Willie Jackson has earned his stripes in Jacinda’s new cabinet. He’s had his detractors, partly for what some have seen as his brash defence of the urban Māori movement and also his hearty talent for putting the boot into those who are blind to white privilege. But his six years in politics and the skills and confidence he’s built up in the course of his pre-Beehive days — especially with the unions, MUMA (Manukau Urban Māori Authority), and the media — have him poised to make some significant waves. Here he’s chatting with a longtime media colleague and friend, Dale Husband.
Kia ora, Willie. First of all, congrats on landing that Māori development portfolio. It’s one of the big ones, isn’t it? We’ve known each other for a good many years, especially through our work together on Radio Waatea. And I’m aware that politics, one way or another, has never been far from your mind. How did that interest come about?
Well, I was brought up in a very political household. My old man, Bob Jackson, who was a wharfie, was right into politics, and then, later on, there was Uncle Syd taking on the politicians when he was pushing for Māori rights. And my mum, June (or Dame June if we’re gonna be formal), got into it all when she started her work for urban Māori. So there was all that awareness in our household.
Dad really was a political junkie — and my biggest sadness in politics was that, by the time I went to parliament in 1999, he’d passed on. He was such a big supporter of my work, and I can’t help regretting that he missed all that.
He’d always wanted me to go to parliament. That was one of his ambitions. He’d seen me at work in the union movement and he told me politics would suit me. He said: “You should go. You’re ideal for it.” But he died five years before I became an MP.
I remember him providing me with great support when I was a 21-year-old union rep, and then a full-time union president in the freezing works. When I stood for a position in the Northern Union, when I was about 23, the old man drove me around the North Island so I could speak at every freezing works. That was 25 or 26 speeches in 28 days, and Dad was taking me from freezing works to freezing works.
He was a native Māori speaker, an old-style native Māori speaker from the East Coast, and he’d give me flash mihi so I could get the Māori vote. He was just so supportive. And I’m sorry that he missed out on the second part of my political career.
Your uncles, Moana and Syd Jackson (Syd passed away in 2007), are regarded as two of our sharpest Māori minds — focused, in different but effective ways, on social justice. Both of them absolute gentlemen, not given to raising their voices but certainly raising issues. Have they been an influence on you?
My father was the main influence. There’s no doubt about that. But my Uncle Syd made a big impact on me. When I went to parliament, he was very proud, even though he wasn’t a supporter of parliament and the Westminster system. And he never voted. He used to call himself a political scientist. And so he was, in his special way.
I learned so much from him as a union official when I left the freezing works and joined the Northern Clerical Workers’ Union. Tau Henare and I were the organisers. But we learned a great deal from Syd, especially about negotiation and the value of keeping your composure — and having the courage to stick to your principles.
I first met him when we came up to Māngere from Wellington when I was 10 or 11. He and Dad have the same father, different mothers. Uncle Syd was very close to Dad — and had a special love for him because my old man was a beautiful speaker of te reo Māori.
I got closer to Uncle Moana a bit later. I didn’t work with him at the coalface, like I did with Uncle Syd at the union. But I always admired his work and I can’t help being proud of such a great thinker and such a great analyst of Māori issues. There’s been no one to match him — especially in his ability to think outside the square.
He’s been a bit crook lately which is a worry. But he’s still so controlled and composed, and he has such insights into the injustices in New Zealand society, and the damage done by colonisation and white privilege. He has an amazing mind. And such a gentle manner.
Through the last parliamentary term, I caught up with him at times to seek his views on various issues such as the End of Life Choice bill. And he’s been quite an influence on my thinking. Whenever I’ve sought counsel, he’s been there for me. I’ve been lucky to have had those two brilliant uncles.
Another significant influence on you must’ve been the stint you did in the freezing works soon after you left school at Māngere College. And the work you did as a union rep was pretty responsible mahi for a young fulla.
Yeah. I did seven years there. It was a good learning experience for me. In the freezing works, you had to learn how to front and to speak up or your voice would be lost. And it was tough if we had people on strike for months at a time.
