Max Harris: Our country has been losing its moral direction

by Dale Husband
Sun 30 Apr 2017
12 min read
2

Max Harris is failing to live up to the image of the disengaged, self-absorbed millenial.

The 28-year-old former Rhodes Scholar, who's now an Examination Fellow at All Souls College in Oxford, has won widespread applause for his "unashamedly idealistic" first book, The New Zealand Project, in which he calls for a values-based politics based on concepts like aroha and manaakitanga.

Here he shares his thoughts with Dale Husband.

 

 

Kia ora, Max. As you know, e-Tangata celebrates life in New Zealand by talking with people who care about the land, the people and the culture. I believe you spent part of your formative teenage years in a very different culture — in Indonesia. Can you share how that exposure to Indonesian culture had an impact on you, and how you happened to be there in the first place?

When I was 12, my dad got a job in Indonesia working for a civil society or development project. My mum also started work in Indonesia as a nurse. We moved there for three or four years, and it was an amazing experience. We got to learn some Bahasa Indonesia, which in some interesting ways is quite similar to te reo Māori. I loved learning the language and thinking about how ideas are expressed in different languages.

We were there when September 11 happened, and also the Bali bombings. I witnessed a wave of hostility towards Muslim people as a result of those atrocities. A lot of the people I knew in Indonesia said that the Islam they practised was very different from what was being said by people pushing Islamophobic ideas. So that was an interesting exposure to prejudice. And I became quite interested in Islamic and Indonesian culture, and the varieties of cultures within the country.

What impact did the bombings have on you personally?

I remember being quite affected by it — one of the guys that coached my rugby team, who also worked with my mum, died in the Bali bombings. So it touched us as a family. It was an anxious time for everyone, but I saw a lot of Indonesians speak out against what had happened.

We actually had to come back to New Zealand for a few months because my dad’s work asked that children of people working there go home for a period because of the perceived insecurity. So we came back for six months. And that was the time when I really decided that I wanted to stay connected to New Zealand and being a New Zealander.

In Indonesia, I’d been going to an international school, where some people didn’t have a sense of home or a sense of place. I knew I didn’t want to be like that. So, I guess that was quite an important time for identity and my sense of who I am.

Just picking up on that idea of identity and a sense of place, can you sketch in a little of your geographical and family background?

Sure. My mum’s family is from Whanganui. They’re the Nobles. They came from Scotland and England in the 1950s. My dad’s British. They met in the UK, and that’s where my twin brother and I were born. But most of my early life — except for the three or four years in Indonesia — was spent in Wellington.

I went to Clyde Quay School, which was an amazingly creative school with lots of inspiring teachers who spoke to us about values and who were truly bicultural in their approach. They drew on a lot of waiata and tikanga Māori. I still feel very indebted to that school.

Later you moved to Auckland to attend university, right? Diving right in to the heavy-duty subjects of law, history and politics. Who inspired your love of study?

My dad and my mum were both really interested in ideas. We weren’t an especially political family, but they tried to talk to us about whatever we were studying at school.

I had an amazing history teacher at Wellington College, Gregor Fountain, who’s now the principal of Paraparaumu College. I studied 19th century New Zealand history with him in Year 13. He really brought that alive by taking his class to some of the places where history had happened. He was very committed to highlighting Māori agency through history and showcasing how Māori interacted and engaged with settlers and colonisers.

At university, people like James Belich, the historian, and Ted Thomas, who’s a retired judge, were key people for me. Coming more close to the present, Moana Jackson and Sian Elias, the Chief Justice, have both really influenced me. Moana made me think more deeply about relationships as a basis for society and how relationships were disrupted during colonisation, as well as how Pākehā might address that. He made me think about oral histories and other sources of knowledge that hadn’t been brought to my attention so much in university.

I get the feeling at times that some non-Māori people feel a bit threatened by what could be perceived as a resurgence or revitalisation of the Māori understanding of history. How does it help you personally to know more of what actually happened back then?

First of all, I think the idea from te ao Māori of a values-based approach to law and disputes — and life, really — is something that’s influenced me. Values are at the heart of the book The New Zealand Project that I’ve written over the last couple of years.

Secondly, the Māori approach to relationships and collectives has challenged me.

The conventional dominant Western way of thinking has traditionally been quite individualistic, and I think that’s the source of a lot of problems that we have now in our economic, political, and legal systems.

Learning about kaupapa Māori has introduced me to an alternative way of thinking, seeing us all as interdependent and interrelated, bound together in interconnecting collectives rather than just as individual units. It’s a healthier way of seeing how we are together in a community.

