Paul Spoonley

Journalists tend not to beat a path to Paul Spoonley’s door to hear his views on growing fruit, or cooking — although he’s not short of experience in those areas.

But, since he joined the Massey University staff 40 years ago, he’s become more and more firmly established as a sociologist whose books are worth reading and whose views are worth hearing if you want a good grasp of the forces at work in our changing society. Here he’s talking with Dale about how he came into that line of work, and about some of the conclusions he’s come to.


Kia ora, Paul. Largely because of your work, many other New Zealanders are familiar with the Spoonley name. But it’s not common, is it?

As a matter of fact, there’s only one Spoonley family in the world. The name comes from the Welsh borders and it’s spelled 21 different ways, but we are all from the same family. And there are as many Spoonleys in New Zealand as there are in any other place in the world.

Our branch of the family came this way because my grandfather, in Liverpool, didn’t see any future there for his kids, so he offered to pay for his sons to migrate. And three of his six children came to New Zealand.

They started to come in the 1920s. My father, John, was the last. He’s the youngest. He arrived in the late 1930s. So there were the three brothers. One of my uncles married into the Anaru whānau. And there’ve been other Māori connections, such as my cousin John Spoonley, who’s worked in Māori education.

Within a year or two, Dad was called up into the army and spent four years as a corporal in the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force, before he met my mother, Maire. She is named after a native tree, and the link there is that her father, a migrant from Yorkshire, was a forester. He arrived in New Zealand in 1912 and learned Māori.

How have you fared for a middle name?

Don’t have one. I come from a family of non-conformists who weren’t religious and haven’t believed in middle names. So there’s been no middle name for my dad, or me, or my son or grandson.

What can you tell us about your growing up?

Well, I was born in the Hutt, but I grew up in Heretaunga, in Hawke’s Bay, and went to Havelock North Primary and Hastings Boys’ High School. Among those in my year were Chas Toogood at high school, and Ngahiwi Tomoana and Paul Holmes at schools like Karamu.

My father and father-in-law worked at the freezing works. My father at Tomoana, and my father-in-law at Whakatu. And I was a slaughterman on the board at Whakatu for five years.

And now, you’re a vegetarian?

Ha ha. No.

It’s a good grounding, though, isn’t it?

At that time, Whakatu had over 3,000 workers. It was the largest freezing works in the country. On the slaughter board, there were over 800 men. And even if the job itself wasn’t magic, there were times when it was a magic place to work — like at Christmas when the guys would sing beautiful hymns in Māori and English.

It’s interesting work, isn’t it? My people were involved with the Gear meatworks in Wellington. As a young fulla, maybe as a 10-year-old, I went through the works and had a good look. And it left a mark on me, seeing the realities of how our meat makes its way to our table. It certainly leaves an impression.

It does. We worked in gangs of seven. In my gang, I was the only Pākehā. Three of our seven were also members of the Mongrel Mob. Great to work with, but you wouldn’t want to get offside with them.

In fact, there’s the story — though there’s some dispute about this — that it was one of my Hasting Boys’ High classmates who, in 1967, the local magistrate called “nothing but a mongrel”. And that led to the gang forming and being named the Mongrel Mob.

You opted, though, for an academic career rather than working on the chain at the works. How did that come about?

That story starts back at Hastings Boys’ High, which I left in 1969. It was a very traditional, rugby-focused school. Wearing caps, socks pulled up, black uniform — even in the Hawke’s Bay summer. And I didn’t enjoy it very much. Not the way we were taught. And not the expectation that we should conform.

So I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be, but I did get my University Entrance qualification and decided to try university. Victoria University. And I loved it. I did geography, because that’s what I’d done at school — and then I discovered sociology.

I did a major in both of them and, boy, was that eye-opening. Tertiary education can be transformative. It was for me, anyway. This was a new world. We got to explore, to question, to think critically for ourselves and to understand more and more.

Anyway, one thing led to another, and I did a postgraduate degree in Dunedin with my future wife (Jennifer Crowley, who is from Hastings) and then went to do an MA (still at Otago), but came up to Auckland, because I was intrigued by the migration of Pacific groups.

So I did my master’s thesis on the Niuean community in Auckland and was supervised by a wonderful man called Cluny Macpherson. Next, I went to Bristol in the UK and did another master’s on race relations. Then I came back and did my PhD here on the extreme right in New Zealand.

As a result, Dale, I’m rather over-qualified, but it’s been a fascinating journey.

