Privilege cheque

By   /   October 29, 2014  /   20 Comments

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It wasn’t until I worked in shearing gangs and saw that it was white guys who owned the farms, white guys who were the contractors and brown people who shed the most sweat for the least return. Brown people and the occasional white punk like me.

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There was no race problem in my childhood. Living in central Wellington I was well-insulated from what was going on not so far away. This was the 60s and 70s, where the teachers enjoyed free love in the staff room while the kids read The Little Red School Book, marvelling at the words that would become our new vernacular.

Later, working in car factories, the division between the colour of bosses and workers still didn’t break through my utopian brainwashing about everyone being equal in this country. It wasn’t until I worked in shearing gangs and saw that it was white guys who owned the farms, white guys who were the contractors and brown people who shed the most sweat for the least return. Brown people and the occasional white punk like me.

But even that wasn’t enough to fully open my eyes because there were always the boot-strap stories where a Maori from humble beginnings now owned a farm and called the shots. See, anyone can make it in New Zealand, I was told.

Later, immersed again in Wellington’s culture, I headed north to visit friends up here. It was the first time I’d been further north than Auckland, a town distinct from my own because Maori were frequently called “black” there. We stopped at tearooms in the Dome Valley and before long an old guy started up a conversation about my black Honda 750. When he learned our destination, he looked all around and, seeing no one was listening in, leaned forward and in a confidential tone told us to be careful. Apparently “the mowries” were “wild” up here in the North. “No,” he exclaimed when I flicked in incredulous eyebrow, “they really are.” He shrugged, obviously concluding that I was beyond hope.

It’s easy to laugh off that kind of redneck stuff, but within days the extent of this systemic racism started to become apparent. After spending a couple of days with my friends, I went for a ride.

“Where did you get gas?” my friend asked after he got back from town, knowing that I had no cash and only a chequebook. I told him I’d got it from the Whakapara BP. I’ll never forget the pause as my friend looked at me, nor the emotions wash over his face. “What, they took a cheque from you?” I replied they had. “Well they won’t take a cheque off my black arse and it’s my local!” Denial, acceptance, anger and resignation in 15 seconds. I blushed, but, of course, I still got my cheque cashed.

More than 30 years later, I’m still getting my cheque cashed in this town and there are a lot of other things that haven’t changed.

Old, influential white businessmen sit in a café. It’s 7:30 and, for a bit of sport, one of their group has been inviting political candidates to their monthly breakfast gatherings. This month it’s my turn. A conversation is going on at an adjoining table. The old silverback who is holding court speaks in a voice everyone in the café can hear and he knows it.

A young woman had recently left a job after being told she couldn’t greet clients with “kia ora.” She wouldn’t have had a chance to leave because he’d have sacked her on the spot, he splutters indignantly. No one disagrees except me. There’s one language and the bloody mowries need to get used to it.

Mention of there being three official languages here is dismissed with a wave of the hand. There might be in Wellington, but not up here. There are, however, tremendous problems with the two sets of laws for all Kiwis. A grumble of assent went around the gathering. It’s the bloody mowries that are the problem.

They accept there is no way they can stop it being spoken, but can see no benefit in knowing what is being said, for example, on a marae. There’s an exchange of looks, a snort and a man walks up to get more coffee, hiding his laughter from me, but no one else. After all, who among them would ever go on to a marae?

A recent move by the Ministry of Justice means that the opening and closing of court sessions are now announced in Te Reo, but it’s window dressing. Some registrars and JPs still refer to the town as Won-garay in open Court. Some cops and lawyers do it. They don’t care. No one will challenge their white supremacy. Not while their cheques are still being cashed.

We finish our breakfast and it’s my turn to speak. I greet the crowd, singling out the old silverback for a specific kia ora. Some guttural, but unintelligible, response comes before I move on. They don’t want to hear about jobs. They’ve all got them. They don’t want to hear about warm dry homes because they’ve all got those too. They’re pleased they’ve got more than they need and they vote Blue for they have hope; hope that they won’t have to share their wealth.

They tolerate my talk of regional development and rail, but all they want is to ask questions about the capital gains tax and speak on behalf of invisible friends who want to retire at 65. They don’t want the retirement age raised even though they’re all “retired,” dressed, up and arguing at 7:30am. They don’t want any of it. They don’t need to be asked if we’re ready for a gay Prime Minister. They don’t need to be asked if we’re ready for a Maori one, either.

