At the school where I worked from 2006 to 2011 there was a steady trickle of students across to Australia where their families went for jobs. I always worried about those students, who were mainly Maori or Pacific Islanders, because they were often struggling at school, and it felt like a move out of their community to another county and a different school would be very hard.  The fact that it was mainly Maori students who left tells you something about being Maori in New Zealand.  I can’t help but feel that I might have taught one of the New Zealanders currently in detention in Australia, and of all those kids I taught I never taught a criminal.  I taught kids who were struggling within themselves, and who were going to be fucked over.

It’s pretty hard not to notice in the limited footage of the inmates who rioted on Christmas Island that a lot of them are brown.  The seven leaders of the riot appear to be five brown New Zealanders, a Tongan, and a man from the Middle East.  In fact, I would be surprised if Maori were not over-represented among these 585 New Zealanders for it is that ethnic group that has borne the brunt of historical discrimination and loss of sovereignty in New Zealand, and who are therefore most vulnerable thanks to history’s legacy to them.  Unsaid in all of the rhetoric and vitriol about the 501s would be the fact of yet another marker of New Zealand’s inability to bring true equality to all of its people.

The photo at the top of the page is one I took in February 2007.  The students in it were in Year 10 and about 14 years old then, which means they are about 22 now.  It was a hell of a tough class to teach but most of us got there in the end.  Some of them didn’t get there though.  A couple dropped off the radar, and a couple went with their families to Australia.  What united that subset of families was the fact that they were all Maori or Pacific Islanders.  It was noticeable how racially specific the exodus was, and when you heard about the money that could be made it was hard to argue with the decision to go even if you sensed that school over in Australia would likely be bloody tough, and that the work – while well paid – sounded hard and limited.

Dr Tahu Kukutai at Waikato University looked into Maori migrants to Australia in 2013 and noted a few things.

Dr Tahu Kukutai says Maori have alarmingly low rates of citizenship in Australia – it became difficult for New Zealanders to attain citizenship under the 2001 law changes – and says this is an issue “because there’s a very large portion or Maori in Australia who are contributing to the tax base, but have no rights.”

In addition her research showed that,

while Maori people do earn more in Australia, they are disproportionally represented in semi-skilled and low-skilled jobs by comparison with the national Australian workforce.  Nearly four out of every 10 employed Maori migrants in Australia works as a labourer, machinery operator or driver, her report states.

Low-skilled work is highly vulnerable when the economy weakens, and without the rights of citizenship and access to state support… well, that’s an invitation from your host country to leave.

After the riot on Christmas Island, and the antics in New Zealand’s parliament, Patrick Gower offered an extraordinary “analysis” of this situation on TV3 “news”. He said,

These guys [the 501s] are coming back to New Zealand… so regardless of all the fighting in parliament, the real problem is these psychos are on their way out here.

The “psychos” he was referring to are 34 New Zealanders convicted of child sex offences, and 16 for rape and sexual offences. This is a total of 50 from 585 cases.

I said that I can imagine that I had taught one of the 585.  Even if that is not in fact true, it is true enough symbolically.  I also said: “I never taught a criminal.  I taught kids who were struggling within themselves, and who were going to be fucked over.”

When you are working with students who have terribly low literacy, terribly dysfunctional family life, and a set of peers and contacts who are poor role models then school is a tough place to be because you can see the path you are supposed to take, and you feel inside that you are good enough to be on that path, but there are so many things counting against you that you can almost always feel like you’re sitting on a ball of rage.  On bad days you might act out of anger and get in trouble.

You can blame each individual student who stuffs up their life for their choices, and tell them to face the consequences of their actions, or you can blame each parent who let their kids down (having been let down themselves), but that doesn’t amount to much except an excuse to wash your hands and wait for the news cycle to change.

That doesn’t seem good enough somehow.  It feels to me that New Zealand has a particular duty to these 585 New Zealanders having failed them before, and for generations.  I will actually back them.

When you’re a dean in a school you’re not supposed to give up on a kid.  You’re supposed to look for a way forward.  The rhetoric of “pyschos” and “you back the rapists” is the least productive possible response.

Backing the deportees doesn’t mean welcoming them all in the same way.  There is a real distaste among many for justice that involves working with an offender after their sentence has been given.  I understand the instinct to be punitive and then walk away (I feel it whenever I feel like I have been wronged), but it very rarely works.  Restorative justice is long, and painful, and involves the patience to accept lapses, but it is far, far more effective than anything else at giving everyone their lives back: victims and perpetrators included.

Unfortunately we are not in the kind of head space at the moment.  We are in the “tough on crime” mode, and for this particular group of 585 New Zealanders, the government seems to want to build a wall around them.

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I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō

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