Thank you for that summary. You’ve checked out some interesting territory. But where you initially came to my attention, Paul, was some time back because you had a very decent handle on issues regarding Māori and Australia. I’ve had whānau living there for 40 years, so I know that we can’t ignore the tendencies of our people to migrate. The move across the Tasman is the third wave of Māori migration, coming after the arrival in Aotearoa and then the urban “drift”.

We know Auckland is the home of the largest group of Māori in New Zealand. But then we need to go to Brisbane, Sydney, or Melbourne to find some of the next largest groups of Māori.

It’s part of a general New Zealand phenomenon. This country has nearly five million people who live here. But we have about a million people living in other countries.

Travelling and re-settling is part of what we do as New Zealanders. It’s part of what Māori do, as well. Migrating and re-establishing communities around the world.

We need to recognise our connections with Australia, and I don’t know which way it is, whether Australia is an extension of New Zealand or New Zealand an extension of Australia. I think we don’t yet fully appreciate how significant the trans-Tasman migration and movement is for all of our communities.

At times, I wonder if we’re failing to make good use of the Māori expertise that our people are developing overseas — and fearing, in particular, that, with our Aussie rellies, too often it’s a case of them being out of sight and out of mind.

I think we deal badly with Māori migration and that diaspora. When you look at Māori around the world, but especially in Australia, there are some really skilled, well-networked, experienced Māori. I know that some iwi are looking overseas to recruit and sometimes to connect, but I don’t think it’s been thought through or has been as deliberate as it should be.

The question is this: How do you connect with them? How do you make sure you understand what they’re doing, and that they understand what you’re doing? And then, if there’s an opportunity for them to contribute to your iwi development, how do you make that happen? We don’t connect those dots very well at all.

You’ll remember that Whata Winiata, at Ōtaki, came up with the Whakatupuranga Rua Mano plan for Ngāti Raukawa, with long-term goals for te reo Māori and other education targets. They were saying, in effect: “This is what we need in terms of these skills and this is how we’re going to get those skills.” I think many iwi communities lack that vision and a clear view of how they can connect with their people in a way that helps the iwi to develop.

Fortunately, we’ve all been learning something from Whata. He has been a visionary. And there’ve been other iwi adopting similar plans. But there’s still the problem of maintaining a close relationship with the whānau who’ve gone overseas — and there’s also an issue to do with developing a close relationship with migrants arriving in Aotearoa.

Actually, we migrate as much as any country in the OECD. We’re right up there. We’re number two in terms of the proportion of our population who live in another country. So it really hurts me when we aren’t as welcoming as we should be to people who come to New Zealand.

There are various aspects to this, and it’s complex. But I’d really welcome an opportunity for Māori, as tangata whenua, to play a more obvious role. Not only in policy-setting, but in welcoming new New Zealanders to this country and providing them with a guide to their new country.

In the last few years, during Matariki, Massey University has worked, in Auckland, with Ngāti Whātua ki Kaipara, to provide a chance for the Chinese community to come and learn about Māori culture. We first did it two years ago with the help of Jenny Lim who’s in charge of Active Asian.

She’s a bit of star and she felt it was very important that new Chinese migrants should understand Māori. We thought we might get 30 or 40 to the first gathering at Massey University’s Albany campus. But we got 129. And they spent the day doing everything from learning waiata and a haka to understanding kaitiaki principles. It was a trilingual occasion — sometimes in Māori, sometimes Mandarin, sometimes English, sometimes all three.

And one of the Chinese elders, on behalf of his community, told us they’d never felt as welcomed in New Zealand as they were on that day. It reinforced, for me, that those connections aren’t made as deliberately and as often as we need to make them.

One aspect of that neglect is that we have a soft approach to nationalism. Today, I’m here in the centre of Auckland and I’m looking around and I can’t see a single New Zealand flag. We give permanent residents all the same rights as citizens. We don’t expect people to come to New Zealand to be citizens. And we don’t require a migrant to take an oath. We probably expect you to support the All Blacks, but not too much else.

That soft approach does work. But I think we need to be aware — as the mosque shootings have underlined — that not everyone feels that way about diversity. And there are people who may see the arrival of migrants who speak Mandarin or Hindi, as a threat to their identity.

So we need to address these anxieties. And we need to make sure that those fears don’t morph into something more, like xenophobia, Islamaphobia, or racism, or anti-Semitism. The Christchurch experience has shown that we’re not immune from such politics.

There’s an extra element, though, for Māori, isn’t there? That’s if we bear in mind how we’ve been colonised, lands taken and culture denied. And, if we’re talking about white supremacy, how about we point clearly to George Grey, in 1863, setting in motion all that shooting, killing and land confiscation.