Most of all, I think New Zealand history has informed the way I think about myself as a Pākehā. It’s made me think about the benefits and privileges I have, and also the need to get us all to “own” our history and to respond to it appropriately. Part of this, in my opinion, involves listening to Māori and talking to Māori about how they feel history should be addressed.

And not just Maori, right? Because when you were at Oxford you got involved in a campaign that had to do with another strand of colonial history. Can you tell us about that episode?

Yeah, the Oxford campaign was inspired by a protest movement called “Rhodes Must Fall” that was started in 2015 by staff and students at the University of Cape Town. That movement was about trying to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes, the 19th-century British imperialist and former South African prime minister, from the Cape Town campus.

That movement travelled to Oxford. I had some friends who were involved with the campaign — South Africans, Zimbabweans, British as well. They were focusing on how Oxford still celebrates its colonial figures, and how that past might be connected to racism in the present. I was on a Rhodes Scholarship, and felt like it was incumbent upon me — as a recipient of Rhodes’ money — to draw attention to the history of Rhodes, good and bad.

That got me thinking about colonisation in New Zealand — how Pākehā, in particular, still haven’t reckoned with the colonial past in New Zealand. And how education and ideas have been shaped by colonial ways of thinking.

Can you give an example?

The campaign was talking about how non-British ways of thinking — and especially non-white ways of thinking — have been marginalised in the Oxford curriculum.

For instance, I did a course on human rights, broadly defined, and usually when you study those rights, you talk about economic, social and cultural rights. There was a discussion of economic and social rights, but little or no talk about cultural rights at all, even though the course was taught by quite a progressive person.

So, it made me think: what are the blind spots still in the New Zealand education system, influenced as it has been by the UK? What understandings are we missing?

Another thing that came out of my conversations with black South African students is the concept of whiteness. In South Africa, there’s a bit more discussion about white privilege than there is in Aotearoa. It made me think more critically about the advantages that white people have been given in lots of settler societies, including New Zealand.

Obviously, South Africa’s different from New Zealand, but there’s a lot Pākehā can learn from the decolonisation movements there, I think.

For a guy who’s not yet 30, you’re thinking some pretty big thoughts! Lately you’ve had some time working with Helen Clark in the UN. I believe you had a life-threatening situation while you were there. Can you tell us what happened?

It started a few months before I went to New York. I was at a friend’s wedding, and a doctor commented that I had a combination of physical features — such as being very tall with skinny wrists and a flat chest — that were often associated with heart problems. He said it was probably nothing to worry about but that I should ask about it next time I went for a check-up.

Anyway, I got this internship in New York, and when I was there I started to have chest pains. One morning I was actually looking up some of the heart problems that this doctor friend of mine had mentioned, and got up to go get a glass of water. Next thing I knew, I’d hit the ground and fainted. I’d never fainted before. So I thought I should probably get this checked out.

At the hospital they found I had an expanded aorta — an aortic aneurysm. Basically, the blood vessel could pop at any time, and it could be potentially fatal. The specialist recommended surgery because there might also be an underlying condition. I looked up some of those conditions and they were pretty scary. One in particular was Loeys-Dietz Syndrome, and people with that condition have an average life expectancy of 26.1 years. I had just turned 26!

Fortunately, my mum, who’s a nurse, gave me lots of advice. She said I should hold off on surgery until I was back in the UK. Long story short, the surgery went well in the UK. And luckily, I’m still here.

And this experience led to the book, right? The New Zealand Project. In it, you suggest that Māori concepts such as manaakitanga and aroha should be the basis of our shared future. So, despite being Pākehā, you seem pretty comfortable looking to te ao Māori as inspiration for New Zealand in 2017. Tell us why you picked those kaupapa.

Basically, my feeling for the book was that we’ve seen a surge of individualism in Aotearoa, especially in the last 20–30 years. We’ve also seen politics becoming quite technical and losing a sense of moral direction. My feeling was these concepts from te ao Māori, when combined with some of the other thinking — the best of Western thinking, perhaps — might provide a way forward.

The three cornerstone values that I put forward in the book are care, community and creativity — and I also talk a bit about love, or aroha. These values are important because they connect to the heart as well as the head. They connect to people’s everyday experiences. Especially, they connect to young people. And they can be used to change people’s attitudes better than focusing just on facts and information.

In the book, I try to think through what politics would look like if these values were applied across different areas — like in the economy, or with the constitution or with prisons. So can we talk about constitutional change drawing on Matike Mai Aotearoa, the report which Margaret Mutu and Moana Jackson co-ordinated after consulting thousands of Māori, including a lot of rangatahi, around the country.

