Pat SneddenPat Snedden is a 62-year-old Pākehā Aucklander whose commitment to social justice has led him into a number of struggles where Māori and Pasifika disadvantage has been rife — in education, health and housing for instance. He has pitched in as well on Treaty settlements, iwi business developments and Māori broadcasting. And here, in this interview with Dale, he talks of his family background and his early years.


Kia ora, Pat. Thank you for joining us. And, as we’re inclined to do in these interviews, let’s talk briefly about whakapapa — which, in your case, is all Pākehā and involves an unusually large element of cricket.

That’s true. In fact my great-grandfather Alexander was one of four Pākehā who bought the land and drained the swamp to create Eden Park in Auckland. And, from that time, every generation of Snedden has had somebody who’s played cricket for New Zealand. From the beginning of the 20th century through to now.

But there are two sides of our clan. One is the Irish side from Shanagolden, a small village near Limerick. And the other side is Scottish and English. It’s from Airdrie, not far from Glasgow. Both ends of our family arrived here in the mid-1860s. Some became farmers. Others, as things developed a bit, moved into the professional classes.

The family was originally Presbyterian but, at the turn of the 20th century, there was a marriage with a Catholic and the requirement in those days was that somebody had to convert. So the line I come from has been mostly Irish Catholic. And still is.

What was it that brought them here?

One reason was that the relationship with the English at the time was very poor — and the Irish famine was a big contributor to the migration. Irish people, and in particular the Irish Catholics, felt pretty oppressed. So there was a motivation to get out of there.

And, in the Catholic tradition, they brought not only conservative values around morality but also progressive views about social justice. And I think I’ve been blessed in my household that, although my parents and grandparents were conservative people, they were fiercely attuned to the needs of people to get a fair deal.

So I grew up in a household where the day-to-day conversation contested ideas. We had a progressive mother who felt that you needed to be an adult by the time you were 16 and to be making your own choices. It was a pretty literate household where both parents read a lot and discussed the issues of the day.

That was mostly in a private rather than a public sphere. But we learned the disciplines of arguing a cause around the table. I’m forever grateful for that and have practised that with my own five kids. They’ve grown up in a home with Jo, my wife, and me — and where the kitchen table becomes, effectively, the marae atea in our household where you really go hard at understanding what lies beneath the issues of the day.

You’ve spent some time, though, haven’t you in debating issues out in the public sphere?

For me, one of the first connections with this whole idea of learning to hold your own in a public sphere was when I was at school and it was around racism and apartheid in South Africa. It seemed to me to be extraordinary that we were in a Catholic school and we were debating whether apartheid was a regime that could be defended.

I found myself on the attack side of that conversation — appalled by that stuff. And my first experience of a public demonstration was when I was about 16 going to the Inter-Continental Hotel in Auckland, just across the road from Auckland University and the Northern Club, where the 1970 All Black tour bus was to leave for the airport and a plane bound for South Africa.

There were all sorts of people lying underneath the bus to stop it from going. We were banging on the side of the bus. This was the tour where Māori and Pasifika people were regarded as honorary whites so that the All Blacks could get away with playing South Africa at the time. So my early dealings with racism weren’t about Māori in New Zealand. They were to do with South Africa.

Your parents must’ve been pretty interesting people — influential, too, because of their sense of social justice.

My father, Warwick Snedden, was from a long line of lawyers. We continue to have the law firm today. It’s Snedden & Associates, and my brother David runs it. Warwick was quite a private man in many respects. Extremely well-read. He would regularly read theology at lunchtimes in his legal practice. He never went to court. It wasn’t his thing to talk in the public arena. But he was great at the back end of the legal system.

When we were having a discussion, he would insist on you paying attention to the way you framed your arguments and to the way you held your own in these processes. And he would emphasise the need to distinguish the dross from the stuff that really makes sense.

Mum, Lorna Snedden, was an extremely bright woman. That was the side of the Quane family that came from Yorkshire in England. She had really lovely parents and I spent a lot of time with them, so my growing up was very much like the extended whānau experience which is so common among Māori.

My grandfather William Quane had been in World War I (where he was wounded at Passchendaele) and looked after the returning wounded in World War II. Then he became an excellent athletics ambassador and coach. Coached runners like Bill Baillie and Jeff Julian. And he was a great hurdles coach, too.