We definitely need to deal with the way in which this country was established and hear the stories about who we were and what we have become. I think there was an important reset through the 1970s and ’80s. That’s when we saw some mana restored to tangata whenua — and some recalibration of the relationship between the state and Māori, and between Pākehā and Māori.

I was part of the generation that had those conversations, and took part in events like the 1981 Springbok Tour to show that racist sport was unacceptable. But it’s an ongoing conversation and I feel there are elements that we need to come back to.

And we need to recognise that, in 2019, New Zealand is one of the most super diverse countries in the world — with Auckland the fourth most super diverse city in the world. And we have these new layers of identity, language, culture and religion.

In the course of your writing career, you wrote Ranginui Walker’s biography. He was a man of strong principles and strong opinions on issues like these, wasn’t he?

That biography was one of the most delightful and satisfying things that I’ve done. At times, Ranginui was very direct about what he thought ought to be written and said. He was a wonderful man. But he took no prisoners.

I recall once when we were doing a Treaty of Waitangi lecture at Te Papa in Wellington and the issue of migration came up. I said: “I’m the son of a migrant. Why wouldn’t I be in favour of migration? I can’t come here and then deny others. What I think we need to do is have a national conversation about what that means. Ranginui will hold a different view.”

Rangi leaned into the microphone and said: “Pull up the drawbridge.” He was not in favour of migration at all. And he wasn’t in favour of Asian migration. He argued that, in Te Tiriti o Waitangi, Māori never signed up for people coming from Asia to New Zealand — although I think what he was really saying was: “If you’re going to do that, then let’s have a conversation first.” And, of course, there was no conversation.

If we look back to the beginning of the 20th century, we had a group of Māori leaders who were just stunning in terms of what they achieved. Ngata. Buck. And Pomare. But, in the late 20th century, from the 1970s onwards, we’ve been privileged to see another group of visionary Māori leaders: Mason Durie, Whata Winiata, Tipene O’Regan, James Henare and, of course, Ranginui Walker.

What struck me about Ranginui Walker was that he grew up in Whakatohea, near Opotiki, in a traditional Māori environment — and then that was all taken away from him as he grew into his teenage years and adulthood. So he really went back to reclaim his culture. And he had to encounter people, institutions and policies that were deeply discriminatory and which marginalised Māori in ways that we sort of understand now, but which were so much more intense then.

He was a leader. He broke the ice on many of these things. He was a tough man. He was tough on Māori too, if you think of the way he told the Māori Wardens to get their act together, or how he viewed Māori institutions, including whare wānanga, and told them off because their standards weren’t high enough. Or the way in which he would chide people for not including tikanga.

He was a hard taskmaster, but he was brought up in hard times. He’s one of those we’re indebted to — and we should acknowledge the debt we owe that generation and what they did to pave the way for others to follow.

As I recall, Rangi was the sort of guy who’d ask: Are you studying? And, if so: Can you go further? And get your master’s? Are you looking at your doctorate?

Yes, he did apply some pressure. And, right across the sector now, we’re seeing the growth of skilled Māori. But what concerns me is that, although there are the Treaty settlements (and the rise of a skilled, educated Māori middle class), there’s still a group of Māori who aren’t economically, or socially, or even culturally, engaged in our society.

So we’ve got to acknowledge that, over the last 20 or 30 years, inequality has grown in this society. And Māori have been a victim — or, if we want to avoid that word — “disproportionately affected” by some of the changes. So we’ve got intergenerational poverty and disengagement. And we really do need to address those issues, if we’re all to succeed. We can’t justify a system where a significant part of us aren’t sharing the benefits of what we manage to achieve, either individually or communally.

It’s been a pleasure to talk with you on these matters, Paul. I respect the insights that you can share with us because of your background and your commitment to social justice. And I’m wondering if, as a result of all your research and analysis, you’re optimistic about our future in Aotearoa.

I’m an optimist. I think this is a wonderful country. Even though we’ve just seen that terrible event in Christchurch, I’ve been encouraged by the response. I think the reaction of our communities has been amazing, especially the Muslim community and its leadership. I have a lot of faith in this country and in our people to navigate a future which is positive and which is probably different from anywhere else in the world.

But I think we need to work hard at understanding difference. As a personal goal, I want to contribute to that public understanding, and help take the fear from those who are upset by difference. As I move around the country, I’m impressed by how respectful so many people are, and how keen they are to understand.

But there are others with strong and different views — and, as with Trump supporters, for example, it’s not enough to dismiss them as ill-informed, uneducated, or racist. So we need to understand that and then be able to address those people, too.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.


© E-Tangata, 2019

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