Khylee Quince, associate professor and director of Māori and Pacific Advancement at AUT, in her home in Auckland. (Photo: Cornell Tukiri © for E-Tangata)

Khylee Quince, associate professor and director of Māori and Pacific Advancement at AUT School of Law, in her home in Auckland. (Photo: Cornell Tukiri © for E-Tangata)

Khylee Quince had her sights set on law as a career before she was in her teens, before she even knew what law was — and well before she made another challenging commitment, which was to the Warriors when they set up camp, 25 years ago, at their rugby league headquarters at Mt Smart.

Khylee and Dale, given his background in that sport, could well have spent all their time chatting about Stacey Jones, Ruben Wiki, Manu Vatuvei, and other Warrior heroes. But they pretty much stuck to Khylee’s family background and her observations on teaching law in Aotearoa. Not a bad choice seeing how well informed and forthright Khylee is as a commentator on legal matters.


Kia ora, Khylee. The media has had the benefit in recent years of having any number of exceptionally well-informed Māori from the legal world to help us get our heads around the ways where we can work towards quite a bit more fairness in our society. And you’ve been delivering such sound, clear advice and explanations that you’ve become one of our go-to commentators.

Just where have you come from to arrive at this situation?

Tēnā koe, Dale. Well, through my mum, Jenny Quince, we’re Ngāpuhi. My primary affiliation is Te Roroa, Ngāti Korokoro and Ngāti Wharara from South Hokianga, from Waipoua Forest round to Pakanae.

And my birth father, Chris Mackey, was from Ngāti Porou and Ngāti Kahungunu. Born in Tikitiki. And his mum was a Christy-Whaanga from Nuhaka/Mahia Peninsula. Mum and Chris met at teachers’ college in Hamilton, so I was born there, but other than my first three years, we’ve been Auckland based.

My mum and dad were teenage parents. Mum had me when she was 18 and then my brother, Travers, just over a year later. But they split when I was two or three. And, for almost 30 years, we didn’t have anything to do with our father’s whānau.

For a few years, there was just Travers and me and Mum. Then she remarried and that was the best thing that ever happened to us. Richard Quince is the man we call Dad. I was seven and Travers was five when they married, and they had our sister Michelle shortly after. Our pretty cool childhood really started when they married.

Khylee and her mum Jenny.

Can’t say that I recognise Quince as a common Kiwi name. Do you know the Quince whakapapa?

Richard Quince is an English-born Pākehā. And, when he and Jenny married in the late ‘70s, he legally adopted Travers and me — and I can vividly remember the day that happened. We went to the Family Court in Auckland and the judge asked if my brother and I wanted to change our name.

Richard was going to legally be our parent. And there I was sitting in the court, aged seven or eight, practising my signature. Not Khylee Mackey any more. But Khylee Quince. And Travers and I have had Dad’s surname ever since.

It’s an English name which comes from the time of William the Conquerer and the Norman invasion of England in 1066. It probably stems from “quinze”, the French word for 15. We’re the only family in the country with that name. I wear it with pride because he’s been the best thing that ever happened to our whānau.

Where in Tāmaki did you grow up?

I went to maybe six different primary schools, mainly in central Auckland. We moved around a bit. Our family home is in Balmoral and my parents are still there. We moved there in 1984 on the day of the election. I remember plugging in the TV and seeing Rob Muldoon walk out of the Beehive for the last time as the prime minister. We’ve been in that area ever since. I went to Mt Roskill Grammar and our tamariki go there now.

I’ve heard you comment that you look Pākehā, so sometimes people don’t realise the extent of your aroha for your taha Māori. How has that played out, especially later in life when people haven’t understood that you have these treasured whakapapa lines.

When my brother and I were growing up, we knew that we were Māori. There was never any question about that, although I think we were kind of undercover Māori for a long time. I was too old for kōhanga and kura kaupapa. They came along a few years later.

So we went to mainstream state schools where you couldn’t learn the reo. I can’t sing to save myself and I’ve never been good at kapa haka. I didn’t get any of that background at school.

