Morgan Godfery started blogging about politics, and Māori politics in particular, in his first year at university, which wasn’t that long ago. He’s all of 24 now — with a law degree, a day job as a trade unionist, and a busy sideline as a political commentator and writer for a number of publications, including this website. He’s also the editor of The Interregnum: Rethinking New Zealand, a new book of essays by 10 of New Zealand’s “sharpest emerging thinkers”. Dale Husband finds out where all that thinking began.
You have some interesting whakapapa connections to intriguing places and villages. Can you tell us a bit about your bloodlines?
I grew up in Kawerau, but mum is from Te Pahipoto in Te Teko, while the old man is from Lalomanu in Samoa. There are other connections as well, from Kāwhia to Denmark, from Scotland to Niue, but it’s Te Teko and Lalomanu that really shape my identity in a more profound way than any of the other places we connect to.
Dad’s name is Warwick Godfery, not a very Samoan name, while Mum’s whānau name is Hunia.
What’s interesting is that both sides are mainly maternal lines, dominated by very strong and very accomplished women. So we whakapapa to Te Teko through Mum’s grandmother, and we whakapapa to Lalomanu through Dad’s grandmother, a formidable woman called Tolotea. We also have important connections to Kāwhia through my great-grandfather, who’s still alive, and his grandmother Nettie Ann Hetet.
Coming from several maternal lines teaches you lessons. The first is that the women in the family are always in charge. Don’t question it.
The hula-haka connection is intriguing isn’t it? I guess it’s a whole generation of people that have a shared Pacific heritage.
Yeah, it’s interesting. We’ve seen this development among a lot of young Māori, to increasingly identify as Polynesian. I think it’s a positive development, and something we haven’t seen before. Especially in the last century where there was an emphasis on that tribal identity rather than that big Polynesian identity.
More solidarity between Māori — who are a Pacific people, even if many of us prefer to identify otherwise — and other Pacific peoples is essential. This might be a controversial call, but you can probably say that Pacific peoples represent our tuākana lines!
I’m intrigued by Kawerau. It’s a much-maligned community where at one stage there was a real melting pot of kaimahi, of hard-working people. Are you disappointed at the way it’s portrayed? Or do you think that some of those rough edges have helped shape the sort of guy you became, Morgan?
Kawerau is spiritual, yet it’s also industrial. It’s predominantly Māori, but it’s also shaped by the memory of the great working-class days of the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s. Most people know it for the pulp and paper mill and for the forestry industry, or maybe they know it for that old working-class spirit.
But few people know that it’s also home to some of the great figures in Māori history as well. Tūwharetoa, the founding ancestor of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, lived most of his life near Kawerau and is buried near the foot of Putauaki, a volcano that dominates the Eastern Bay of Plenty skyline.
But the town remains better known for its modern day problems, like the job losses and poverty following Rogernomics and Ruthanasia in the late ’80s and early ’90s. This isn’t meant to gloss over the problems. One in four people are jobless, poverty is severe, and education hasn’t offered a way forward for most people there, at least in a material sense. But the point is that the negative chapters aren’t the full story.
Can you tell us a bit more about your whānau?
On the surface, it wasn’t a typical family. Dad was a Mongrel Mob member and Mum was a teenage mum. I love those two details because when people learn about them they often imagine you lived a terrible and deprived childhood, and even go as far as to elevate you as some sort of outstanding example of how to rise above circumstance.
To be fair, when Dad and I are together, I’m pretty prim and proper, whereas Dad is, or used to be, covered in tattoos. But the assumptions simply aren’t true. Sure, the old man made bad decisions. What’s wrong with being a teenage mum, though? Yet it didn’t stop him becoming a local body politician — he’s a Kawerau councillor. Politics runs in the blood. Dad’s father was a cabinet minister in Samoa.
And nor did teen parenthood stop the old lady from becoming an environmental scientist. She studied at Massey and lectures at Awanuiārangi now.
I guess the truth is we were always pretty middle class. I’m middle class as hell. Even when we were working class, our Nan and Koro — Mum’s parents — always ensured that we never went without anything, whether love or money. That seems like a uniquely Māori thing to do.
Our Nan and Koro were formative in the lives of me and my two sisters. (My older sister is a librarian and the younger is an economist.)
Koro, who we lost a few years ago, was my model of what it means to be a Māori man: compassionate, committed and someone who put whakapapa, and all that it demands, first.
I guess sometimes when you say the word Mongrel Mob everyone sort of squirms, but when they’re your family, when they’re the people that you love, you have a different impression of what they’re about and how people in similar circumstances can band together. Roll out some of your thoughts about growing up exposed to that gang life.