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About the author

Kelly Ellis

Contributor

A staunch human rights advocate and barrister, she ran on the Labour ticket in that electorate in 2014. When not working or politicking she plays with old cars and motorbikes, sails, fishes, cooks or hides out on her boat.

20 Comments

  1. Lee says:

    Apology accepted. In the name of my god, go now free of your sins, free to experience yourself as you find youself.

  2. Stephen Howard says:

    Kia ora mo ta korero Kei te tautoko o whakairo but I would like to point out that while I was shearing for 20 plus years here in Te Waipounamu and another 2 years travelling the country trying to re organise shearer and shedhands into a union, I noticed a few things differently. Ae ka tika koe about the ownership of farms but you would notice here in te tai tonga that most of the shearers are pakeha and if you travelled around much of both islands you would see that many of the contractors are maori. I found that it wasn’t the whakapapa of the contractor that counted when it came to ripping off his/her workers. Both Maori and Pakeha contractors came to my attention for not paying, not meeting basic needs like a whare paku or wai and for bullying. Yes there is racism but overlaying or underlying that is a system where exploitation of insecure and isolated workers is the main driver of racism. It’s a class system and as the old NZ Company said in the the 19th century when they wished to alienate land from the people, by turning the rangatira into brown capitalist they would get the land and a cheap labour force without a leadership. Class exploitation underlies the problem

    • peterlepaysan says:

      Where I live I regularly help out on a casual. basis as a farm hand.

      When it comes to shearing (I usually work the press) none of the shearers have been Maori. Neither have the rousies.

      They all seem to have a good life. One has recently financed himself into university. They all drive flasher vehicles than my 1993 Hilux ute.

      One rousie is finishing a degree. Another rousie is into horse sports (Cheap?).

      Three of the shearers have had recent trips to Australia. One of them spent a year touring the South Island as a shearer and loved it.

      Bloody hard work? YES!

      Exploitation? Dunno about that. Maybe the boss matters.

      • Stephen Howard says:

        Well yes, it is exploitation and as I say I came across many breaches of H&S and Employment Relations regulations. Some were paid less than the minimum wage, and most shed hands would be better off financially doing a clean, relatively easy job in a supermarket checkout on the minimum wage if they could get 40 hours secure a week.

        The ILO has stated that shearing the way we do is the most arduous work in the world, and we are the world’s best so you would expect a decent income for shearers but shearing sheds often have no toilets, no clean washing facilities, no clean place to stop and have a cup of tea and often no first aid equipment. Shearer injury rate is one in four each year, and many injuries are rejected by ACC as being age related.

        I sat once with a North Canterbury corriedale stud breeder and went through the costs etc of shearing and the prices paid for wool on the sheep back compared with the market price of shorn wool. He agreed that shearers received about 10% of the value they created, his only defense for this was he needed that exploitation to achieve a decent living standard for himself

  3. Pete says:

    Fancy this appearing today of all days Kelly! You should be concentrating on the real horror story of the day – the Court of Appeal decision upholding an Employment Court ruling employers must pay workers in the female-dominated aged care industry wages equal to workers in a similar male-dominated industry.

    Those damned brown skinned people working in that industry expecting more money? What’s the world coming to? Their purpose is to make my old, influential white businessman bottom line look good. I’ll be really pissed off if their demands mean I’ve got to cut back my Europe trip back to six weeks.

    Get in the game Kelly, focus on the important stuff!

    • Lara says:

      You do realise that racism is a very important issue, right? And you do realise that people are quite capable of focussing on more than one thing at a time?

      Telling people to ignore racism and sexism because of something else YOU think is more important, not helpful. Actually, that looks kinda racist to me.

      • Pete says:

        It’s satire, based on my knowledge of large numbers of brown skinned women being paid a pittance so the type of people Kelly mentions seeing at her breakfast meeting, can see their aged care businesses be big earners and enable them to wallow in their racism.

  4. Lara says:

    I grew up in Whangarei. I’m currently living just south of it. I want to move further north, way up into the Far North. Every time I mention this to my pakeha friends they tell me that there is a really high crime rate up there, that the Maori are “feral”.

