Metiria Turei was such a distinctive figure as a Green Party MP for 15 years that it’s natural to keep thinking of her as a politician. But that was a good while ago — from 2002 to 2017, when she resigned after admitting to a bit of benefit fraud back in the days when she was a hard-up solo mum and not getting by on the DPB.
She had wanted to highlight the inadequacy of the welfare system, in the lead-up to the 2017 general election, but the onslaught from critics and political opponents led her to quit parliament and head back to Dunedin.
As she outlines here to Dale Husband, a long-time friend and interviewer, for a couple of years she poured much of her energy into art and music. Then she zeroed in on law, where she’s found her feet as a law lecturer at Otago University.
Kia ora, Metiria. It’s good to see you back in the limelight again. Not politics this time, after a five-year break, but doing the mahi for our students at the Otago law school. I see that you’re the Pūkenga Matua. But what’s that?
Well, it’s a senior role. The job was originally as a lecturer. But they bumped me up to senior lecturer, which is cool, and I start teaching the jurisprudence paper in semester two. That’ll be the philosophy and theory of Māori law.
You studied law years ago, didn’t you? Who were your influences when you did your initial degree?
I was extremely lucky because I was taught by Nin Tomas, Andrea Tunks and Jane Kelsey in my first year. The work was so hard and I wasn’t sure about staying on, partly because there was a question whether there was a role for people like me in the law.
At that time, I was a young Māori woman with a baby and just trying to figure out how to make our way in the world. But it really helped seeing those three staunch women in influential positions in the law school.
So, you got a degree, had a busy political life — and then, back in Dunedin, you’ve landed a master’s and then this Pūkenga Matua job. Not bad progress, eh? What was your master’s thesis about?
My master’s was on the visual literacy of Māori law — how Māori law is written in Māori art. I’d just finished an honours degree in visual arts at the Otago Polytech. That was after leaving parliament in 2017. My art studies were focused on “Indigenous futurism”.
That was about how the skills from the past can give us a new way of looking at the future — and then seeing how that’s reflected in our art. So there’s a lot of Indigenous science fiction, Indigenous visual arts, for instance, which uses our own history and science to help us work out what the future may look like for us.
That was my art practice. Indigenous futurism. And, at the same time, I was working here at the law school, doing research into how to indigenise the LLB degree. And these two projects had similarities.
Indigenising the law degree project was about framing our law for the future. Just as I’d been doing with Indigenous art, science and technology.
Congrats on your studies and your honours degree in visual studies. I guess it may have been tempting, after your experience in politics, to turn to organic gardening and make kiwifruit wine for the rest of your life. Or even to have a lie-down for a year or two. But you bounced straight into study.
Yeah, well, the 2017 election was really rough in all sorts of ways, and I had a kind of physical response to those events. I found that I couldn’t think as well as I’d done previously.
At the same time, I still needed to do things — and I find it hard to sit still. So, moving into art, which was an area where I’d been active for a long time, came naturally to me.
I’d been doing different kinds of art and performance art for years and years, and this gave me a way to work in a physical way rather than just intellectually. I could express myself using my hands, and that really did help in that first year, in 2018, when I went to art school.
I also worked as the International Secretary for the Asia-Pacific Greens Federation for nearly two years. That was my day job and then I did art school as well. It meant that I could keep up with the Green things that were going on.
And it was really good. My first big piece of work was looking at the stories of Kurangaituku and Mahuika and their stories about the impact of male violence on Māori women. That was a year’s worth of deep thinking.
And then, moving on, I did a piece for an exhibition opposing the 250-year commemorations of the James Cook visit. That work was about Hinetītama, the first-born woman, who suffered trauma and returned as an atua to take care of Māori children in the future.
That was in 2019, the same time we were having all those issues with CYFS about Māori babies being taken away from their mums. So, I was able to use the art practice to express political views in a visual way.
I think that’s partly why the transition back into law was a little bit easier for me because I was able to do some legal and political thinking in a way that was much safer than talking.
But now here’s the million-dollar question. How’s your teapot collection going?
I have to admit that my creative thinking was focused not on my teapots but on the more formal art practice. Then my mokos came along and I found that my creative outlet had a much bigger space.
But I did put on a musical immediately after the 2017 election. We called it Frankenfurter. It was a sort of sci-fi story about aliens coming to New Zealand — a kind of piss-take on The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Did you write it?
No, I produced it. And I played the bass guitar in our band. My sister Tania and I wrote the lyrics to the songs.
We put it on down here in 2018, as a three-night musical in the Dunedin Fringe Festival. It was enormous fun — and it went well, too, which was great. But, since then, I’ve been very distracted by art, law, and the mokos.
And you have two now?
Yep. Wilhelmina, who’s two, and Ani-Maia, who’s nearly three months. So little and so delicious.
Are you still playing the same bass guitar? Seeing you left parliament, you oughta be allowed to buy a new Fender or something like that.
Nah. Still got the same old bass. But I haven’t played her much in a wee while. Our band broke up about a year ago.
Was your band The Trollops??
No, no, no. We had another band that I was in for 10 years. That was Kill, Martha! with a comma in between. That name came from the Martha goldmine in the Coromandel.
