Julia Whaipooti was a bright spark as a Coastie kid. Talkative and confident. And, in due course, ambitious too.
So, opting for law as a career wasn't all that surprising. Nor has her success and influence been unexpected.
She is part of a wave of young Māori legal talent that is challenging some of the many injustices that face Māori and are a blight on New Zealand society. Like the structural racism within our justice system that sees Māori 11 times more likely to be handed a prison sentence than non-Māori. Here Julia’s chatting with Dale about the path she's on.
Kia ora, Julia. Or Julia Amua Whaipooti if I were to refer to you by your full name. And, no doubt, each of those names has some rich whakapapa.
Well, I’ll start with Julia. That’s the Pākehā name from my nanny, Turuhira Whaipooti, who passed away the day I was born. She was my dad’s mother and she’d actually visited my mum a few months before and asked that her name be given to the baby my mum was carrying. Which was me.
They were living in Ruatoria, where my dad’s side is from. I don’t know whether Mum had agreed by the time we were in labour. We kind of joke about Nana Julia getting a bit dramatic to make sure I was given her name. And when Mum was in Te Puia having me, my nanny was there in hospital on her way out.
My mum’s name is Reremai, and because no one could say that properly, she didn’t want that for me. So I became Julia. And I was also given Amua, from my koro on my dad's side, Tangaroa Amua Whaipooti.
The Whaipooti name was created when Apirana Ngata was running for parliament, and part of the whānau, from up the coast, took the name Whaipooti. It comes from whai, which is to chase, and pooti, which is to vote. So the name was to tautoko him to get into and stay in parliament.
We’re Walkers and Tibbles from around Tutamatai near Ruatoria on Dad’s side. And my mum’s whānau are from Te Araroa and Hicks Bay. They’re Houkamau and Waihi families on her side.
Tūturu Coastie, by the sound of things. Judging by your progress in the legal world, I’m assuming that school was a breeze for you. Was that how it went?
Generally, it was pretty good. But a lot of that was over in Australia. We were living in Ruatoria, but then Cyclone Bola came along, and there wasn’t much mahi after that. And my mum really, really wanted her kids to have better opportunities. So we moved over to Cairns when I was young — and it was Australia where I grew up and went to school.
No one in my whānau had gone to university, but I knew that was something expected of me because my mum had the strong belief that, if we went to university, we’d be able to do well in our lives. So I took that for granted. I was also a naturally confident kid, even though we were a bit pōhara growing up. My parents were really hard working — they were always at mahi. And they gave me confidence.
Not just confidence but also an expectation that I had to do these things. It was almost normalised that, of course, we were going to go to school and do well because that was the only option as far as our parents were concerned.
And I really honour them for that. Especially in my mahi now. I’m working at the Office for the Children’s Commissioner and learning about the things that make the biggest difference — the aroha, love, and feeling confident in who we are. And the sense of belonging. I always felt I belonged in my family.
So I was a happy, outgoing kid who did well at school. But I also had the advantage of following in the footsteps of my tuakana, Kresta, who was three years ahead of me at primary and high school. I know my comfort at school was because I had her there. If I got bullied or anything, I could just go find her.
When we came back to New Zealand, to Blenheim, I had three years of college left and I worked part-time at a supermarket. I knew I had to go to university eventually, but I wasn’t gonna go right then because I didn’t know how to do it and I didn’t feel confident about it.
When I was growing up, people were telling me: “Oh, you’re going to be a lawyer.” Because I talked a lot. So I knew lawyering was a possibility, but I didn’t actually know what that meant except that, if you talk lots, you’re good. So I carried on at the supermarket.
Then I was offered a full-time job at Mitre 10 at 50 cents more an hour. But, on my last day at the supermarket, a customer from a big law firm gave me her card. So I worked one day at Mitre 10, and the following day, I started at that firm and spent two years there as a legal secretary.
And I could see then that becoming a lawyer was possible, because I was watching law clerks coming through from law school and I could see that I knew more than them, that I was already doing what they did. So I went off to law school.
I’m assuming that was at Victoria University? And I’m also assuming that there was a sea of white faces and very few brown ones.
There weren’t many of us, but we found each other as Māori. And also our Pacific brothers and sisters. It was like a pan-brown effect where all of us found each other at the start of uni and formed our own whānau. We helped each other through what sometimes were hard lectures. It was all so foreign.
The moment that was very pivotal for me was being in a criminal law class, and the discussion point was the horrendous statistics about Māori in the criminal justice system, with Māori making up more than half of our prisoners. And they discussed it as if Māori weren’t there in the class. And the conversations were being driven by non-Māori.
