“Colleagues had a real fear of using their language,” says Kura Moeahu who helped organise a hui to support Māori in public service. (Photo: Te Rau Hihiri)

It’s a difficult time to be a Māori civil servant — many are faced with implementing policies that target and minimise things of importance to Māori, while trying to carry on doing their jobs and uphold the mana of their positions.

 Kura Moeahu is the chair of Te Rūnanganui o Te Āti Awa ki te Upoko o te Ika, and Waiwhetū Marae. He talks to Teuila Fuatai about the challenges that Māori in the public sector are facing under the current government, and how mana whenua can support Māori civil servants.

 

When parliament opened on December 5 under the new coalition government, the Maōri bashing that had been signalled during the campaign really came out in force.

Leading up to Christmas, departments like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade started to remove Māori names. There was also less and less reo Māori in official documents.

Colleagues didn’t know whether their positions were safe. They had a real fear of using their language. These people were working in places such as Oranga Tamariki, Kāinga Ora and many other departments, making policies that affect so many of our whānau. They were trying to remain focused on their jobs, and, right before their eyes, our reo and anything deemed “too Māori” was being minimised and removed.

Governments come and go. Some have done well in terms of understanding Māori and the responsibility to tangata whenua. Others have left a lot to be desired. Many people are worried and scared, simply because they’re Māori working in the public sector. There is a real feeling of helplessness.

One individual shared with me: “Our language isn’t being valued. It’s right there in legislation that it should be, but that’s not happening at all.” Another said she’d gone home crying one day because the anti-Māori attitudes in her workplace were becoming so loud, with comments like: “Those Maoris — who do they think they are?”

I’m the chair of Te Rūnanganui o Te Āti Awa and Waiwhetū Marae. Together, we have a huge responsibility to manaaki tangata. It is an embodiment of our wharenui at Waiwhetū: Arohanui ki te tangata.

Following the formation of the coalition government, there were concerns about people’s safety, particularly those who held positions working with whānau. As things became more uncertain, with the threat of job losses and role changes, I met with a few senior public servants. There were discussions about how we could support Māori working in the public service, whose voices weren’t being considered. We made the decision as a collective that we needed a hui for our people. Te Rūnanganui o Te Āti Awa and Waiwhetū Marae offered to host it.

The date was set for January 13, a week before the hui-ā-motu held at Tūrangawaewae. The call went out far and wide to Māori in the public sector who lived in our takiwā (tribal region), and by the New Year, the RSVPs were coming in, as well as the objections.

Those who disagreed with our plan to hui were worried about our actions being seen as opposition to the government. They believed it wasn’t a good look for us, as Māori who worked in the public sector, to effectively organise against the government. Several Māori in senior positions got in touch to let me know just that. They advised me to cancel the hui. I was also told that some chief executives were telling their staff not to attend.

As mana whenua, we have a right to exercise our tino rangatiratanga, our manaaki tangata. Te Āti Awa has always upheld the embodiment of our wharenui, Arohanui ki te tangata. We have seen many governments come and go, and have been called on by successive governments. At the same time, we’ve built many relationships with whānau, hapū and iwi over the generations. We also have an obligation to manaaki those who have made Te Whanganui a Tara their home, including the large number who work within the public service.

My heart went out to those people who felt they couldn’t join us, or weren’t allowed to join us. It was a very difficult period for them. Leading up to the hui, I had a number of conversations where I asked some of them: “Who’s taking care of you? Who’s taking care of your wairua?” Because I knew the positions they held meant their values were being compromised.

I was worried not only for the individuals who brought their concerns directly to me, but also for those who were heads of departments and in leadership roles in Crown organisations. They had their own battles to fight in those senior positions.

I also knew that the kaupapa, and supporting our kaimahi on the ground, were much too important to be dampened.

The hui went ahead and about 300 Māori who worked in the public sector turned up. It was a huge gathering. Also in attendance were tangata Pasifika and tangata Tiriti. Also supporting alongside us were our Ngāti Toa whanaunga.

Those in attendance shared directly what they were experiencing — that they felt disrespected in the workplace. The rhetoric and directives from the coalition government made them feel worthless and trampled on in their jobs.

The morning session allowed those in attendance to express their feelings. It was agreed, as a collective, that we would continue as Māori to support one another;  we would continue to exercise our right to kōrero reo Māori; and we would continue to be proud of who we are and empower one another.

The highlight of the gathering was the afternoon session, where those in attendance identified how we can support one another, not just because of the coalition government, but into the future. They wanted to hear from Māori who’d successfully navigated the public sector — and from that hui came the idea for He Māori Ahau. The conference, due to take place in Pōneke on Wednesday, has taken months to bring together. Our kaikōrero for the day include Nanaia Mahuta, Eru Kapa-Kingi and Donna Awatere Huata. About 900 people are expected to attend.

In keeping with the spirit of solidarity, we also decided to make our January gathering a permanent fixture. It’s very clear we need to bring our people together more often. So, every year, we’re going to host hui for Māori in the public sector who live in Te Whanganui a Tara. There were many ideas that came out of such a positive and wairua-filled gathering of like-minded people.

This is something that is well overdue, and it’s thanks to the coalition government. It has activated minds, sparking a positive growth of ideas on how we as Māori can support one another. He Maori Ahau is just one of many ways to feed the wairua, when so many work in isolated roles and want to connect with those in similar roles for support.

Like many of us who have worked in the public service, we’ve been mentored and guided by experts: tohunga who have held similar senior positions and have left a legacy to uphold.

From experience, I’ve also observed how isolated some of our Māori public servants feel in their workplace. They get appointed to a specific position and, in addition to their role, they get landed with every Māori kaupapa under the sun just because they are the only Māori in the team. We have to make it clear that this is simply not good enough.

It’s not the job of an individual to carry every Māori kaupapa that exists — and this needs to stop. Organisations must own this responsibility, particularly when it seems that those in charge are doing everything they can to undermine the mana of Māori in the public service.

The role of Te Rūnanganui o Te Āti Awa and Waiwhetū Marae in the hui was to provide a safe place, and a space to allow Māori to come together to identify how we can support one another at a challenging point in time. We acknowledge that we’ve had challenges in the past and we will continue to have challenges into the future. Kaupapa-focused hui like this are guided by tikanga on how we navigate through a process where we’re exercising and expressing ourselves from a te ao Māori perspective.

There is a strong awareness, not only among Māori but also tangata Tiriti, of Te Tiriti o Waitangi and mātauranga Māori. Having Māori working within the public service who are strong in their identity and te reo Māori will only further enable organisations to become more Tiriti-centric and prosper into the future.

 

Kura Moeahu has strong whakapapa connections to Ngā Ruahine, Te Āti Awa, Taranaki — Tuturu, Ngāti Mutunga, Ngāti Tama and Ngāti Toa. He is the chair of Te Rūnanganui o Te Āti Awa, Waiwhetū Marae, Pipitea Marae and Āti Awa Toa FM, and is a board member of Creative NZ. He is Tumu Whakarae (principal adviser Māori) for the Parliamentary Service where he oversees tikanga Māori matters at parliament.

Kura is part of a group of Māori public servants that created He Māori Ahau, a conference bringing together kaimahi Māori working in and with the public sector, to be held this Wednesday, June 26, in Pōneke. The conference is organised by Te Rau Hihiri, a trust organisation dedicated to Māori succeeding as Māori in the public service. Conference details and tickets are available here.

As told to Teuila Fuatai. Made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund

E-Tangata, 2024

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