Well, I wasn’t exposed to gang life. Dad was out of the gang by the time us kids were born. And Mum made sure we were sheltered kids. I used to endlessly complain on birthdays and at Christmas about how many damn books people gave me. Why couldn’t I have a Playstation like everyone else? To their credit, I guess they recognised I wasn’t exactly what you’d call your average kid.
We weren’t an average household, either. Dad was in charge of the chores like making lunches and dropping us off at school, while Mum did the serious earning. We subverted gender roles in our house.
But, despite leading a sheltered and probably intellectual childhood, you still see parts of gang life growing up in a town like Kawerau. You see the poverty. You see the hopelessness. You see the misery.
And you see why people would join gangs. Often it’s for a sense of belonging. If you lose your job and you lose that sense of security and the social world that a job used to provide — often it’s only a gang that can fill the gap and provide the sense of security and the sense of identity that you once had.
Politicians target the wrong cause when they talk about the gang problem. But we don’t have a gang problem. We have a problem with an economy and society that leaves certain people behind. People think: “Oh, they’re in gangs because they’re wayward or they failed in education.” But, usually, it’s simply that they’ve lost their identity. And we could make far more progress on the problem if we actually tackled that aspect.
What are some of the neat things about Kawerau that you’ve witnessed?
It’s got a wonderful community spirit. It’s often portrayed as a community full of conflict, full of hopelessness. And there is some of that, but probably to no greater degree than any other community in the country.
But what the town did have, and does have, is a sense of solidarity and a sense of shared circumstance. So people are willing to get behind each other. You know, if you catch a fish, you give some of it to your neighbour, or you give some of it to the kuia a few doors down. That sort of community spirit is still there.
You went to school there?
Well, I went to primary school in Kawerau and then Rotorua Boys’ High. It’s best known for its rugby and other sports. It doesn’t get the credit it deserves, though, as an academic school. Sports stars like Danny Lee and Liam Messam are old boys, but it has also produced a number of talented people in arts and culture. Howard Morrison went there. Alan Duff, too. And there’ve been prominent politicians like Peter Tapsell, who are alumni.
The school places a premium on leadership, no matter the field, and often talks about helping develop good men. Usually it’s a pretty patriarchal and traditional conception of what makes a good man, but that’s probably true of all single-sex schools based on the old English boarding school model.
Perhaps the unusual thing is that the boarding aspect of the school — I boarded from year 9 to 13 — was the most progressive. There was a strong emphasis on going through education on your terms, taking and excelling in the subjects or sports you were interested in, not in having a one-size-fits-all education imposed on you.
But maybe the best thing about boarding school is it teaches you all the best political skills! You need to learn diplomacy and tact, you need to develop a sophisticated emotional intelligence, and you need empathy.
You did a law degree, but you’re better known as a political commentator than a lawyer. What aspects of law intrigued you?
To be honest, I did law because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. So, it wasn’t a particular attraction to the law, because I don’t think the law is that intriguing. And I don’t think the law has always been helpful to Māori struggles over the last 30 or 40 years. If anything, it’s held back some Māori struggles because we haven’t focused on politics, the way we should have. Instead, we’ve been focusing on the legal battles.
It’s an interesting distinction. Could you elaborate on that?
First, the law is what you would call “applied politics”. Common law scholars sometimes talk about the law as if judges “discover” it — as if it has an inherent meaning rather than an imposed meaning — but, in reality, the law is made, not discovered. The way we make law is through politics. If we accept that, then the natural starting point for Māori struggles is actually to reclaim some political control as opposed to meeting Pākehā on their favoured battlefield, which is the law and the courts.
When did you feel you were politicised?
Well, growing up in Kawerau, you can’t help but be politicised. I think, if you see poverty around you, and you see the consequences of the economics reforms of the 1980s and the 1990s, you can’t help but notice that the situation is unfair. And then you make the connection that someone’s responsible for it, not just the person who is in the circumstance.
I think that was always there as a background. But it wasn’t until I left home that I started to think about it in terms of parliament and history and power and that sort of thing.
When did you write your first politically inspired piece?
I think I must’ve been 19. Or possibly 18, in my first year of uni. For my poor little blog, which no longer exists. Can’t remember what I wrote about, but it would’ve been bad whatever it was.
What about those books or people who have influenced your attitudes to life? Who have you read or what heroes do you have, both nationally and internationally?
That’s a good question, and my answer lies in my maternal lines.
The writers who have influenced my thinking are nearly all women. There’s New Zealand’s finest historian, Judith Binney. One of the finest political theorists of the 20th century, Hannah Arendt, an Austrian-American of Jewish descent. And a lesser-known political theorist called Simone Weil, a French writer of Jewish descent, who was also a Christian mystic, weirdly enough.
