In November last year, Moana Jackson spoke with Matthew Tukaki as part of the “Inspiring Māori” series on Radio Waatea.
Although very unwell at the time, he nonetheless spoke with great hope and determination that a more just society for Māori in Aotearoa is possible.
Matthew: This series is about having a conversation with inspirational people who have made a real impact in the lives of Māori. And I know you probably think you’re not that person, but you know what? You are that person.
And so I want to have a conversation about life, your career and, of course, racism. To start things off, how did you get into being so involved with Māori constitutional reform?
Moana: I don’t think I’m particularly inspirational — I get whakamā with labels like that. But I think one grows into an awareness, first of history and then of the way that history still plays out today.
I became aware of that when I was quite young, when I got involved, through my whānau and Ngāti Kahungunu, with different iwi issues. And then when I went to law school, that increased my interest and involvement — and my frustration and anger, to be honest — at the mistreatment of our people.
The history of this country still shows itself in the power imbalances between ourselves and the Crown, which is contrary to Te Tiriti o Waitangi.
Although I think it’s important that we don’t ever lose sight of the tremendous progress that our people have made, it’s been largely by our own efforts and in spite of a whole lot of things. And so I have tremendous pride and respect for the work that so many of our people have done for so long.
There was something that you wrote in E-Tangata which said that, “although, in the simplest sense, colonisation is the violent denial of the right of Indigenous peoples to continue governing themselves in their own lands, the colonisers have told stories that redefine its causes and costs.”
And I wonder, based on what you’ve just said, because there are so many Māori out there now doing such amazing things, do you think we’re finally in control of our own story?
I would like to think that we’re in control of our own stories and have some greater degree of self-determination and the ability to determine our own destiny. But every week, if not every day, some issue arises that gives the lie to that, that shows just how far we have to go.
I think the treatment of our people during the Covid pandemic is an example. We had the often-voiced concerns of our people, our health experts, our doctors and epidemiologists and so on, all saying that Māori were at greater risk. And their voices were basically ignored. Now we’re in a position where we have a low vaccination rate. We’re going to be impacted, I believe, by the change to the traffic light system — and the consequence, sadly, is that there may be more suffering for our people.
But our people had the answers. Our people were aware of the difficulties that lay ahead. And it’s really tragic, if not criminal, that those voices of concern were ignored and the Crown is now admitting that it took no notice.
It’s coming up with some quite silly, impetuous argument that they weren’t looking at vaccination rates when they were focusing on elimination. That’s just no excuse to ignore the expert advice they were being given by Māori.
The 1918-1919 pandemic showed very clearly the impact of infectious disease on Māori communities. And 18 months ago, anyone would have known that the impact on Māori of Covid was always going to be adverse, given the already low vaccination rates compared to non-Māori for other diseases like measles and mumps. So it does seem sometimes that the more things change, the more they appear to remain the same?
It’s one of the difficulties of living in a society that is still a colonising society. The country has not yet faced its history. There’s a lot of talk about settling the Treaty, but treaties aren’t meant to be settled, they’re meant to be honoured.
The honouring of the Treaty of Waitangi can only happen when colonisation is settled. And colonisation is a complex culture and a complex process of maintaining power imbalances. When power imbalances are entrenched, as they are in this country, then all the other inequities and imbalances follow, whether it’s in health or education or whatever.
So in a way, although what happened with Covid was avoidable, the fact that the chance to do things properly for Māori wasn’t taken up, is just indicative of how far we have to go before we are fully honouring the Treaty.
I want to turn now to the presence of racism in Aotearoa. It’s been around for a very long time, obviously, but during the last 18 months or so it appears to have taken on a new pace, with the use of social media and people locked away in their homes belting on their keyboards. From your perspective, is racism today any better or worse than it has been?
One of my heroes is a colonising theorist named Frantz Fanon. And he wrote a long time ago that, in reality, a colonising country is a racist country.
Colonisation depended on the states of Europe believing that they were superior to Indigenous peoples such as Māori, and that they should therefore usurp Indigenous authority and impose their own ways of doing things. So, colonisation, by its very nature, is born and bred out of racism.
People in a colonised society grow up with the ideas of racism all around them. And sometimes those ideas, in Aotearoa, ebb and flow depending on the degree to which Māori people are objecting to, or protesting against, injustices committed by the Crown.
If we look back over the last 20 or so years, there were peaks in the open displays of racism during the time that Māori were protesting against the foreshore and seabed. Going further back, there were open displays of racism when Māori started protesting at Waitangi.
So, whenever Māori seem to be questioning the power that is vested in Pākehā power structures, then the racism which underpins those structures tends to be more overt and people feel less inhibited about making racist comments and being quite openly discriminatory against Māori.
I think the current peak in Covid is part of that process. It’s not so much, in this case, that Māori have been protesting against the injustice of the vaccine rollout, but rather that Covid has placed tremendous strain and stress on everyone.