So I had an almost blissful growing-up. We had a mum and a dad who were alive to the issues of the day. We were surrounded by athletics, cricket and rugby. We had people of confidence who were engaged in all of those sorts of things. And I had an extended family experience which meant I always understood the multi-dimensions and multi-layers of family.

Of us five kids, I was probably the biggest handful. As a four-year-old, I lit a fire under my sister’s bed which put the house on fire. Then, I actually ran down the road and lit a fire under my aunty’s place. So I was forever branded with that. Ironically, in 1990, my own house burned down.

And that led to a wonderful interchange between me and my father, who was terminally ill at the time. I’d gone to visit him and he was lying at home, supported by oxygen. I said to him: “Dad, I’ve come with some bad news — my house has just burned down.” He pulled the oxygen mask away and he looked at me with a twinkle in his eye, and he said: “Ironic, isn’t it, son?” A terrific sense of humour.

And Mum had a profound sense of the need for people to grow up with a set of values and with the discipline of making your own decisions early. There’s a family story about a really significant exchange between her and the local parish priest, an old Irishman. My mum gave him a round of the kitchen and then told him that in her family there’d be no attempt to foist Catholicism on her children after they were 16: “They’ll be making their own decisions about what they do.”

We were blessed by that kind of attitude. So all of us grew up with single-mindedness and with the ability to make our own decisions, make our own way in life, and to be responsible for what we’re doing.

In the course of pursuing social justice issues, you no doubt crossed paths early on with some influential Māori families.

One of the most significant people that I met was somebody whose significance I hardly understood until much later in my life. I went to school with Eruera Kawiti, who was actually the support person for Dame Whina Cooper. Here was a person who could directly whakapapa to Kawiti in the 1840 Treaty conversation. This was at Marcellin College in Mt Albert. But there was never any consciousness that here was a man from a whānau of such importance in the history of New Zealand. It shows you the kind of “white-out” in the historical training of ourselves.

But, after the 1970 All Black tour, there was, for me, a memorable incident relating to the 1976 Montreal Olympics which the African nations boycotted because of the New Zealand rugby tour to South Africa. I was the fullback for the Takapuna senior club team and I’d decided that it was disgraceful that the All Blacks going to South Africa should have disrupted the Olympic games. I believed that New Zealand should have been in solidarity with black Africans.

I felt that, if rugby stood for anything, it stood for the capacity for people to be aligned with each other. To share their lives with each other. To come from different backgrounds but still pursue a common ideal. And this was all being trampled on as a result of the rugby tour.

So I decided to put a motion to the Takapuna rugby club that we withdraw from the Auckland Rugby Union to illustrate our protest about the support of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union for that All Black tour.

As it happened, the Takapuna captain of the senior team, Chris Kennings, had been in Montreal and he’d been deeply affected by the absence of the African nations at the Olympics there. So he seconded my motion. Normally, there’d be about 25 people at the general meeting of our club. Well, they packed it out this night. And they were pretty hostile to us, I have to say. You could tell that most of them found this to be an outrageous proposition and they were here to bat it down.

The chairperson, having done a little bit of legal work, decided that, because the motion had been presented less than 14 days before the meeting, it couldn’t be put. So I said to him: “Well, even if the motion can’t be put, why don’t we just have the discussion?” And he agreed to that.

When I got up to speak, I was really apprehensive. But an idea came to me. And my opening words were: “If we were in South Africa having this meeting today, you, and you, and you, and you, and you … wouldn’t be in this meeting.” Of course, I was talking to Māori and Pacific people who were in our football team. And, as I did that, the place went into a deep quiet.

So I started to talk about the values of football and what it meant to have the camaraderie of men from all walks of life. And to have white and brown and Asian all on the same footing. All in the same space. In solidarity. With an ideology that you didn’t let your mates down — which means standing up for them in difficult circumstances, particularly when your personal safety might be at risk.

Then Chris Kennings got up and spoke about the impact it had on him when the absence of the black African nations left a huge gap in the Olympic proceedings. And he spoke about how the world community was scarred by that.

You could tell the audience were shifting — which had the chairperson becoming extremely anxious in case they suddenly decided to put the original motion. So, to help get him off the hook, I said to him: “Why don’t you just ask for a show of hands of people who now support the idea that we’ve been talking about?” And, overwhelmingly, they put up their hands.

