Tamatha Paul isn’t a member of any political party, but there’s no doubting her political talents. Last year, at 22, the self-described “troublemaking young Māori from Tokoroa” was elected to the Wellington City Council. Before then, she’d been the president of the Victoria University Students’ Association. She’s among a number of rangatahi Māori who want to see transformational change in Aotearoa — as she tells Dale in this interview.
Kia ora, Tamatha. Your name is one I haven’t heard before. Where did that come from?
My mum just made it up, I think. She just liked the way it sounds.
I understand your Māori side comes through your biological father who you haven’t had a lot to do with.
That’s right. I whakapapa to quite a few iwi, but the main ones I identify with are Ngāti Awa and Waikato Tainui.
My mum and her whānau are from England, Scotland and Spain, so I proudly whakapapa to those places as well.
I’m the youngest of seven. Mum is an aged care worker, and she does a bit of palliative care, too. So she’s quite often with people in their final moments.
My dad who raised me is a truck driver. He’s always done truck driving. All types, although mostly furniture trucks.
Are they from Tokoroa?
No. They move around quite a lot and we did that when I was growing up as well. But we moved to Tokoroa when I was about eight and I lived there until I moved away for university when I was 18.
All my best memories and formative years were spent in “Tok”.
A lot of young people are in your shoes. They haven’t grown up with a strong sense of their taha Māori, for reasons outside their control. But many of us are embracing it now. Do you regret that you weren’t exposed to more of that as you were growing up?
No, I don’t have any regrets. It saddens me that many rangatahi Māori grow up disconnected to who they are because of colonisation — I know myself how damaging this can be for one’s sense of self, sense of purpose and belonging, and self-confidence.
But my connection to te ao Māori was not a positive one. My mum did what she had to do to keep me and my siblings safe, as many single mums have to do in Aotearoa.
This is why it’s so important that people like me who have the tools and ability to reconnect must do so for their whānau. It’s not easy, but it’s incredibly healing.
What can you tell us now about your years at Tokoroa High School? You must’ve been a bright young girl because you were the dux?
I don’t know how I managed that because I didn’t go to school much. I had like 50 percent attendance because I worked pretty much full time at KFC throughout high school as most young people from areas like Tok do in order to survive and to set ourselves up for uni or something more.
But I still kept up with my schoolwork. And my grandad was an important person in my life — instilling good values in me, and keeping me on the right track. He also emphasised the importance of hard work and making sacrifices.
Tell us about going to varsity.
I didn’t really want to go to uni at first. I had a dream of having my own record company because I love music so much and I wanted to support artists to make music, manage their own image and create projects because music had such a profound impact on my life, especially growing up in Tokoroa. This year, I did an interview with Kim Hill about my favourite music growing up.
But I ended up getting heaps of scholarships to go to university, so I picked politics at Victoria University because I wanted to understand how change happens, and I thought being down the road from the Beehive would give me a good idea.
It was a bit of a culture shock. Wellington makes you feel audacious.
I still remember the first protest I ever went to. It was led by JustSpeak, and Julia Whaipooti was standing outside the Ministry of Justice with a megaphone and calling out Judith Collins for putting trans women into men’s prisons. I couldn’t believe that you could just pull up outside someone’s office and cause a ruckus, but it really inspired and motivated the mahi I would go on to do.
How did you get into student politics?
It was kind of random and I didn’t even know of this weird and wonderful world of student politics until I came to Wellington. When I came down to uni, I got a job as a designer at the New Zealand Union of Students Association. That’s because I draw and paint and I can do graphic design and stuff.
And, while I was working there, I picked up on some of the student issues they were dealing with that reminded me of the many reasons why some of my peers did not come to uni — whether that was experiences of sexual harm or difficulties with mental health.
I’d never had a leadership role before. Like I wasn’t head girl or prefect or anything at school. And I never saw myself as a leader. But I was encouraged to stand for election on the Victoria University of Wellington Students Association. I served the students at Vic for two and a half years, and then I became the president last year — and, in October, I was elected to the Wellington City Council, which is my current full-time gig.
It’s difficult at first, putting yourself out there and talking about yourself. Especially when you’re Māori, and even more so when you’re a woman. It’s definitely something I’ve struggled with. You just have to get over it. But I can see why so few Māori seek election because it’s pretty embarrassing talking about yourself when you want voter support, because you sound like a kumara!
I know that you’ve raised the issues of te Tiriti around the Wellington City Council table, and I imagine that sometimes you’ve felt the collective sigh: “Oh, here we go again.” It’s the same, no doubt, in student politics. And I guess there are other issues that you’ve raised where it’s been hard to get traction. Mental health, for instance.
Often the process is simply a matter of hearing of a problem and then stepping up to help solve it. And the problem that we were hearing at the student council was that students were having to wait too long to see counsellors. They were waiting a couple of months just to get their first appointment. And things might have spiralled out of control by that stage. Or the issue that they wanted to talk about, wasn’t an issue anymore.
So we did some campaigning on it and we were able to get some funding for more counsellors at uni, which was quite cool. As the president, you’re told about every student suicide. Every single one. Including Māori students.
