Brian Easton

Brian Easton is a 75-year-old economist, statistician, academic, historian, columnist, and author. For much of his career, he’s made a specialty of explaining to New Zealanders what’s going right and what’s going wrong in our economy.

In his latest book, Heke Tangata, which was commissioned by Te Whānau o Waipareira and is being launched this week, he turns to the post-war Māori migration to the towns and cities — and to the political and economic drivers that have shaped the experiences of Māori since then.

In this kōrero with Dale, he shares some of the observations he’s made from more than 40 years of studying the data on Māori.

 

Kia ora, Brian. We’ll get on to the subject of economics in a few moments, but would you first tell us something about your background and about the Easton clan?

We Eastons can trace ourselves back to a convict in Australia. He came to New Zealand, married, and had a family. That’s four generations ago now. Another line comes through in 1842, from one of the settlers in Nelson — that goes back five generations. And then there’s my mother’s side. She was born in England and came here at the age of about one or two. There is no Māori in my direct whakapapa.

There weren’t a lot of Māori in my upbringing, either. Even so, I was very aware of the issues. For instance, I remember debating the Hunn report in the 1960s. The argument then was whether Māori should integrate or assimilate. Assimilate meant becoming like non-Māori.

I was a supporter of integration, probably because I found the insensitivity to others’ differences intolerable. I’m pretty sure I didn’t expect, at that time, the extent to which all our lives would be enriched by a vibrant Māori element in our society, but even then I thought assimilation was a stupid idea.

I’m curious to know what drew you into the study of economics.

When I was a teenager, I was very interested in social problems, although most of my contemporaries were not. I was actually trained as a scientist. I went to university and did a degree in applied mathematics. Then I switched over to economics, which turned out to be a wonderful subject for an applied mathematician if you kept your feet on the ground.

When I came back to New Zealand in the 1970s — I’d been away teaching at the University of Sussex in England — I began working on the income distribution within society, with a special focus on Māori. For an economist like myself, Māori are an excellent group to study, because the data on Māori is separated out from everyone else.

So you can monitor what’s going on in Māoridom in a way you can’t with other groups in the community. Māori became an indicator of what was happening to people who were lowest in the income distribution.

Was it in your varsity studies that you first recognised Māori disadvantage?

I can’t remember. There were not a lot of Māori in the Christchurch of the ‘50s I grew up in, so you hardly noticed them. I do remember that in my class at secondary school there were three boys who, in retrospect, were criticised unnecessarily. One was Māori, one was Jewish, and one was Chinese.

At that stage, I was unaware of what you might call incipient racism. At university, it was things like the “No Māori, No Tour” campaign that got me thinking, along with the peace movement. There was a very strong Māori presence in that.

As for disadvantage, it wasn’t really until I began measuring it in the ‘70s, that it was just so evident. I used to use the three-times rule. Māori were three times worse off than non-Māori. We didn’t have a lot of Pasifika in those days. If you measured unemployment, poverty rates, a whole series of variables like that, you discovered that Māori were markedly worse off.

One place where the three-times rule didn’t apply was the mortality rate. Māori death rates were 50 percent higher, not three times higher.

Later, I was invited by iwi and related institutions to work on various Treaty claims. A salutary learning experience, but a heartwarming one. I am very proud of my contribution there.

What do you think has contributed to the perception of Māori financial incapability which seemed to be so prevalent during the ‘60s?

In the sort of circles I’m in, we don’t think of Māori as financially incapable. We think they’re poor. I explore this distinction in a report I wrote for the Waipareira Trust about what happened to Māori after the Second World War.

It’s more of a history book than a report. In it, I try to explain why Māori are poor, without using shortcuts like saying it’s the result of racism. My opinion is that Māori have been trapped in a poverty cycle.

Why do you think so many Pākehā commentators gloss over the dynamics that contribute to Māori underachievement, not only financially but also in health stats, educational stats. You’ve tried to explain some of why that might be, but many haven’t delved into the reasons behind it.