But, at the end of seventh form, I won a Ngarimu VC scholarship to help with a university education. And when they made the announcement at school, I remember my Mt Roskill principal asking me: “Are you Māori? Do you qualify?”

Until that moment, I hadn’t realised that Travers and I had two different identities. Public and private. We weren’t really Māori in public.

However, on my first day at university, I made a deliberate decision to be publicly open about being Māori. That was on enrolment day. I signed up to Te Rakau Ture, the Māori Law Students’ Association, and made my political affiliations very clear.

As an adult, physically passing as Pākehā insulates you from some negativity, racism in particular. But, as I’ve become more well-known through the media, and through my role at a university where I’ve taught thousands of tauira, I’ve taken huge pleasure in people now recognising me as Māori. As a little kid, it wasn’t quite that obvious.

Khylee (centre) with her brother Travers, sister Michelle, their grandmother Enatauke Beddie (back left) and Aunty Pina Dick, in Hokianga.

You must’ve been pretty smart to get that scholarship. Who helped you with that? Was there someone driving you? And where did your nous come from?

Certainly Mum and Dad. And Dad particularly. No one in our Māori whānau, even our extended whānau, had been to university. I was good at school and Mum and Dad were always encouraging us in everything we did. And celebrating our successes. For instance, every time we got a good school report, we’d be off to have takeaways, or we’d go somewhere special. Our parents really did value education.

When I was 11, LA Law was on TV, and I thought it was so cool. I wanted a bit of that. I thought that their lives looked amazing. It included minority people, too. Like Victor Sifuentes, the Latino lawyer played by Jimmy Smits. I thought that was great. And I recall telling my Dad: “I want to be a lawyer.”

Dad was an educated person, an accountant, but we didn’t know any lawyers or anyone who’d done law at university.

So he rang the Auckland District Law Society and asked for someone to come and meet with him and me. He wanted a young, female law graduate to come and talk to this 11-year-old girl about what lawyers did — and we met a young, female lawyer for lunch. I’ve no idea what she must’ve thought. I took a day off school and we caught the bus into town. I valued that so much.

It’s a big thing for your dad to admit that he didn’t have all the answers and didn’t know what to do. But he put his own ego aside to try and help me with something that was important to me.

I meet a lot of young people who are the first in their whānau to go to university or to try a different line of work or study, and I always honour their parents and families for pushing them.

Any special teachers along the way?

I had a particular teacher who I give credit to. Mt Roskill Grammar was very working class and most kids left school in the fifth form, as soon as they turned 15. They went to work mainly in the trades. So the seventh form was very, very small.

My partner, David Ahlquist, and I were two of maybe five kids who went on to university. And we were both particularly encouraged by our history teacher, Michelle Hartstonge, who’s still at Mt Roskill Grammar, after 40 years’ service.

We owe her a debt of gratitude. She’s one of those teachers who the kids sometimes see as grumpy, but she was a crucial person in our development.

She’d speak quite pragmatically about us going to university — as if we had to go to university. She took us on day trips. At the weekend, she’d take us to political gatherings, or to events at the museum, or to places that would expand our horizons. She took time out of her personal life for that. She introduced me to her sister who was a practising lawyer at the time. And she kept giving us time and encouragement.

Khylee and her partner David Ahlquist, pictured here in 1988, aged 16.

And you and your partner are still together after all these years?

Yes. David and I were actually at primary school together. I threw stones at him then. We got together in the fourth form in 1987 when we were 14, and we’ve been together ever since. We’ve got three tamariki. Levi (17), Georgia (15), and Ruby (14). David came to university at the same time as me. He did a BA and a little bit of everything.

Like me, he was the first person in his working-class family to go to university, at the same time as his sister. He eventually decided to be a primary school teacher. He’s been teaching mostly 9 and 10-year-olds at Koru Primary in Māngere for 23 years. Loves it. A Pākehā teaching all these Pasifika kids.

Meanwhile, you’ve been heading off deep into the wilds of the law — especially those parts of the law that interact with tangata whenua. And, along the way, no doubt you’ve come under the influence of some significant students and teachers.