I did a lot of growing up in “the works”. It was a hard environment. But I enjoyed the challenges. It was a big Māori workforce, although I was an advocate for everyone.
That work required a talent in negotiation which you’ve used well throughout your adult life. What would you say is the most useful skill you learned out of that period as a negotiator?
Well, at times, you had to do whatever you could do to save people’s jobs, get wage increases, and come up with the right arguments when the management were always trying to get more sheep or cattle through with less workers. And we generally had to come up with the rationale that they needed more, not less, manpower.
But people still got dismissed. I always wanted to save a person’s job. So I had to learn how to negotiate. And that was a challenge.
When I left the works at 25 and linked up with Uncle Syd, I thought I was a pretty good negotiator, which I was. But he took negotiations to another level because he had the view that, if you, initially, were as unreasonable as possible, you’d probably end up getting pretty close to what you wanted. I used to keep that in mind.
Another piece of advice from Uncle Syd was: “Never get out of control.” He used to talk about “controlled aggression”. And being forceful without ever losing it.
For much of my life since those early days, I’ve been a negotiator, whether it’s been in the unions or at the urban Māori level, or politics, or in radio, or music kaupapa. Lots of different areas. And, all along, I’ve been able to draw on skills that I learned from Uncle Syd.
You’ve also followed in the footsteps of your mum who saw, at close hand, a range of injustices that urban Māori in particular were having to cope with. Even simple things like getting a bank loan to help buy a house. When she saw shortcomings in the system she did something about it.
What would you say about June’s contribution to the fight for our people? She stood her ground, didn’t she?
Mum was in her mid-40s when she got into that mahi. And I learned a lot from her about courage. She was able to stand up against iwi leaders and say: “We want this slice of the pie. You can say anything you like about iwi and tribal rights but our people have been brought up in the cities. They’ve been brought up in Māngere, or Porirua, or Manurewa, or Ōtara, or places like that. And they have rights, too. They deserve support and equity.“
Many times I watched her front iwi leaders — and never back down. John Tamihere, out at Waipareira, and us back here in South Auckland with MUMA (the Manukau Urban Māori Authority) owe her a huge amount for the stance she took and for her bravery. Mum has certainly made her mark.
Yeah, and I have to say we weren’t too popular with the iwi. But they liked us in the cities. People came in their hundreds, their thousands, through Waipareira and MUMA, because we were providing a vehicle for Māori who might not have been versed in their reo or whakapapa and who were a bit shy about going to a marae.
We didn’t mind, though, that we were vilified by a number of iwi leaders. That didn’t worry us at all. And it was like that for a while. But people mellow. And, anyway, a lot of them were our relations. And times change.
But they were furious with us on occasions. John and I got the odd insult from various kaumātua. Not a lot. They’d mostly talk behind our back. And the odd kaumātua and kuia would scream at us. But you’ve just gotta let it roll. Our old people are allowed to express themselves that way. It’s all part of the learning and strengthening.
I’d come through the union movement anyway. John had his legal training and experience. And he’d been through a lot of stress and pressure fighting for his brother, David. By the time the urban kaupapa blew up in the early and mid-1990s, when we were pushing it through the courts and the Privy Council, he and I were in our mid- to late-30s. We were ready for the fight.
And, in a way, it shaped us because, if you take on that fight, you can take on anything. Straight after that, politics was a natural progression for both of us.
Let’s turn now to broadcasting and the media. You’ve had extensive experience there, in Māori and mainstream radio, in television and as a newspaper columnist, too. And you’ve always seen the media as an important tool for Māori empowerment, and that it’s vital for Māori to have platforms to air our kōrero.
I think Māori broadcasting and media have been seriously underrated for the part they can play in Māori development. We need our voices heard — and those voices need to be in both Māori and English. There’s no justification for mainstream Pākehā voices to drown out Māori and Pacific voices.
Through my years as a broadcaster, I’ve operated at all sorts of levels, including governance, management, and as a practitioner in Pākehā as well as the Māori media — and it’s been an eye-opener to see, overall, how little attention is given to Māori stuff.