I felt really upset by that. Really uncomfortable. I couldn’t say why, but it triggered my focus on why this was the case, because I knew heaps of cool, on-to-it Māori. And I was torn by the fact that these statistics were true, and how it was spoken about like there’s something inherently criminal in being Māori when that’s not true at all.
I needed to have the answers to something that felt so wrong. So that triggered me into places like JustSpeak, and volunteering in community law, and the criminal justice kōrero and conversations that were happening around me at law school.
But I became acutely aware that I was Māori as well. Even though I grew up in Australia, I knew I was Māori. It was just a fact. When I reflect on where I’m at now, I know part of my journey was that I didn’t have the burden of growing up Māori in New Zealand.
I didn’t experience growing up here and feeling that there was something inherently negative in being Māori. Like sitting in class and hearing people talk about Māori as the kind of group that does bad stuff.
I didn’t grow up with that. I grew up proud to be Māori and proud of my whānau. Knowing that being a Māori isn’t criminal. And not needing to articulate why.
And I didn’t need to question whether I was Māori. I was like: I am Māori and what that looks like I’ll figure out, but I won’t let it be defined by law school or statistics that don’t describe us as a people.
Community Law holds an important place in our New Zealand society, because there are so many people who can’t afford the big bucks for the big lawyers. And that’s an area where you’ve worked for some time.
It’s such an important kaupapa — making the law accessible for whānau to afford it. People shouldn’t have to find a way to access their rights. I got exposed to that while I was at law school. One of the lawyers at Community Law visited our Māori law students to talk about the work they did — and so I began volunteering while I was at uni.
I hope that one day community law becomes redundant because you shouldn’t need to have a separate kaupapa so that people can access what they’re entitled to. But, unfortunately, it’s still very relevant and very needed.
For me, the law itself can be a blunt instrument. But most of the power in Community Law for whānau is just to be heard, because the law, too often, might not have a worthwhile response. So it may not be about getting a legal outcome. Instead, it may be just having an opportunity to talk about the mamae they’re experiencing and finding a way to sort out their raru, which may not necessarily be a legal solution.
So I value Community Law in the sense that it looks at the person in front of you and the story that they come with, and it gives them the space to be heard and provides the opportunity to find alternative solutions.
Which brings us on to the subject of JustSpeak. I’ve had a lot of admiration for the work that Kim Workman has done here. Going by the international figures, New Zealand is one of the most punitive societies on the planet — and we all should be ashamed of that.
In pre-European days, we had our ways of dealing with offensive behaviour. But that’s got lost, and we’ve ended up with this “throw them in prison” attitude inherited from the British model. Some years ago, JustSpeak emerged with a strong sense of social justice and a hunger for prison reform. It’s been an impressive development. Could you tell us about your work there?
JustSpeak is turning six, seven years old now. And I’m on the board after chairing it for a few years. It started with a bunch of people who I’m proud to call my mates, predominantly Pākehā, working their way through law school, and learning about the unfairness of the criminal justice system, especially the high incarceration rate for Māori.
We imprison Māori at such huge rates compared to non-Māori for the same stuff. And it was hearing some of those stories that triggered our “we need to do something” response. Mātua Kim Workman and Judge Andrew Becroft actually put out a call to the under-40s to lend a hand.
And, from that initial move, JustSpeak was set up with a good many students who’re studying and learning stuff, the same way I did, and who’re finding an avenue to advocate for change when they see unfairness.
And we have a range of people supporting our kaupapa and being advocates for transformative change in the criminal justice system. It’s an everyday battle. There’s not going to be any easy wins. But it’s such an important kaupapa.
Although we’ve been weaving more Māori whakaaro into many aspects of our life, there’s been very little change in our Corrections sector. We could call it racism, unconscious bias or structural discrimination, but, whatever the term, our people are forced into a system where we’ve had little input. So what can we do?
Well, the starting point is recognising that the system wasn’t made by us. It comes from a Western Pākehā construct that was imposed post-colonisation. The attitude was: This is the way we’re going to deal with harm in this country. And, of course, it didn’t fit. Not when colonisation was having such an impact.
One of the consequences has been structural racism within the Justice and Corrections system. The statistics tell us that, if you’re Māori and if you’re convicted of a crime, you’re 11 times more likely to be sentenced to prison than non-Māori. And that happens every step of the way.
Groups like JustSpeak are advocating for making that system less harmful. There are ways we can do that if we change some laws and change some processes. There has to be some substance, though. There are a number of programmes which have been given a Māori name, and aim to embrace Māori values. But that doesn’t reduce the harm done to our communities and whānau.