That was my first conscious experience of taking a real live issue to a large group of people and seeing what it took to respectfully deal with a key point and change the mood and the tone of opposition. And do it in such a way that people went away thinking: “Actually — that made sense.”

For me, that was a major change point. I thought to myself: “I can see myself doing this.” That is, taking on the big questions around race and social justice, fronting audiences and finding ways that respected them but at the same time, actually getting your point across.

In later years, as I got more experience on the marae, I could see that this was the notion of rangatiratanga. It was people taking control of their own circumstances. Being in charge of the things they do and say. Taking control on behalf of the collective about what might happen. All of this kind of came later to me, but it was my first conscious experience of that kind of potential for change.

It’s a remarkable story. And, of course, five years later, there was another big issue, with rugby at the centre again, when the Springboks arrived in New Zealand for their 1981 tour. And you and many others took exception to that.

That Takapuna experience had come for me when I was still young. At that stage I was 21. But I felt that this was a theme that was going to develop in my life. And I learned something interesting, too, in the course of that whole episode because quite a number of my Takapuna club-mates, who’d said they would come and support me on the night, never turned up.

There were various excuses afterwards. But that told me you have to be prepared to do the thing you think is right even if sometimes your best friends — or even family — aren’t supporting you. And that was the case, for example, during that 1981 tour and its aftermath.

A few years before the tour, though, I’d become interested in the situation when Joe and Rene Hawke and their whānau occupied Bastion Point. So I read up on that and started to understand those issues. Like the Crown’s attitude that Ngāti Whātua had no land rights there. That it had ignored the fact that they were tangata whenua in that place. And ignored the incidents of the early 1950s — the burning them off their land down on their papakāinga on Tamaki Drive.

All of this was kind of buried in our historical narrative which is: we were doing a good thing for Māori. I was younger at that time and I didn’t quite grasp it all. But the thing that I did understand was there was something profoundly wrong about what was going on here at the Point. And I was anxious to get engaged in it, particularly because Jo and I had just started a young family.

Let’s turn to that 1981 tour for a moment. It was a time when communities and families were divided over the rights and wrongs of apartheid and racism and politics in sport. Your family too?

Oh, yes. That division was mirrored in our family. My mother was the primary agent of both setting the rules and allowing the conversation to occur. And the rules were that we’d all come for lunch. The Sunday roast. There would be no discussion about the tour during the meal. And, after the meal was over, then it was open forum.

We had a very divided family around this process. And when my son Tomas was born just a week before the last test at Eden Park — in fact, on the day of the last test — my brothers came to visit Tomas on the way to the game just as we were going to the protest. So there was a sharp dispute in the family about what was the right thing to do.

It was resolved, I must say, after the tour, in quite a positive way. But, during the tour, it was a tense time for the family because my wife and I were actively engaged in pretty much every protest in Auckland. It used to be a regular thing on Friday evening —there’d be something going on.

Two of my brothers were in favour of the tour going ahead. My sister was kind of both ways. But the conversation that I found most challenging wasn’t so much about apartheid. The important question was: What about race relations in New Zealand?

That was because we’d had Whina Cooper’s land march in 1975 which made people more aware that there was something going on in New Zealand that needed attention.

And then, in 1978, with the Crown’s response to the 507-day occupation of Bastion Point, we’d witnessed the greatest use of government force against the civilian population since the 1951 waterfront strike. The army and the police came in, removed the protestors and dismantled the papakāinga buildings there.

Then, as I recall, one of the consequences of the tour and the protests and the arrests, was that the courts were flooded.

Yes. They were overwhelmed. And one of the most interesting aspects of the protest was that so many white people had been out on the streets arguing about racism, and then getting arrested. So, for a time, you had a situation where a whole lot of white people were caught up in the court system in a way that they’d never been before in their life. Professional people.

And, of course, being professional people, they called on fellow professionals — QCs and so on — to defend them in court. This kind of Pākehā access to legal support was so profound that the courts, in the end, had to wipe a whole lot of offences against everybody. Not just the Pākehā. But for a range of offences that they didn’t have the time, capacity or resources to hear.

