Tania Sharkey has specialised in family law, particularly since she emerged with a master’s degree from the Auckland Law School 18 years ago. And, because of her Tongan heritage (through her mum), there’s been a special interest in how Pasifika families fare in the legal world. Now, as a lead counsel in the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care, she has an extra focus on how Pacific kids were treated “in care” in the second half of last century. Here she talks with Dale about her pathway to this role.
Mālō e lelei, Tania. It’s a pleasure to have you here with us on E-Tangata. I understand you’ve been working with the Royal Commission of Inquiry into historical abuse in state care — and you’ve been looking particularly at Pacific people who were victims of that abuse. But before we talk about that, I wonder if you could start by telling us something about yourself.
Sure. My full name is Tania Margaret Sharkey — and the name, Tania, comes from a John Rowles song. My mum, Kalolaine Sharkey (maiden name Fotu), was a huge John Rowles fan. Margaret is from my dad’s mum, who was from Ireland.
My father, William Sharkey, was born in 1917, in County Tyrone in Northern Ireland. That’s where the Sharkey clan come from. My mother is from Houma in Tongatapu. She was born in 1949, so there was more than a 30-year age gap between them.
Dad fought in World War Two and came to New Zealand via Australia after the war ended in 1945. He met my mother while she, like so many of our Pacific people, was trying to find a way to stay here. She was here initially on a three-month visa, and then she got a job at the Nestlé chocolate factory in Parnell.
On her first day, she went to the bus stop in Onehunga and asked this six-foot Irishman for directions. As it turned out, they were catching the same bus. That Irishman was my father. And it all began there. On their daily ride to work.
Before her visa ran out, he suggested they marry. So, she went home and called the matriarch in our Tongan family, who told her: “Yes, you will marry him and bring the family over.” And, one by one, that’s what she did.
I remember having people constantly staying with us. We were like a revolving door, helping people until they got on their feet.
That decision for her to stay and marry a man she didn’t know all that well, and who was a lot older than her — that was a decision made for her, not by her. A lot of people talk to me about that when I share that story, and it highlights the sacrifice made by my mum. But there was a lot of love between my parents. My father absolutely adored my mum.
But there was definitely a clash of cultures at times, and I learned later on that my father had at least one sibling who wasn’t in favour of the marriage. And my father didn’t want Tongan spoken in the home, because he couldn’t understand it. At the same time he loved having my family around.
My mum also shared the view that I still see in some of our people, who believe that knowing and learning English is the main priority, and knowing your language and culture is not as important. “We’re in New Zealand and we are to live this way.”
My mum speaks about New Zealand not being the most welcoming place for Pacific people in the ‘70s and ‘80s. We were expected to just come here and fill those labour-intensive jobs and go home. And that was it.
So that’s a bit about my parents and my upbringing. One unfortunate reality, I guess, was that my father was 63 years old when I came along, so he passed away when I was only seven years old. And, by default, I guess, I gravitated towards my Tongan culture.
Shortly before he died, my father asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and for some reason I said “lawyer”. He chuckled and said: “Okay, you do that.” I never considered an alternative career option after that.
Your story is applicable to so many Pasifika families. I salute your mum. She worked as a cleaner, but a cleaner who wanted to do the very best job. A cleaner to some, but a legend to you.
When we were on our own, we experienced the struggle she had raising us — because we were poor, man. It took me a long time to see that there was treasure in that struggle.
She had multiple cleaning jobs, and she always told us kids to do the best job we could, no matter what it was. That message has stuck with me throughout my working career. Be as hardworking as you possibly can and give people the best that you can give.
I went to Auckland Girls’ Grammar, and it was tough. There were times when there was no money for the bus fare and I couldn’t get to school. And so my brothers and I started working early on. We went with Mum to her cleaning jobs and to the fields to pick onions, and then we got our own part-time jobs.
One memory I have is when the seventh form dean said to my mum that I wouldn’t pass my exams and she was wasting her money paying for me to sit them. She said this while I was standing there. I stood there watching my mum cry.
My mum begged them to let me sit those exams. And I did. It just goes to show that you’re not the sum of the parts people make of you. They don’t know you or your story or experience, or what you’ve been through in life. My mum is a big reason why I’m now where I am, that’s for sure.
Many lawyers and thinkers have rubbed shoulders with ordinary people through fruit picking or vegetable gathering. It’s a good grounding, isn’t it? You mix with real people and learn interesting things from them, even onion picking around Pukekohe?
From onion picking to working at Pak’n’Save and then as a waitress. Going through all that, working with people from diverse backgrounds, identities, experiences, including all the clients that I’ve met over the years — that’s really shaped the way I relate to people. And in the legal profession, relationships are everything.
In the areas where I work — with the Family Court, sitting on the Parole Board, and being in this Royal Commission — a lot of the people we’re dealing with are from the least, the last, and the lost of our society. I’m blessed to be able to do this work, and I learn from them, not the other way around.
And that hard work when I was growing up, that treasure in the struggle that I talked about — that’s all helped me with my practice now. And that’s priceless in the legal profession.
And somewhere along the line your mum spent some time in the US.