Okay. Thanks. Now let’s get back to the legal world, where we’re seeing more and more prominent Māori women, like Khylee Quince up here in Auckland and Jacinta Ruru down your way. And another development in the law world is the courts asking for more guidance in using tikanga Māori.
Yes. And of course there was Ophir Cassidy who made a judge last year. You’re right, too, because there are more requests from the courts for tikanga Māori advice — and a lot of it is being led by women like Natalie Coates and Horiana Irwin-Easthope. There is a significant shift.
We’re seeing more and more Māori women in senior positions in the law schools, although that has been slow. Khylee Quince is the first Māori woman Dean of Law. That’s at AUT. The first of many, we hope, but it’s taken a long time.
I think that, as we see more of our Māori lawyers (and particularly Māori women lawyers) becoming judges, then the demand from the courts for legal information and tikanga Māori legal information is going to be greater. This is how those structural changes happen — along with a kind of general shift in the way people are thinking about Māori issues.
In our research, for example, we’re finding that the student view of Māori issues is very different from when I was at law school 30 years ago. And Māori women are increasingly dominating the legal scene — and, for me, just being part of that crew is special.
Over the years, you’ve embraced your pro-Māori, pro-wāhine stance, Metiria, but we’re forced to be part of a legal system where we’re still marginalised to a significant extent.
Well, it’s tricky. We have our role here as the Indigenous peoples of this land and therefore we manaaki the people who are here. But we do that while we’re still challenging the structures that remain racist.
Challenging racist structures isn’t an attack on people. It’s actually protecting our whanaungatanga values and improving our arohatanga. It improves the lives of everybody if we don’t have racist structures in our police, or in our courts, or in our education system.
I think there’s a role for people in different places at different times. When I was in politics, I had a representational role, and my job was to hold the line as well as I could. I didn’t always do the best job, but it is possible to hold the line for Māori views on the political issues and to challenge racism when it’s happening.
My role now as a lecturer will be to awhi our students through all of that thinking so that they can see where they are in Aotearoa, understand their role as legally-trained professionals, recognise that they’re in a Māori nation, and appreciate those values.
That’ll mean they’ll be able to better respond and relate to Māori, and to Māori issues, when they go out into practice. It’s about understanding how we can be Māori in our country and move our rangatiratanga forward. And there’s always going to be different ways of doing that.
I recall when, years ago, there was pressure in the course of their training, for nurses to become culturally competent. And there was pushback from some non-Māori who took exception to having Māori kaupapa “rammed down their throats”, as they saw it. What attitudes are you seeing towards cultural competence among our budding legal minds?
In the research that’s just been published, and in my conversations and interviews, both Māori and Pākehā students are genuinely seeing this country as Aotearoa New Zealand — and they see that, to be an effective person in this country in the 21st century, they need to be competent in te ao Māori, te reo, and tikanga Māori. It is by far the majority who are feeling that way, which is quite different from my time as a student at law school.
Nowadays, the students are saying that they understand they need to learn this, but they don’t feel like the education system is delivering it at all. And, to some extent, in law, we’re having to backfill and deliver it at this level when there should be much more of that at primary and secondary school.
But most students now see that this should be a natural part of being a New Zealander. For me, this is a really significant shift. And that’s the wave that some of us are riding to make sure that we do a good job of teaching this material.
We need to be especially careful with the students. It’s their first time away from home, and they’re having to think about their identity as adults and how they want to present themselves in the world. And that is shifting — and we often see that happen — during the three or four or five years they’re at uni.
One of the other things I’ve found, too, is that we have Māori students coming to university often without much knowledge of their whakapapa — and it’s here where they start to engage much more with Māori issues and with their own Māori cohort and community.
They start to dig deep into who they are and where they’re from. They’re hungry for more of that information. We can help, but they have to find their own whakapapa in their own places. And the same goes for Pākehā students wanting to understand their identity.
I think that’s another important part of this role in working both with Pākehā students and their identity as Pākehā in Aotearoa and also with Māori students who are wanting to connect with their whakapapa.
Where do you see Pasifika, Asian and other Tangata Tiriti fitting into this? Is there a different approach for them?
That’s a really good question. Personally, I understand Tangata Moana (Pasifika) to be our tuakana in Moana-nui-a-Kiwa, so not really Tangata Tiriti.
The issues here for Pasifika students are really similar in some ways to those for Māori students, in needing whanaungatanga and dealing with under-representation and structural racism in education.
There is a similar piece of research about Pasifika legal education underway at the moment, also funded by the Borrin Foundation, that should tell us much more about the needs of Pasifika law students and their experience of legal education.
Asian students will also feel the impacts of structural racism, under-representation and exclusion, even as Tangata Tiriti. One of the great benefits of indigenising the law degree will be the practical exercise of whanaungatanga for all our students, that sits at the heart of tikanga Māori.
Hey, Metiria, any chance or returning to politics? Or is that part of your yesterday?
It’s definitely part of my yesterday. But politics was an amazing experience. And now it’s satisfying to have a job where I’m working with students and seeing what they’ll make of our country when they finish here. So, I’m not inclined to go back to politics in any way.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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