But mental health isn’t an issue just for young people. It’s older people as well. Many of our older people are pretty lonely. They sometimes get ditched by their whānau — particularly non-Maori. I see them getting left alone in rest homes.
But, yeah. Generally in New Zealand, we just aren’t very good when it comes to talking about our mental health.
Your work as a city councillor must often be stressful. Do you turn to drawing or painting to relieve stress? Or do you have other moves?
When I have time to turn to art, I really enjoy it. But if I didn’t care so much about the issues I’m working on, I wouldn’t be doing politics.
There have been times, though, when I’ve had periods of depression and anxiety. That was when I was at high school, and it was largely because of my disconnection to who I am. That was something which took me a while to deal with. I think most rangatahi Māori struggle when they don’t understand who they are.
You can’t stop bad stuff from happening, but knowing who you are allows you to be more resilient and more capable of withstanding some of the things that life throws at you.
For me, being a real extrovert, I like being around people. I like talking to people. So my big coping mechanism is being around people who I care about and respect — and who I can just chill with. And I love music and being out in the ngāhere.
On your way to the Wellington Council role that you now have, I suspect you’ve had all sorts of other jobs — some of them quite educational in a way.
Oh yeah. One hundred percent. When I was at high school, I got a job at KFC in Tok and I worked there for three-and-a-half years. I also bartended when I was at high school in Year 13. That’s why I was never in class. I was always working because I was more interested in being financially free than in going to school.
Working at KFC actually gave me all the tools that I need. In fact, KFC probably gave me more tools than I got through my degree. Like you learn how to talk to people from all different walks of life. You learn how not to piss people off. You learn how to read people’s emotions and expressions — and how to calm them down if they’re getting grumpy.
You also learn how to work in a team and how to be methodical and efficient. You learn about self-discipline as well because you have to give up time with your friends and going to parties and all that.
So, yeah, overall, I think working at KFC has probably been the most formative experience of my whole life so far.
Which brings us to council life in Wellington. It must’ve been a real confidence boost for you when, last year in the local body elections, the Wellington voters saw something in you, this young Māori wāhine, worthy of representing them on council matters.
Yeah. It’s quite cool to feel trusted enough to be able to do this work on behalf of the community. And I wasn’t expecting it. I wasn’t at all sure if I was going to get in. But I think there are a good number of Wellingtonians who want to try innovative ways of doing things. They appreciate a young person’s worldview, especially a Māori one. And everyone loves supporting the underdog.
When you’re Māori, it’s all about whakawhanaungatanga, so that’s pretty much all I’ve been doing in my first year. Just getting to know people and understanding how best I can serve everyone. And being willing to work hard for the things that people are passionate about. People appreciate that.
Wellington has treated me well.
Being young and Māori, you might’ve been the target of some racism and ageism. Has it worked out that way?
I’ve had a few instances where people have questioned my knowledge or experience because of my age, sometimes publicly. But I continue to prove the haters wrong.
There’s heaps of work to do, though, especially in the way that Wellington City Council upholds its obligations under Te Tiriti o Waitangi and to mana whenua. It hurts to see how it is now because we ask so much of the mana whenua and we give them nothing in return.
What I’d like to do at council is secure some permanent wins that will help mana whenua to have a real say in running the city.
I’d love to see like a Treaty-based model of governance at both the local and central government level — for there to be power and resources dedicated to the tino rangatiratanga that was guaranteed to us under the Treaty of Waitangi. That would be great.
And I’d love for local hapū to be leading that development. And for local government bodies to have mana whenua around the table, leading not only in the kāwanatanga sphere, or sphere of partnership, but also in the tino rangatiratanga sphere.
You’re a board member for JustSpeak. Tell us about that — how did you become involved?
We’re a movement powered by young people who want to see transformational change in our criminal justice system. We want to see a more compassionate justice system that honours te Tiriti.
Four years ago, in my first year of uni, I went to a kōrero called “Māori and the Just-Us System” at the Old St Paul’s Cathedral. It was organised by JustSpeak. Moana Jackson and Kim Workman spoke about the fundamental racism within our criminal justice system and the biases within law enforcement.
That’s when my life before Wellington started making sense. That’s when I realised that sentencing doesn’t finish after time has been served. You could take every step in the world to change your behaviour, your mindset, to restore the mana of those you’ve hurt through your actions, and yet, you’re still just a criminal in the eyes of most people.
It’s a life sentence that means affordable, warm or dry housing stays out of reach when nosey landlords can request a copy of your criminal history — as if the law doesn’t already give them a one-up over their tenants if anything goes wrong.
It means not being able to get a job where you’d be interacting with people. And it may mean not being able to say goodbye to your little brother.
That’s what happened to my dad back in 2001, when his youngest brother, Travis, was diagnosed with a brain tumour. My parents got the call to say that he was being put on life support and that he’d be kept alive until they could get to Brisbane to say goodbye. But they could afford only two plane tickets, so my siblings and I had to stay home. I remember feeling gutted because Uncle Travis had said I was his favourite niece, and he’d bought me a blue dinosaur teddy which I took everywhere.