Yes. Life got really difficult for us and my mum went overseas to America to do what a lot of Tongans do. They work as a live-in there. I don’t think she’d want me to talk about that, but that’s what she did. And my little sister was left in the care of my brother and me here.
That was hard, but it was a decision that was made because we were really struggling over here and couldn’t see a way out. I don’t know if you know that part of the Pacific culture but there were many Tongan women who left their families here or back in the islands and went off to live and work in the homes of elderly people overseas. And they’d work around the clock and send all their money back home to help out. That’s what my mum did.
And your sister is still with you guys?
Yes, she sure is. My sister’s name is Sokopeti and she works for me at Friendship Chambers.
Did you ever bump into the dean who said you weren’t going to pass?
No. And my mum still talks to me about her today. She says: “I wish I could see her.” So do I. I don’t know what I’d say. It still gets me, that moment. Because how influential are teachers? And those comments can stay with someone for as long as they have with me. Some of our Pacific kids would hear that and believe it, and who knows where they would be now.
How was your time in your five years at law school?
I didn’t have a great time there. I found it extremely competitive. It wasn’t the most welcoming or engaging place to be, and I think there’s still an element of that now. I admired those who were able to take their place there and really stand up, but I certainly wasn’t one of those.
I did what I had to do to pass the exams and then I was out of there. Fortunately, I found a good group of mates there. We had one Māori, one Sāmoan, and one Tongan, and we stuck together like glue.
Have they gone on to notable positions themselves, your crew?
One was in-house legal for Customs and is now a senior lawyer on the Royal Commission. Another is the director for governance at the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat. And another colleague is a senior policy advisor in the government.
I understand that you were drawn to our Family Court system. When you look at the Family Court and the years that you’ve spent working there, how could it be improved to help our Māori and Pasifika people?
The Family Court work that I do is mainly based in South Auckland, and the overwhelming population we’re dealing with are Māori and Pacific families. If there’s anything to be improved, it’s the recognition of cultural ways and practices and how we can use that to best serve our communities.
I think the Waitangi Tribunal hearings regarding Oranga Tamariki late last year were so important, because the outcomes will apply to Pacific in some way, too. I mainly specialise in Oranga Tamariki work. What needs to happen is more discussion with our families before these cases even get to court. There has to be some legal education for our people before Oranga Tamariki step in and do what they might be thinking about doing.
A big problem that many Pacific people have is that the minute they know the authorities are involved, they defer to them. They almost bow down to them. They don’t know their rights, they don’t know what questions to ask, and they’re vulnerable.
I do think it’s slowly changing though, and I’ve seen good initiatives, for example, where meetings between lawyers and families have been directed by the court to help work out problems, instead of proceeding with a more adversarial process.
I know that, for Pacific people, if there was real discussion and engagement at the beginning, then there’d be a lot that could be done to prevent Oranga Tamariki getting formally involved.
The Treaty is seen by many people as for Māori and Pākehā but, in fact, it’s a guide to all who call Aotearoa home. I wonder how you see the Treaty from a Pasifika legal perspective.
As Pacific people living in Aotearoa, we acknowledge the special place of Māori as tangata whenua. We‘ll always look to Māori in the way that we do things here because they’re definitely leading the way for us. And our relationship with Māori goes right back to ancient times. We should support them — and Bastion Point and Ihumātao are just some examples.
Also, when you go to Pacific events or you listen to our Pacific Judges, community leaders, and MPs, the first thing they do with natural ease is to acknowledge tangata whenua in this country
I want to make sure that Pasifika in the law are not left out. But the great thing is that we’ve got such a good relationship with our Māori brothers and sisters. I’m really encouraged by that. Because we’re able to work together and look for solutions for both our people, it’s going to benefit us all.
Māori abuse in state care has a long history. It wouldn’t be quite the same for Pasifika people, although many Pacific people have called this place home for a long time. So, what are you learning as you involve yourself in the Royal Commission?
I’m the lead counsel assisting the Pacific investigation in the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care. I lead a team tasked with telling Pacific people’s experience of abuse in state and faith-based care in this country.
A significant hurdle we face is the poorly kept records and data collection for our people. What we understand is that before the 1996 census, there were generally only three ethnic classifications: European, Māori ancestry, and Non-Māori. Other ethnic classifications included “Māori/Polynesian” and “Other”.
So the data for Pacific people in care wasn’t clearly captured. Some of our people were recorded as Māori. There was no box to tick for “Sāmoan” or “Tongan”, so they went under Māori. This means a big part of telling our Pacific story is by our Pacific survivors coming forward to share their experiences of abuse in state or faith-based care.
On top of that, there’s “Pacific shame”. The shame of talking about the taboo topic of abuse or that you were even “in care”, and the shame of speaking up against authority or bringing your family into the spotlight. And that makes it even harder for our people to come forward.
It’s not easy, but if our people don’t come forward and share their experiences, then we’re at risk of losing our voice. There are going to be some recommendations made at the end of this process and we need to be part of it if we’re to create the right path for our Pacific people in the future.