We left school in 1990 and I started university in 1991. By that time, law was becoming very popular among Māori students. There’d been a handful of Māori lawyers and law students in the years before then. Like Moana Maniapoto, Annette Sykes and John Tamihere.

By the 1990s, the Treaty settlements industry had started to take off. The Waitangi Tribunal was underway, and there was a mini tidal wave of us Māori students wanting to study law. But it also meant that the university had to start hiring Māori lecturers to teach us and to help us represent our hapū and iwi in those negotiations.

Then you came under the wonderful sway of the late Nin Tomas, an awesome wāhine. As you may know, she was a pioneer trustee of the Mana Trust, the charitable organisation that got E-Tangata underway and that still steers it.

Yes. Nin Tomas. She was the core professional mentor who I had both as a student and then as a colleague. You interviewed her son, Inia, recently on E-T. When I started as a student, he was just a little boy, long before he embarked on his medical career, and Nin was a new academic. She was a tūturu Te Rarawa woman. Absolutely fearless, and quite frightening to Pākehā and Māori alike.

She not only modelled the power of the Pākehā law and how we could use it, but also she was passionate about the place of tikanga, whakaaro and mātauranga Māori in the law. And she showed how we could use our own philosophical and belief systems to help shape our practices and our ethics — and how we might view the Treaty.

Yes, she was something else. And Nin was joined by Andrea Tunks from Whakatōhea. Andrea was also a fearless advocate for Māori and the law. So there were the two of them in the law faculty at Auckland University.

And when I graduated in 1997, they asked me to come and join them. They were my mentors and the people I looked up to and admired — as well as our mātua Moana Jackson and Joe Williams.

My connection with Joe was through our affiliation with Te Roroa, because he was our lawyer with Te Roroa’s Waitangi Tribunal claim. It’s only in recent years that I’ve realised we were his first clients, so he likely didn’t really know what he was doing when he took on our claim. I was 16, still at school, when I’d go up to Hokianga to the hearings where my uncles and aunts were presenting evidence.

Did you have a taste of practice before you turned to teaching law?

Yes. I did three years in general practice. I worked for two firms in that time. I was always interested in criminal and family law, the on-the-ground, immediate Māori problems. So that’s what I did before I joined Nin and Andrea at Auckland Uni.

But because I’m a diehard rugby league fan, one of the highlights for me was when the super league was launched — and fizzled. The firm I worked for had NZRL as a client, so I did a lot of work around the law suits involving the super league. I really loved that.

Gerald Ryan and David Lange were on the NZRL board at that time and I loved meeting the board members, who were a mix of lawyers, ex-players, publicans and trade unionists. Hearty rugby league folks. We’d have players I really admired come into the office, including Hugh McGahan and Jarrod McCracken. The legal work was interesting — lots of dodgy deals and underhand tactics to make and break contracts.

But for the whole three years that I was in practice, Nin was in my ear telling me I needed to come back and help them. Teaching had never been on my radar despite there being teachers on both sides of my whānau. All of the Mackeys are teachers, and in Mum’s whānau, the Toi and Naera families, they’re either teachers or church ministers. Neither of those jobs had ever appealed to me. I’d always wanted to be a courtroom lawyer.

Anyway, I went back to teach at law school because, when Nin asks you to do something, you do it. I thought I’d do a bit of teaching for her and, that way, give something back to her and Andrea and to the faculty that had done so much for me. I’ve been teaching ever since.

And you’ve been sharing perspectives that are invaluable to our new crop of legal thinkers and change agents, too — and some of those perspectives are to do with colonisation, which I heard you discussing with Kim Hill a few weeks ago on National Radio. Colonisation has been a massive and damaging influence in many ways on te ao Māori, hasn’t it? But it’s still a perspective not widely understood in te ao Pākehā. 

When I studied criminal and family law, there was no Māori perspective. There was no explanation of where the New Zealand laws came from. It was just the way in which criminal law is framed and delivered in this country.

Same with the view of what constitutes a family, and the idea of the nuclear family, and of adoption and divorce and marriage and all those things. It was as if all that just fell from the heavens and that was the only way things could be done.