It’s a national characteristic that we tend to go for simple, superficial explanations. We tend to grab a number and talk about it rather than ask why. The phrase I use — and I’m not just talking about Māori issues, but generally — is that New Zealand commentators often use statistics the way drunks use lamp posts: for support rather than illumination and insight.

And I’ve always been a person who, when I see a difference, I ask why, rather than jump to an easy superficial explanation.

Heke TangataHave government attitudes stymied Māori potential?

There are two points. For a long time, the government was not particularly sensitive to Māori issues, in terms of Māori being different from non-Māori. Very often there was no recognition of Māori aims and priorities. I remember the big row four or so decades ago over tangihanga leave. It was actually the unions that drove the provision to allow tangihanga leave. That was one example of becoming sensitive to a particular Māori concern.

The second issue is the one that I’ve written about in Heke Tangata, which is that Māori made a massive transition from a very rural life to a highly urban one in a very short time, and the country as a whole did little to facilitate that.

A key person in understanding that transition is Sir Apirana Ngata. In the 1930s, he said —and I’m not quoting him exactly — that the majority of Māori in the first half of the 20th century were living in a subsistence economy. They earned a little bit of cash, but essentially they lived off the land.

Now let’s think about the move from subsistence life to city life. A person who’s living on rural land has a lot of skills. They know how to hunt. They know how to fish. They know how to plant a vege garden, they have odd job skills, and so on. But that’s not what’s required in the cities.

And it was worse than that, because Māori rural education was poorer than non-Māori rural education, which itself wasn’t very good. So, what you had was people adapted for a lifestyle which was not where they were going to live, and lacking the educational skills to adapt. So, they flowed into the cities while the country did little to respond to the issues the migration raised.

Now, the awful thing that happened, just incredibly bad luck, was that as Māori began arriving in cities in really big numbers — which they had to do, because they couldn’t live on the land that they had — they hit a period of peak unemployment in the late 1970s.

They were totally stranded in the sense that, although they’ve acquired some on-the-job training, they’re still primarily working in unskilled jobs. It was in those jobs that unemployment rose sharply. That continued in the 1980s, and it was worsened by Rogernomics.

What Rogernomics did, among other things, was to eradicate a lot of jobs. And we know that Māori were affected more than non-Māori. Māori health deteriorated and Māori mortality rose during the Rogernomics era quite against the long term trend. Moreover the Rogernomic policies were deliberately biased against the poor and therefore disproportionally hit Māori.

So, when we get through that period, what have we got? We’ve got a large, young population — it’s younger than the national average —  and it’s an unskilled population. It’s not ready for the high-skilled jobs that are being created in the economy. That’s the basic economic story I’m trying to tell.

There was a massive slump in wool prices internationally, too, which affected the Māori post-war urban drift, didn’t it?

It complicated it. Māori who were sheep farmers were, of course, screwed by the fall in wool prices, and they may well have been more screwed than most, being on lower incomes. But the structural wool price fall in 1966 triggered a traumatic structural change, which led to the rising unemployment in the ‘70s and Rogernomics in the ‘80s.

And low-skilled workers have borne the brunt of economic change?

Yes, that’s been a major trend in my lifetime. When I was young, it was relatively easy to get jobs which were not very skilled. So, in the university holidays, I got jobs which were not very skilled, but they just needed me. What’s happened in the modern economy is that we’ve moved out of those general-skill jobs to very specific, high-skilled jobs.

I use an example which doesn’t particularly represent Māoridom, but illustrates the problem. One of my holiday jobs was working on building sites. Now, I’m not very skilled at building, but I could help build an ordinary wooden-frame house. In the ‘80s, the building industry began to use more and more sophisticated technologies, and, unfortunately, many of those sophisticated technologies were being used by people who were not properly trained.

That led to leaky buildings. Part of the thing about leaky buildings is that if you used the new technologies right, then you didn’t get a leaky building. But if you didn’t, the whole house might have to be destroyed.

So you can see in the building industry a general upgrading of skills — from the likes of me working on a building site in the ‘50s, virtually incompetent, to a situation where people with quite reasonable old-style skills in frame housing, using the new technology, led to this disaster we’ve had around leaky buildings.