The solutions should be led by Māori. We should have an independent working group that talks about what works for us — and we should be given the resources to make the changes. The pūtea that we’re spending on the current system should be in the hands of the hapū and iwi.
The Crown and Corrections are too prone to get things wrong. I remember very vividly how it made me feel when they organised a site visit to Rimutaka Prison to show the Waitangi Tribunal what “good stuff for Māori” they were doing to help reduce reoffending. They seemed really proud of themselves.
I’d been to Rimutaka a number of times in my capacity as a lawyer. And I remember this time how it hurt, how it broke my heart, going to the Māori focus unit and having the karanga come from within that unit, and having a pōwhiri from the Māori inmates, as tangata whenua, welcoming us in.
So, it was me, Crown lawyers and judges, being welcomed into the prison by this group — as if they belonged there and as if we were manuhiri visiting. And I felt that Māori do not belong in prison and that the appropriate response isn’t to "Māorify" a prison.
The appropriate response is to allow us to design what works for us in our different rohe. Putting in Māori programmes isn’t transformative change — although I acknowledge that it has changed the lives of some people who’ve gone through prison and made contact with their culture.
But that shouldn’t be the case. Prisons aren’t Māori. We can’t have kaupapa Māori prisons because we never had prisons in the first place. But we need to be able to pass power back to Māori, to whānau, to hāpu, to iwi, to come up with our solutions.
When you see prisoners, they’re still ours, aren’t they?
They’re ours, they’re us. They’re someone’s child, mother, father, sibling. They come from whānau and from communities. And they’ll be put back into those whānau and those communities. So, how we bring them back, in a way that enhances their ability to contribute positively into those communities, is really important.
We spend more than $100, 000 a year to house one person in a prison. Then, when they come out into the community, we give them nothing. We offer no support. And they can’t get a job because they’ve got a criminal conviction. We set the conditions for failure. For hurting people. And for keeping our communities unsafe.
But the bigger issue is structural. It’s about how our prisons are failing. We know that once a person comes out of prison they’re more likely to reoffend — and reoffend more violently. We have people coming out of prison more broken than when they entered.
And yet right now this government is deciding whether to build another prison, a mega prison that will cost a billion dollars.
It’s Māori who are more likely to be stopped by police, more likely to be charged, more likely to be convicted, and then 11 times more likely to be imprisoned once convicted. We can’t keep investing in prisons when we know they don’t work. Building another prison with the same conditions will put us back another generation.
We know we have static and reducing crime rates. If we build this prison, we’ll need to build the next prison.
The current government has the most Māori in parliament sitting around the table considering whether to build another university of crime. We need our Māori MPs to step up and say that they’re not going to do this. We can’t imprison another generation of our children. That can’t happen on our watch.
It’s encouraging that JustSpeak and bright people of all ages — especially young law students — are pushing for prison reform. But what about the Joe Blows throughout our communities who don’t have any special expertise or leverage? What part can they play in putting an end to the draconian way we’re treating our own people?
Well, there’s not one answer to all this harm that’s happening in the world. But the best thing we can do is use the influence we have in our own whānau and communities. And it starts with our kids and our siblings. Are we making sure that we’re providing a strong base and the right support for the people close by? So that if someone mucks up their life, the whānau, the community are still there?
Do you find that some of our iwi and rūnanga are almost silent on this issue when you’d think they’d be championing change? Why should it be left up to young people like yourself and JustSpeak? Do you think the chorus should be louder from those who purport to be our leaders?
I have strong views around this. It’s a hard one, and I’m frustrated and impatient for change. I see people in rūnanga and iwi, sometimes saying that they need to be part of the solution. But their starting point is the system that’s harming us already. Their starting point is still a prison that hurts our people. So, I get hōhā about that, although I understand where that whakaaro can come from.
But I acknowledge those who have been working on this battle for longer than my lifetime. People like Moana Jackson, Annette Sykes, Kim Workman, and Tracey McIntosh who’ve been having this fight for our people for so long. It’s hard mahi.
And now you’re off to New York to the United Nations permanent forum on indigenous issues. What will be the crux of your brief address to them?
Well, the forum is pretty much like an international Waitangi Tribunal. And we'll be talking about the mega prison and our broken criminal justice system and the impact that has on Māori. And about the successive failures by government to address this issue in a meaningful way. There’ve been lots of policies written about it, and there’ve been lots of giving Māori names to things, but we’ve failed to change the realities.
This interview has been edited and condensed.