So that was an interesting experience for Māori and Pacific communities. They could see what those in power are capable of doing when their own future prosperity is at stake, as it would be if you have a conviction against your name.

Among the other issues are two that I’d like to focus on. One is the process and impact of Treaty settlements. And the other is housing — particularly state housing which is close to my heart because I grew up in a state house. And you know a bit about that scene because you were the chair of Housing New Zealand for some years.

State housing in New Zealand was an enormously progressive move. This was one of the few countries in the world that actually had a coherent approach to the fact that, for some people, owning their own home was beyond them. They didn’t have the skills, the ability, the background or the experience to manage that.

So New Zealand was entitled to be proud of the state housing scheme it developed in the 1930s. But now that reputation is coming into disrepute. And that’s sad and unnecessary. Of course, we do want people to move out of dependence on the state and into their own personal prosperity or their own collective prosperity. That’s one of the major drivers of the Treaty process. But we still want them to be able to have a roof over their heads while they build up their prospects.

Now we seem to have lost some of that momentum and motivation. And I think that’s completely wrong. Certainly, when I was chair of Housing New Zealand (from 2002 through to 2010) we increased the number of state houses and improved the average condition of other state houses in that time.

But it took a lot of investment to do that. And it took a lot of Crown focus to make that a priority. There is an argument in the political arena these days that the way forward is through social investment. The idea is that, if you identify and invest in those at risk, they won’t be dependent on the state later on.

That’s a long-term strategy, though. It takes generations for that to pay off. And it doesn’t meet the immediate needs of those who need a roof over their heads now.

We all know about the stats pointing to our over-representation in the prison population and the under-achievement for Māori and Pacific at school. Health problems too. But what do you make of the overall scene?

Well, on the plus side, for example, New Zealand’s commitment to the Treaty process has been extraordinary. No matter how grumpy we might get about it. No matter how some Pākehā might see it as giving an advantage to Māori. Or no matter how some Māori may see it, from their perspective, as not good enough. The evidence is beyond question.

The evidence shows that the position of Māori, collectively, has improved massively since the introduction of the Treaty process. And there isn’t a nation on earth that has had that kind of courage to do that kind of innovation — and to stick with it over time when it began in a context where it was highly contestable. And these days, many people would say that was a good, positive and moral thing to have done.

When I got arrested with Joe and Rene Hawke and company in 1982 during the re-occupation of Bastion Point, the only property in Ngāti Whātua hands and under their title, was their urupā on Tamaki Drive. Twenty five years later, they had $200 million worth of property under their governance. And only $3 million had been funded by Treaty processes.

Now they’ve got $1 billion worth of property, of which only $35 million is being funded by Treaty processes. This is a tribal group that has gone from near extinction to resourcing and recovering itself. I don’t think there’s a better example than that of the recovery of rangatiratanga. Right there. Right now. In the middle of Auckland.

In the course of the 30 years of Treaty work that I’ve done, I’ve become familiar with other significant developments. Like in the Far North where there are all kinds of investment. Impressive and sophisticated projects. In horticulture, for instance. And agriculture and tourism.

It’s the same in a number of regions where iwi are making canny commercial calls about building from a capital base generated from the Treaty process. And all of that stuff tells me that we have the methodology, the science, and the moral capability to make New Zealand great in these matters. That’s if we’re brave enough to do the right thing at the right time. Nearly all these things require people with innovation and courage to take them on.

On the other side of the spectrum, we’re still seeing profound violence in households. We still see kids being separated from their aiga, their whānau, because there’s no coherence in handling those matters. We’re still seeing the state being sloppy and being adversarial to Māori interests in the courts. Our institutions should have a much more open view about resuscitating a person’s life and feeling enough compassion to help them turn their lives around.

In New Zealand, we’ve got reasons to celebrate innovation. But we should be making better use of those innovation instincts and the political courage that got women the vote. That’s what got the Treaty process started.

But it needs to be applied to those areas where, right now, we’re stuck. Housing is a really good example of where we feel that we’ve run out of options and solutions. Well, we haven’t. We have the innovation to fix those things, but we choose not to take the risk and not to run the public discussions that are required to do it.

If I have an apprehension in New Zealand at the moment, it’s not because we’re not smart enough. It’s because we’re not courageous enough.



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