To give another example from the building industry. When the Canterbury earthquakes occurred, the government said, quite rightly: “We’re short of skilled people to rebuild these houses. We’re going to have to import people from overseas.”

But a more rational government would’ve also said: “We’re going to have to upgrade our building skills. So, we’re going to put in a programme to do this, which would include Māori, so that eventually we won’t have to depend on imported skills.”

What’s happened? We’re still bringing in foreign tradesman because we haven’t had that trade upgrading process. So, on the one hand we have Māori and non-Māori who are unemployed, but we can’t put them into the building programme because they don’t have the skills, and we failed to give them the skills. That’s been a persistent failure throughout New Zealand’s post-war history.

And this filters through to education underachievement and the low-skilled status that many of us have had to deal with. But you also suggest, too, that, in some ways, Māori are two decades behind Pākehā. Can you explain that?

If you look at current Māori social indicators and compare them with Pākehā a generation earlier — say 25 years — you’ll find they’re roughly comparable. That is, Māori are about a generation behind Pākehā. And so, while they’ve made progress, a Māori today has the situation of a Pākehā in 1990. You get a similar result with Pasifika.

Middle New Zealand, however, tends to say we’re all the same, and that we’ve all got the same opportunities. What you’re suggesting here is that subsequent political interventions and economic interventions still have some time lag before Māori and Pasifika catch up.

You need to remember that a lot of Pākehā have also suffered from the country’s failure to upgrade skills and from educational underachievement. They don’t stand out so clearly in the data, though, simply because they meld in with the rest of society. But, because we’ve separated Māori out in the data, we can actually see them.

I’ve always worried, say in educational achievement, about focusing too much on Māori, rather than saying we have a group of people with poor-quality educational and training achievement and we’re not doing enough for them. And, yes, a large proportion of those — far too large a proportion — are Māori.

Even so, we shouldn’t, in my view, be giving priority to upgrading Māori students while ignoring others who are in similar educational difficulties. We should have educational policies which upgrade across the board, and will benefit Māori in the process.

Are you hopeful that the Treaty settlements will change the economic landscape for Maori?

The truth is that the Treaty settlements aren’t that big. Initially, when the $1 billion fiscal cap for the settlements was announced, I calculated that what was needed was in fact around $100 billion. So Māori are getting a very small contribution. And although the settlements are strengthening the traditional corporate iwi, it’s not all that Māori collectively need.

In New Zealand, the government has always been near the centre of these issues. Trade training, which is really important, is an example. But the government has been very weak in dealing with that, and it was practically obliterated in the 1990s.

Then we need to bear in mind that the government programmes need to be not so much specifically for Māori but programmes that are highly beneficial for Māori.

There’s the recurring question of Māori underachievement in education. But one aspect of that is whether the system is producing enough Māori expertise in economics.

It’d be an enormous help if we had a cadre of well-trained Māori social scientists. There’s not enough of them. Our students aren’t getting the skills in statistics, mathematics, history, and English to be good economists. If we had many more of them, we’d be getting somewhere.

Waipareira asked you to cast your eye across the whole of society, not just economics — and so you touch on housing disparities, health, and educational issues and the like. What are the lessons we can take from that research?

The book explains how Māori got to the place they’re in today, and that provides a platform for thinking about the future.

Among a certain sort of Pākehā there’s a tendency to think that Māori haven’t changed, and they ought not to change. You hear that attitude in comments like a bloke saying to me: “Yes, Māori have fishing rights, but they should be confined to using the fishing technologies of 1840, like flax nets.” His was a headspace of Māori not changing and not having the right to change over time. Incidentally, Captain Cook remarked that he thought Māori had better fishing technologies than non-Māori.

What trusts like the Waipareira Trust prove is that you can adapt while maintaining integrity. You can choose a Māori way of doing things, adapted for new circumstances.

I’m rather struck by a quotation from a 1950s Italian novel called The Leopard, in which an uncle says to his nephew: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

Māori are a wonderful example of a group who have maintained their integrity as Māori, and yet have changed again and again and again, to meet changing circumstances.

 

This interview has been condensed and edited.
© E-Tangata, 2018