It wasn’t until people like Nin (and I’d take some credit myself) that the minds of these law students were opened to the fact that there are other ways — and that there were laws here before the colonisers arrived. There were whānau here and they arranged themselves differently. We sorted out disputes differently. We had fully formed systems of law and social regulation.

I very much enjoy that part of legal education. Being able to give the full picture and make it clear that it’s not a given that we should do things this mainstream Pākehā way.

I guess that’s not always, or ever, a pushover.

Sometimes it’s been challenging. I’ve been a law lecturer for 22 years and, when I started as a student in 1991, it was pretty much a blank landscape when it came to understanding the impact of colonisation. Or that there were indigenous options to the colonisers’ way of doing things.

Ani Mikaere had left after a brief stint at Auckland law school, and Nin didn’t start until 1994.

As teachers, we were subject to a lot of racism and pushback by non-Māori students and colleagues. They just didn’t see that our views were relevant. They saw them as a niche. Saw us as angry brown women. I learned a lot from that.

I think that, these days, I’m a better Pākehā whisperer. I’m pretty good now at explaining things to Pākehā more clearly. I learned how to do that by trying to win over people who were aggressively racist and anti-Māori.

It was very difficult at the time, though. We were subjected to a lot of hate mail and also to nasty behaviour from colleagues and students. But most of us came through it okay, and we learned how to work together collectively and how to protect ourselves in hostile environments. It served us well in the long run.

You’ve talked at times about the need for de-escalating the work of the police. I warm to that very much. Their presence and style can inflame rather than calm down some situations. Can you give us your thoughts on that whakaaro? And on the prospect of non-police interventions?

I’ve been thinking about this for a while now because, as we know, there’s almost a visceral reaction in Māori whānau and communities to a police car arriving with the men and women in blue uniforms. It’s not a reaction to these individual people. It’s about the whakapapa of the very tense relationship between Māori and the police since the 1850s.

How might we do things differently? The big question, of course, is whether you try to fix the institution of the police, or whether you try and take some of their responsibilities off them. Perhaps handing over some responsibilities to self-determining hapū and iwi policing authorities.

Do you see any worthwhile models overseas?

Well, there’s tribal policing in Canada, both on and off tribal reservations. Slightly different from the First Nations policing that occurs in the United States. All of the American models, that I’m aware of, are on reserves, territorially based. The difference in Aotearoa is that many, if not most, of us don’t live in our tribal territories. But, here in Aotearoa, we’re thinking about policing our people, rather than particular territories.

Perhaps we could have our own self-determining police. We could bump up the roles and responsibilities of the Māori wardens, although I think there might be some pushback about the wardens because they hold a particular place in our communities and our hearts.

We know they’re there as volunteers. We know that their kaupapa is about manaakitanga and aroha — and that’s quite different from having a policing responsibility. So I’m not sure that would work.

There are some especially difficult policing situations — particularly family violence and mental distress.

Yes. There could be more social work type agencies dealing with situations where there’s no immediate risk of harm. Iwi could certainly have a role there.

And another good example of how there can be an effective hands-off by the police was the iwi checkpoints that we used earlier in the pandemic. They seemed to be hugely successful, not only in achieving their objective of keeping the Covid out of our Māori communities, but also as a model of partnership between the New Zealand Police and our iwi communities.

I really liked what Riki Whiu, the Far North district commander, said when he was asked about it. He said that these iwi people at the checkpoints had the mana and that he had the legal authority. That’s how and why this worked. I thought it was brilliant.

So more things like that are essential. It’s about trust. We trust wardens. But would we trust them if we made them police? I’m not sure.

The “one law for all” lobby is pretty strong. Do you think we’d alienate mainstream if we advance this indigenous perspective to policing?

I don’t know that mainstream opposition is inevitable. I back ourselves in being able to have open and robust conversations in educating mainstream New Zealand.

One thing I’d say, of course, is that the reality, and also the perception, of New Zealand society is changing. Our demographers tell us that the country is going to be pretty brown in another 20 years. So we’re talking about us soon having to convince a smaller and smaller minority. So I don’t know if mainstream opposition will continue to be unavoidable.