    I’ve pointed out to a couple of people that a large part of my family is Maori, and that when they say things like that they’re including my family in their statements. They still do it!!!! FFS.

    Racism. Alive and well in New Zealand.

  5. Brutus Iscariot says:

    I think what you’re describing is on the wane (quite literally). These people are the last vestiges of the 1970s and NZ’s dominant rural agrarian conservatism. The fact that they are still politically active heightens their relative visibility to you. I have a lot more faith in younger generations – they may not be as politically engaged, but they are pragmatic and tolerant.

    But it does highlight more reasons why it is futile and undesirable to try and hark back to New Zealand pre the Fourth Labour Government. NZ was a deeply flawed society and not something to be idealised now. Just that those flaws, as Chris Trotter has so eloquently described, “seethed beneath the surface like a sack full of eels”.

  6. Mike in Auckland says:

    Well, what a coincidence, I was just briefly listening in on 1ZB here in Auckland, a bit after 09 am this morning, and heard that “libertarian” redneck Leighton Smith talk with Lyndsay Mitchell, you know, who I mean. The topic was child poverty, the new report out from UNICEF, and yes, there was implied racism in her comments straight away. She and Leighton went on about the DPB, sole parents, the reasons for benefit dependency, and it was claimed that a few decades ago, with the introduction of the DPB benefits became “attractive”.

    Then she mentioned how gangs also became popular in the 60s and 70s, and how Maori moved into cities, and many young joined gangs, to live a life on benefits and doing what gangs do.

    Leighton Smith threw in a “gem” of a right wing, redneck idiot question, asking her, why it is, that nowadays so many (young) males join organisations like ISIS, basically suggesting, they yearn for belonging to an organisation promoting “manhood” and old fashioned, admittedly extreme “family values”.

    I was totally flabbergasted, this was at about 09.25 am today, Wednesday 29 Oct. 2014, and it would be worth a listen to, if an audio recording may exist of that “talk back”.

    It all boiled down to giving Lindsay a forum again, to feed the idiot bigots out there, that listen to that commercial, right wing radio station, more prejudice and her “solutions” to do away with benefits and especially the DPB, on which of course, many Maori depend.

    On Radio Live Sean Plonkhead was delivering a similar attack on the “liberals” and “lefties”, again ridiculing the amount of child poverty in NZ, and actually claiming that the government had “improved” the situation. So he fed his right wing followers more ammo to frown on all the marginal groups, that need to shape up and stop moaning, as it is all not bad at all, and just all made up by the “extreme left” and so.

    Talk about privilege, yes, we have such privileged upper middle class, somewhat aged, while media personalities or “broadcasters”, also like Paul Henry, Mike Hosking and the rest, who now feed us ever so more bias, racism, the supposed “blessings” of this government, how great it all is, and what a “waste” the alternative is.

    Welcome to NZ 2014, where the media establishment, TVNZ doing away with own Maori and Pasifika broadcasting production, is moving at high speed back to the “good old days”, where everyone had their place, and where you “work hard” and “earn your place” at the table.

    I feel so damned embarrassed I live in this country, where too manly short sighted voted in a government and this shameful status quo. The only consolation was that the other closet racist Colin Craig and his buddies did not make it into Parliament.

    One question, how much do these “broadcasters” get paid, I ask?

    Have a nice day, and thanks for this post, Kelly

    • Mike in Auckland says:

      Apologies for a couple of spelling mistakes there in my comment above. I was meaning “white” media personalities, and too “many” short sighted voted in this government.

    • John says:

      What exactly has Colin done that points to him being racist?

  7. Ovicula says:

    I lived in Farngarey until I was 15. I recognise the people you mention. They were my contemporaries. They lived in Wongaray and I’m not surprised they still do. I hope they’re dying out.

  8. Fern says:

    The Mayor of the New Plymouth District has supported and achieved a move to have a Maori ward in the local elections. You can read here about the backlash he has had to endure: “…countless emails filled with vitriol and hate speech” “…hours in meetings with ratepayers who have been shaking with rage.”
    http://www.stuff.co.nz/taranaki-daily-news/news/10677254/Judd-tells-of-agony-over-ward-decision