But when my parents landed in Brisbane, they were met with M5 assault rifles. They weren’t allowed to enter Australia because of crimes that my dad had committed more than a decade earlier. Despite being honest and hardworking ever since. Despite the fact that he’d been homeless and alone from the age of 14 and had been forced to commit crime to survive.
They came home broken. It wasn’t the first time I saw my parents face repercussions for crimes committed a long time ago.
We all know the toll that our criminal justice system has taken on Māori, and that includes the disproportionate number of our people who’ve been criminalised by the way our drug laws operate. So you must be hoping for a “yes” vote on the legalisation and control of cannabis.
Yeah, it’s really important for rangatahi Māori because we’re the most affected by our incoherent drug laws and the biased enforcement of those laws.
And, as we all know, as Māori, we make up more than 50 percent of the male prison population and around 65 percent of the female prison population, despite being only 15 percent of the total population.
We need our laws to reduce the harm caused by the unregulated and out of control drug market in New Zealand. Mental health and addiction problems are a taniwha in our communities, and if you’ve seen whānau and friends lives ripped apart by P and synthetics, this might feel like the last thing we want or need.
But if we give people safe access to a regulated substance and people know exactly what they’re buying and where it came from, and then don’t need to go on to harder substances, we might be able to offer help and support when people are ready to give up. You can’t begin to deal with an issue that you refuse to acknowledge.
I’ve seen too many young men get hooked on hard, undetectable drugs because they didn’t want to fail a marijuana drug test and lose their job — but they needed an avenue to escape mundane day-to-day life and the pressure and stresses of their lives.
On the other side, I’ve seen whānau keep their critically ill family members alive and comfortable in their final days through the use of medicinal marijuana.
What’s your view on the End of Life Choice referendum?
This is another area that we absolutely have to be heard on. Do we trust the health system with the lives of our whānau Māori? With the life or death of our pakeke and kaumātua?
After reading the Waitangi Tribunal Hauora Report outlining the failings of our health system to protect whānau Māori and Pasifika, I will be voting “no”.
I support individuals’ freedom and choice to decide when they no longer wish to endure pain or suffering, but having grown up around my mum’s work caring for elderly people and doing palliative care, and knowing and having seen the rates of elder abuse and neglect in New Zealand, I can’t vote “yes” knowing the outcome this could have for our most vulnerable.
Plus, I’m afraid legalised euthanasia could have really horrible outcomes for disabled people, particularly those who may not be able to communicate their needs or wishes but who wouldn’t want their family to decide they don’t want to look after them anymore.
One the biggest challenges is making sure rangatahi show up to vote. How do you convince whānau to show up?
I know many of our whānau struggle to keep up with politics — they hardly have time to watch the news because they work late hours trying to hold on to insecure jobs which have been put into jeopardy by Covid-19.
But even when they have time, all they’d see is scandal from those who purport to represent us. And they’d see that, although the government is actually capable of increasing benefits for middle New Zealand, they still insist that welfare benefits can’t be increased, despite recommendations made by the Welfare Expert Advisory Group.
So it’s easy to get disillusioned with politics. For me, it feels embarrassing asking young people to enrol and to turn up to vote and to participate in a system that not only doesn’t care about us, but has historically adopted policies to actively exclude and disenfranchise us.
But this is the first general election where young people will outnumber voters from the baby boomer generation. So young people could shape this election. But we have to show up and be counted for this to happen.
I think we need to imagine and describe a future that would genuinely be worthy of young people’s vote.
Just Speak and ActionStation launched a campaign in August, which imagines the Aotearoa that we want to see in 2040 and shows us the path that we need to take to get there. Their message is that the systems that shape our lives are ours to create and ours to change. I don’t want to be 20 years down the road still banging on about the same issues born from the same rusty, ugly, outdated system. And neither should our kids, or their kids.
So we’ve been talking about how our votes should reflect the Aotearoa we want to see. That means a fair and compassionate justice system that honours Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Protection for our most vulnerable. The right to warm, dry, safe homes. Being a good tupuna and demanding climate action for our uri whakatipu. And fighting for a welfare system that restores dignity and choice for single mums and whānau who are struggling.
Which politicians impress you?
I’m really grateful for the work that Jan Logie of the Green Party has done for women in unsafe relationships, like the no-questions-asked 10 days leave for women who experience domestic violence. I’m also really impressed with Nanaia Mahuta and her work with local councils around Aotearoa.
But the person I’m most excited about in this election is Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, the co-leader of the Māori Party. I hope she gets into parliament.
You’re 23 now. Where do you think you’ll be in 10 years?
Hopefully, I’ll have a family by then — although I don’t want to start having babies until I’m like 30. That’d be cool. And then I’d be speaking te reo Māori with them all the time.
I’d also like to be of use to my iwi, so that’s something I should suss out in the next few years — although I don’t think Waikato-Tainui really need my help. But Ngāti Awa might.
I’m actually currently doing a master’s of environmental and resource planning — so I could be doing different mahi all over the place, like helping different towns and cities to plan their development. I’m really interested in the way that, from intelligent planning, you can get good social and economic outcomes. Particularly for vulnerable communities.
So my dream would include going back to Tok, and be able to give back to the kāinga that raised me.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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