Judith Binney is especially important here because reading her books brings home the power of history, the injustice of it, and the power it has to shape our lives today. Reading Binney was kind of a watershed moment in my life. To think: Wow, this is what happened, and this is why so many Māori are in this situation. So that was a lightbulb moment, and in some ways it makes me a Marxist, or someone who thinks historical materialism — the idea that competing social forces shape our lives — is the best explanation of why and how the world is.
Weil deals with power too, but she also deals with ideas that Māori will immediately identify with, like modern society’s need for roots. It’s these three ideas — history, power and place — that shape my political thinking. It might sound kind of grand, but it’s essentially about acknowledging where you came from, where you are, and how you progress. And in that order.
My generation is inclined to think of rangatahi as apathetic, but that might be unkind to young people. Is it wrong to think that this generation is politically apathetic?
Yes, and no. I think more people are disengaged with politics than ever before. But there’s still a great number of Māori engaging with politics though in a different way than in the past. People are much more institutionalised now.
You now have Māori in government departments or working in ministerial offices or in other institutions where they’re advocating for Māori views. That’s different from what was happening in the 1970s, where people were agitating from outside.
I guess part of the vision of those people agitating from the outside has been fulfilled because what they were asking for was access for Māori and not their exclusion. So in one way it’s a testament to how successful they were but, in other ways, it opens up all sorts of questions about just how effective “at-the-table” politics is, to use the Māori Party phrase.
There was a saying that Māori never achieve anything without protest. Yet we’ve seen our protesters become our MPs. Yesterday’s radicals, tomorrow’s conservatives. What do you make of this dynamic, and do you think that there’s a growing sense of frustration, despite our willingness to wait to see if political efforts can effect the change needed for our people?
I think there’s growing discontent. Not to the extent that there was in the ’70s and ’80s. But you can feel growing discontent among a lot of young Māori. Simply because their situation hasn’t changed over the last 10 or 20 years. You know, life is much the same. Unemployment is still double the national rate among Māori — for Māori under 25, it’s about 25 percent. Wages aren’t growing for Māori, at least not in real terms.
So I think there’s dissatisfaction with the jobs that those established politicians in parliament are doing. There is growing agitation for something more — as we saw with the TPPA protest just last month. Māori were at the forefront of that. In fact, Māori dominated that protest. So, I think that’s probably an indication that there’s a return to street politics among a lot of Māori, especially in Auckland.
Who are the change agents for Māori? Who do you think are going to be influential in the years ahead?
That’s a really good question. Usually I don’t think the people who shape change are the people you read about in the headlines. It’s usually people who are doing the everyday work. It’s the marae caretaker, it’s the marae chairperson, or it’s usually the person down at the homeless shelter, or the person down at the budgeting service.
As opposed to the big celebrities that we hear about or the politicians who are making these decisions. I’ve come to think that the real power doesn’t actually lie with them. It lies with the people in the community, and they can exercise that power when they actually come together — whether it’s in iwi organisations or in a trade union or some other collective movement. When that happens, that’s where the real power lies, and where the real influential change comes from.
When you look at our country, what are some of the causes that you’re passionate about or that you’re moved by?
It’s a hard question to answer. Probably comes back to a discussion about injustice again, especially inequality. Seeing the differences between people, differences that exist for no apparent reason other than lucky circumstance. One person might’ve been born into a stable, wealthy family, while another person was born into a poor, perhaps dysfunctional family.
And the fact that they won’t have equal opportunities in life, that they won’t have equal outcomes in life, is the most frustrating thing for me. Especially growing up and seeing poverty and inequality first hand. That’s the thing that drives me.
We’ve been renowned for taking our kaitiakitanga roles very seriously. When we look at the environmental challenges we face as Pasifika peoples, what do you make of our attitudes towards environmental protection, and how important is that going to be both environmentally and politically in the future?
I think climate change is the greatest challenge of all, more so than some of the human problems like inequality. I think it’s far more important. And it’s probably the political struggle that’s going to define the next century.
Māori are engaging with climate change but perhaps not to the degree that we should be. There should be a dedicated Māori climate change movement. Like there is with indigenous communities in South and Central America. And like there is among the people of the Pacific where their homes are literally sinking beneath the sea. New Zealand has been slow on this — and Māori have been slow on this as well.
Morgan Godfery is a political commentator, writer and trade unionist based in Wellington. He is an online columnist for Overland Literary Journal in Australia and a regular book reviewer for Fairfax. His writing has been published in a number of publications and websites, including the Guardian, the Herald and e-tangata. He also appears regularly on radio and television as a political commentator. He has authored several academic chapters and lectured extensively on Māori politics. Morgan graduated in law from Victoria University in 2015.
He is also the editor of a new book, The Interregnum: Rethinking New Zealand, published by Bridget Williams Books (BWB).
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.