We started off in the ‘90s with Mana Māori Media, Aotearoa Radio, then Radio Waatea and the iwi stations, and so on, and we’ve made progress since then. But we still don’t have anywhere near enough of a Māori presence out in the mainstream. We have the talent, but there are dots to be connected and work to be done.
Broadcasting will always be a passion for me. And one of the beauties of this Māori development portfolio is that it‘ll give me an opportunity to help shape the future of Māori broadcasting.
I feel I’ve been doing Māori development most of my working life anyway, Dale, whether it’s been in broadcasting, politics, music, urban Māori advocacy, or the New Zealand Māori Council level. It’s been right across the spectrum. I sort of hoped I might land the portfolio and, now that I’ve got it, I don’t want to miss the opportunity to make a success of it.
We’ve got more Māori in parliament than ever before and a lot of credit goes your way for co-ordinating the campaign for Māori seats, twice now. And the reality is that we now have a significant number of MPs who, like you, are keen to see our people prosper.
We now have a government making significant overtures to tangata whenua with a focus on New Zealand history in schools, the naming of so many Māori on judicial benches and DHBs, the focus on Matariki and on other things Māori that no previous government has. What are we witnessing here, Willie?
It’s been an honour for me to be part of a government that’s really pushed our kaupapa Māori initiatives. You’d never have thought a Pākehā-led government would be so comfortable backing issues like teaching New Zealand history as well as te reo in schools, and Matariki, and Whānau Ora, and reining in the oil and gas exploration.
It’s not enough but we’re on track. For many of our people, it’ll never be enough, but I’m satisfied with the progress we’re making. Of course, we need to do much more. But there’s a climate in this government that gives me confidence that we’ll make a lot of headway.
Meanwhile, the Māori Party has surfaced and has been swimming against the Jacinda tide. And now they have Rawiri and Debbie in parliament along with you and Kelvin and Peeni and Nanaia and Kiritapu and so on. How do you see the Māori Party representatives?
I see them as allies. I see them as whanaunga, and I hope that we can work together over the next three years. I would never see them as enemies. That’s crazy talk.
There’ll be things that we disagree on. No doubt we’ll probably be a bit slow for them because they’ll want the world, as they should. They’ll want everything now and they’re in a position to say that. We want everything now, too, but we work in a system that doesn’t move that quickly.
I definitely want them to be allies because I know Rawiri and Debbie pretty well. I’ve worked with Debbie in broadcasting. I’m proud of Rawiri and what he’s done. He’s John’s son-in-law. And he was working with us in the urban movement when I was running MUMA, and John was (as he still is) the boss of Waipareira.
I’d say we probably agree on 95 percent of things, but where there’s likely to be some disagreement is around the speed of providing the resources they’ll want for Māori. That’s fine, too. That’s politics. But the government has to be accountable and their job is to make us accountable. They remain friends and whānau though.
It’s an exciting period, isn’t it, and one reason for that is the emergence of so much young Māori talent coming through. Not just in politics but also in justice and education and academia and the arts and the media.
But those dynamic rangatahi will need our support in the years ahead to fulfil the hopes that we’ve harboured and that have been fought for by your mum and dad, and your brainy uncles, Syd and Moana. Perhaps, now that we’re in our 60s, we should be mentoring that emerging crop of Māori leaders so that they can fulfil our ambitions.
Talk for yourself. I’m not 60 yet — not until sometime next year. But you’re right. You put it well. We have an obligation to do the mahi ahead of us. But we also have to set an example and encourage and support the young ones coming through.
We’ve got a young gun conservation minister in Kiritapu Allan, and another one is our defence minister, Peeni Henare. One’s 36, the other 40. Fantastic talent coming through. There’s also Willow-Jean Prime from the north. And Tamati Coffey, too. He’s still young. But it’s not just people in Labour. I’d like to see other talent coming through, whatever the party. Good luck to young Māori who put their names up and join political parties.
But, in the meantime, our team needs to keep working on the mahi we have. Hopefully, we’ll get another couple of terms down here while those young guns take on the mantle. And I want to see an Aotearoa that really reflects the partnership that was supposed to be set in place 1840.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on Willie, see also Moana Maniapoto: The Willie Jackson I know.)
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.