The scope of the Royal Commission is from 1950 to 1999, but we can look beyond those years. One thing that stands out for me is that when you look back over the decades and think about the migration story of our people coming here, what you see, in each chapter or decade, is us trying to find our place in Aotearoa.
In the first wave of migration, our people arrived here not having a voice, not encouraged to speak their language, not encouraged to live our cultures here. Just fill some hard labour jobs, go home and that’s it. What was their place?
Then you’ve got second and third waves, again with a similar focus on living the New Zealand way, with English and education the most important thing, the stripping of our cultures — and the dawn raids straining race relations in New Zealand. The struggle to maintain their identity and find our place in this country.
And now we have my generation, or those after me and born in this country, not feeling totally anchored here but not necessarily feeling anchored back in the islands either. And the question still remains: What is our place in this country?
At this stage, we have roughly 70 Pacific survivors who have registered with the Royal Commission, and I’m so encouraged by this and by their courage. We know there are many more survivors out there
Some of our Pacific survivor experiences include physical and/or sexual abuse in state care, and sexual abuse in faith-based care. Cultural neglect in state care is a strong feature — not being recorded as Pacific, growing up thinking you’re another culture, or being kept away from your family when you were in care. That loss of identity has had a serious impact on our people.
I encourage Pacific people who were abused in state or faith-based care to please come forward. If you call the Royal Commission of Inquiry (0800 222 727) and ask to speak to a member of the Pacific team, we’ll call you. You can share your experience in a private meeting, you can share your experience in writing, or you can remain anonymous. You don’t have to be part of a public hearing.
You know, the first step is to start talking about it — and too often we don’t even do that.
Do you sense that Māori and Pasifika people are getting closer together as we recognise our genetic and linguistic connections? Is that creating a more meaningful relationship between our peoples?
Without a doubt. In the legal profession and in my work as a family lawyer in South Auckland, I see many examples of that close relationship between Māori and Pasifika. Within the Royal Commission, the Pacific investigation has a very close relationship with the Māori investigation. There’s also a growing population of people who identify as both Māori and Pacific.
I’m also on the Parole Board and my relationship with other members who are of Māori ethnicity, is close. We speak of the same issues and what we can do for our people. In my other role as president of the Pacific Lawyers Association, from the very outset I looked to Te Hunga Roia Māori o Aotearoa to help me guide our association. For me, I experience close relationships between Māori and Pacific. And it’s been great.
Of course, hanging over all this in Aotearoa is the Westminster legal system. But perhaps you’re holding out hope that we’ll weave more of our tikanga and kawa into our legal frameworks.
The rangatahi and Pasifika courts are two great examples of progress in our legal system. I’d like to see some kind of care and protection panel for Pacific people, underpinned by our cultural practices and the way we do things. That’s where some of the answers lie in dealing with our people.
Our populations are only going to grow, and there’s no doubt that the Westminster style has to change and move with the times.
What role do you and your colleagues play in encouraging the next wave of Pasifika legal minds?
We do a lot of work with the universities, and what we see is the issues that some of our students are going through now are still the same issues that I had when I was at high school and law school — looking after siblings because the parents are on shift work, having to work two jobs, our religious and cultural commitments and the like.
One time when I was speaking at a South Auckland high school, I met a couple of girls who were just finishing work. This was about 11 o’clock in the morning. They had part-time jobs near the airport and were then coming to school. Poverty, education, housing is as relevant to us now as it was when I was young.
I also think there needs to be more done in terms of the pathways from high school into law school. And then getting through law school and into the workforce
As for the Pacific Lawyers Association, it has always been my view that we Pacific lawyers have an obligation to meet, know, and work with our Pacific students to help bring them through. Because who else is going to do that? They may not be the ones who’ll be coming out with A-plus entry into the top five law firms, but I tell you what, I was one of those kids and I don’t think I turned out too bad.
Others like me have done all right and have plenty to offer. There are so many kids with that potential. It’s just that there’s a hard path getting them from high school into uni and out the other door.
Now. How about an update on your mum? How’s she doing?
Yeah, she’s good. My mum lives with me now. And after all the hardship she’s had, it’s payback time for all the sacrifices she made. She sees how far this country has come compared to what it was like when she first arrived. For instance, she says she couldn’t have imagined that we’d now have a Tongan language week, that Tongans would fill stadiums and streets here and cheer on our teams — that we’d see so much pride in the Tongan culture in this country.
Also, she would never have foreseen that I’d be sending my children to Tonga for school because I didn’t want them to miss out on their language and culture. My Tongan’s okay, but I wanted more for my kids.
And my husband Sebastian, or Panuve as most family call him, spent some of his schooling years in Tonga and so we sent each of our children — Siobhan, Liam, Sosaia and Lusinita — to do some of their schooling there. One of my sons is still stuck in Tonga because of Covid, but he loves his school. So he’s doing another year there.
My children are all fluent now. Mum sometimes apologises for not making that a priority for us, but that was a different time.
Now, finally, Tania, let’s hear if you have any quirky habits or pastimes. Something outside of your legal thinking or your mothering duties.
No problem. It’s pool. I love to play pool. Just love it. If I had some spare time, that’s what I’d be doing.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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