I also suggest that a values-based politics can only work if we — and especially Pākehā — have an ongoing commitment to decolonisation. To undoing the negative effects of colonisation, including the ongoing effects of colonial ways of thinking. It’s something that Māori have been talking about for years. I learned a lot from reading Linda Tuhiwai Smith and Ani Mikaere on this.

I don’t come up with any set answers in the book. It’s not about coming up with a blueprint. But it’s about finding some starting points in values and opening up a conversation.

One of the areas you address in the book is prison reform. I’ve had a long association with Kim Workman, a very principled man who understands how much damage the current incarceration system is causing. I’m reminded that, as we speak, 23,000 kids have got either their mum or dad in jail. Just last week the Waitangi Tribunal came out with criticism of Corrections for failing to address the recidivism of Māori prisoners. Can you talk a little about JustSpeak and its work?

In 2011, Kim Workman decided to hold a meeting to see whether young people would be interested in developing a youth arm of his “Rethinking Crime and Punishment” organisation, which he had been running since 2006. Fifty young people showed up. Kim was surprised there was so much interest. Out of that initial energy, a smaller group of about 10 of us took this organisation forward, and that has become JustSpeak, young people speaking up for a fair and just Aotearoa.

Being involved with that has shown me how prisons rip families apart. How prisons aren’t a good way of getting to causes of offending. It’s also brought home the institutional racism that exists within the prison system, why Māori are over-represented in prison and in re-offending and in youth detention facilities, where I think some of the figures are actually even worse.

In terms of the book, it’s about offering some suggestions and asking: can we talk about what Angela Davis calls de-carceration? I also look at alternatives to short-term sentences, for example.

At the end of the book, I say that everyone needs to be included in this conversation. We’re a really smart country. All of us have different kinds of smarts, and we can’t afford to waste that by excluding the kinds that don’t fit the conventional models.

So, this is my contribution to a conversation that needs to keep going if we’re to get away from individualism and become a more caring society.

Not long ago I spoke with one of your legal colleagues, David Williams, about the idea of merging indigenous and colonial perspectives into law and politics. He said he doesn’t like the concept of merging because so often it’s skewed towards the colonial power base, and the indigenous perspective can be sidelined. What’s your opinion?

I agree. In the book I say that we really need to stake out a space for Māori — for Māori to shape these conversations as well as Pākehā. If Māori want to keep some concepts separate, or develop institutions on their own terms, I think that’s really important.

So, I would say there shouldn’t be a merger as long as there is an unequal footing in relations between peoples in Aotearoa, and until that’s something that Māori want.

On the other hand, I think that we’re in a unique position in the world in terms of having different streams of thinking that are really alive and well. I don’t take the view that New Zealand is better than other countries when it comes to indigenous rights or what some people call race relations.

As you’ve said, when it comes to incarceration or abuse in state care, as we’ve heard recently, it’s clear that New Zealand has had the same history of institutional racism that countries like Australia and the United States and Canada have had.

But I do think the fact of Māori agency throughout history means we have powerful ideas that have a real vitality and a potential to supply solutions to our challenges.

And if Māori can be given the space to develop these ideas and think through how they might apply to policy, and if Pākehā can partner with Māori in a humble way and in a way that is aware of the history of colonisation, then we have a unique opportunity.

Both you and I have grown up in the Treaty settlement period, when a lot of the whakaaro has been about grievances of yesteryear. Now, as we come to the end of the settlement programme, iwi are charting a path for the future. Do you sense that Māori are looking at the future through a different lens now?

I’m no expert on the settlement process and I wouldn’t presume to speak for Māori. But from some of the legal work I’ve done, I would say that I’m a bit concerned about how full and final and sufficient the settlements have been.

In the 1940s there were settlements that claimed to be full and final, but 50 years later they were seen to have been insufficient. There needed to be another round of settlements. I think there’s a real chance that we’re going to see the same in the future, partly because the current settlements don’t in any way provide full redress.

Moana Jackson told me: “Treaties don’t get settled, they get honoured.” And I think that’s right. And I think there’s still a lot more work to be done to honour the Treaty.

I worry when people, Pākehā especially, use the end of this stage of the Treaty settlement process to try and claim that it’s also the end of the Treaty. I think we should be considering how the Treaty — as a source of shared principles — could be more central in political and social life. And also reminding ourselves that the settlements that have been reached so far may not be sufficient for the history that has been lived through, which we all need to learn more about.

What’s next for you, Max?

I’m going to continue a PhD that I started in the UK on executive power, looking at what that means in the age of Trump, but also in New Zealand. I’m coming back to New Zealand in May to do some more kōrero on the book, including speaking at the Auckland Writers Festival. And I’m keen to come home permanently before too long. The conversations are more exciting back here! Thanks so much for inviting me to talk.

 

© e-Tangata, 2017

 

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