So part of a reaction to that, I think, is to look for a scapegoat, someone that can be picked on to sort of release tension. And that usually exhibits as racism, usually directed against Māori, but also against Pasifika people, against Asian people, and so on.
Until we settle colonisation and deal with the inbuilt racism of a colonising society, then the open expressions of racism, the open discrimination, will continue to hurt our people. And it’s that continued hurt which most upsets and frustrates me.
Aside from Covid, there’s also been He Puapua, which is the government’s expert advisory panel response to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the setting up of the Māori Health Authority. These appear to have become the more recent lightning rods for people to ply their trade in hate?
That’s right, it’s not just Māori protest that can trigger overt and open racism, it’s any signs that Māori are making progress.
Māori advances are labelled as “privileging Māori” and “giving Māori special advantages” and so on, when in fact they are just efforts to catch up. To address the wrongs that have been there for over a century.
The establishment of the Māori Health Authority, for example, which has been labelled by many people as advantaging Māori and privileging Māori is only an attempt to address the inequities that have been there in the health system for so long that people have almost normalised them. It’s almost become normalised that Māori tend to die younger, suffer from cardiac disease more often, diabetes more often, and so on.
It’s just sad that the Māori Health Authority establishment, which is an honest attempt, I think, and a worthy attempt by the Crown to help address those inequities, is nevertheless seen by some as an excuse to indulge in race-baiting against Māori.
I want to move briefly now to constitutional reform. We have the Queen getting older in years, and other countries moving in the direction, as Barbados has just done, to separate themselves from the UK and the Queen as head of state. What is your feeling about the potential for constitutional reform in Aotearoa?
I think constitutional transformation is an essential step. Reconstructing the colonising society and demolishing the imbalances in power. In the end, that can only be done by changing the constitutional order of this country — that is, the way in which the country is governed and the way in which political decisions are made.
We don’t really need to look overseas for that, or even indulge in a debate about whether the Queen should be the head of state, or whether the country should become a republic. The issue is more basic than that.
The Treaty set a blueprint for a constitutional relationship, and the Treaty allowed other people to come and share this land. But there were conditions on that, and the conditions were that Māori would continue to make their own governing decisions for Māori. Then colonisation, of course, destroyed that.
So for me, constitutional transformation is really just about returning to the kind of relationship that Te Tiriti o Waitangi originally envisaged — that Māori would continue to exercise an independent authority, but necessarily engage in an interdependent relationship with those who have come here since 1840. And I don’t think that’s an unrealistic expectation, as people often suggest, but rather it is a just expectation.
So the argument shouldn’t be: “Oh well, is it realistic to expect that we can change the parliamentary system or the way this country is governed?” I don’t think that’s the right question at all. The proper question is: “Is the present system actually just for Māori and consistent with Te Tiriti for Māori?” And, clearly, it’s not. Therefore, it’s incumbent on us to work towards transformation.
This has been your aspiration for quite some time. Do you think we can expect to see constitutional transformation in our lifetime?
I think it’s absolutely possible. There’s a quote which is often used, and also misused, that justice is often slow to come about but it does come about. That the arc of history moves slowly, but it eventually moves towards justice.
There is a discussion now about constitutional transformation that is much more informed, both by many (particularly younger) Pākehā people as well as by Māori.
During the constitutional review process that I was involved in a few years ago, we spoke to thousands of Māori people, and the word “constitutionalism” may not have been in their ordinary everyday kōrero, but they understood the need for change.
So, I think it’s absolutely realistic, and I’m absolutely sure that in the lifetime of my whānau and my mokopuna, that this country will have a quite different constitutional system.
Wouldn’t that be amazing? Finally, this is an opportunity for us to speak directly to our rangatahi, particularly for those who have devoted their career and mahi to our people.
Well, I’ve been very privileged over my working life to meet lots of young people, both Māori and Pākehā, Asian, and others. They have a very clear vision of how this country could be better, how this country could live up to the promises in Te Tiriti o Waitangi. And I think the number of rangatahi who are committed to that is increasing.
And that gives me a great deal of hope and inspiration. The only thing I can say to those young people is that change that challenges power is never easy.
There was a great African American thinker called Frederick Douglass who said that power never gives up without a challenge. It never has and it never will. So the change won’t necessarily be easy. What we can do is constantly talk about the need for change. Advocate the need for change. And above all, really be brave.
Being brave can sound like a difficult thing to do. But I look back in the history of our people, and particularly since 1840, and if there’s anything that has marked the survival of our people and the flourishing of our people, it’s that we have been brave.
And so, I often say that being courageous or being brave is just the deep breath you take before you start something difficult.
And I have no doubt that there are enough of our people, and there is an increasing number of others, who have that courage and are willing to act on it. So that gives me hope.
It’s not a forlorn, pious hope, but a genuine hope that is based on the belief that things will get better.
(This interview has been lightly edited. It ran on Radio Waatea in November 2021, and is republished here with permission.)
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