I’m an optimistic person and I’m heartened by the government announcement last year that New Zealand history will be a compulsory part of the curriculum as from 2022. I believe that’ll be a game-changer. It certainly has that potential.

Any other encouraging signs?

I find from teaching migrant students that they don’t have the same baggage as homegrown Kiwis. The migrants have their own baggage because of their experiences, but they don’t have the anti-Māori baggage that many Pākehā people do.

I find a lot of resonance with other people who’ve been colonised. For example, Korean students get it straight away, having been colonised by Japan. People from other jurisdictions, including refugees, know what persecution and oppression is like. So there’s a ready understanding of what Māori have been living through.

Khylee and David’s children: Levi, Georgia and Ruby in their Mana Taiohi kapa haka gear.

And what about special problems here?

One of the beauties, but also one of the difficulties, is what we can call “the paradox of Aotearoa”. Compared to the situation in other post-colonial states like Canada, USA, and Australia, here in New Zealand, Māori are very outward looking people. You won’t find too many New Zealanders who don’t know any Māori — or who don’t have anyone in their whānau who’s got Māori links. We don’t have geographical separation from “mainstream New Zealand”. In Canada and the US, they have geographical separation, often with their communities far away from mainstream urban dwellers.

Likewise, many Aboriginal people in Australia aren’t a part of everyday, mainstream life. But most Māori are. And that’s a double-edged sword for us. It’s the old “familiarity breeds contempt” whakaaro.

In a way, we’re not exotic enough. Or special enough. We’re a reasonably large minority, and we’re often right in the face of the tauiwi. So it’s hard to articulate our unique status as tangata whenua when we’re seen just as ordinary people who live next door. We don’t have any obvious special status.

There’s a flip side, though, to having existing relationships. Hence the paradox. We don’t need to establish those connections. We just need to change the nature of those links and relationships — and find ways to help Pākehā to understand more of our history, our tikanga, our reo and concerns.

I’m consistently surprised, and quite horrified, at how little Pākehā New Zealanders know about us. How little they understand about how we think. About the way that we do things. About our priorities and views on how the world should be organised.

I sometimes do professional development teaching for judges and lawyers. I meet judges who are in their 60s and we take them to Te Puea marae, down the road in Māngere. And, for many, it’s the first time they’ve ever set foot in a marae in their lives. They were born in Aotearoa and they’ve spent their life here. But they have to ask about basic tikanga and kawa on a marae.

I’m sure that’s a really valuable experience for them. Coming late in their lives, but pretty useful all the same. Now, what about a couple of final questions? One is what you’d like to be remembered for as a law teacher?

People think that law is flash. I don’t like that. It sounds elitist and inaccessible for ordinary people. So I want to be remembered as a teacher who can make law accessible for students and for the public — by demystifying complex legal issues and explaining them clearly. I didn’t come from anywhere flash. And I encourage people to see that anybody can do what I do.

Anyway, as I tell my kids, there’s value in every kind of mahi. The key goal is to serve other people. The cleaner, the bus driver, the teacher, and the lawyer are all doing a job and they’re all contributing to a functioning, healthy community. That’s my aim in life as a parent and a teacher. To be of service.

Finally, how about letting us in on what may be one or two of your secrets?

One is that I’m a hardcore sports fan. Been a Warriors supporter since Day One in 1995. And a near lifelong Liverpool supporter, like Tau Henare. That’s what us two talk about. I’m a passionate local and international sports supporter. If I had the money, I’d go follow my sports teams around the world. I used to be a professional cricket scorer and passionate cricket fan. I’ve sat on various sports governance bodies and committees.

I’m also a huge sci-fi geek. I’m passionate about Star Wars, Dr Who, Game of Thrones, anything pop culture. Our whare is littered with things we collect — Lego, toys, plushies, models, all sorts of things.

But my main relaxation is following sport, yelling at the telly at my underperforming teams from the couch. Or going to watch our kids play sport or perform kapa haka.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

© E-Tangata, 2020

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