-based policy advisor from Ōtaki. He holds a Master of Arts in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington, for which he wrote Turncoat.
The book can be purchased here.
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