Councillor Pera Paniora (left) wanted to begin the council meeting with a karakia but Kaipara Mayor Craig Jepson (second right) was quick to reject her request. Photo / Kaipara District Council
Rarely has any council meeting in New Zealand — let alone a testy, one-minute exchange at a meeting in Mangawhai — commanded so much national attention.
Letters of outrage have been penned. A petition has
garnered almost 6000 names. The Race Relations Commissioner was “shocked and disappointed”. Outraged iwi leaders vowed to give the mayor a good talking-to, whether he wanted to hui or not, and a protest march was due to descend on next week’s council meeting in Dargaville.
On the other side of the divide, social media, talkback radio and Letters to the Editor in-trays have been running hot with claims of Māori customs and language being rammed down the throats of a put-upon majority.
The mayor himself said he had been inundated with messages of support by phone, text and email and — until Thursday’s backdown — was adamant he wouldn’t budge.
The Kaipara karakia controversy began at the new council’s first full meeting on November 30.
Pera Paniora, the Kaipara District’s first Māori ward councillor, tried repeatedly to open the meeting with a karakia (prayer or blessing) but was shut down by newly anointed Kaipara Mayor Craig Jepson.
He explained his actions by saying: “This is a council that’s full of people who are non-religious, religious, of different ethnicities and I intend to run a secular council here which respects everybody and I will not be veering from that.”
The council’s decision to backtrack on the karakia ban, announced on Thursday amid mounting pressure, has since taken the heat out of the issue.
In future councillors will take turns to offer a karakia, prayer, poem or reflection — whatever they are comfortable with — to open and close council meetings.
Paniora described it as a compromise and “a unique way forward for karakia” that still met the needs of tikanga Māori (Māori customs).
While Kaipara’s karakia controversy appears to have been resolved, it exposed a number of faultlines in New Zealand society.
One is between a (mostly) younger demographic used to hearing te reo Māori, and who in many cases have embraced the language as their own, and a (mostly) older generation raised in a monolingual society who are understandably discomfited by an extraordinary pace of change.
Those changes include, but certainly aren’t limited to, the empowerment of Māori and women, and surging public use of the Māori language.
Another faultline is between the traditionally moderate, muddle-along style of Kiwi politics and the no-holds-barred culture wars of the US. The reach of social media means there’s nothing to stop more combative views, and ways of interacting with each other, seeping into New Zealand.
Yet another faultline, much closer to home, runs straight down the middle of the Kaipara District.
One coast is dominated by kumara fields and traditional farming communities, the other by fast-growing beachside towns increasingly populated by cashed-up former Aucklanders. The new Kaipara council, with both mayor and deputy from Mangawhai, is but one sign of that westward shift.
‘I thought we’d moved on’
The tradition of starting Kaipara District Council meetings with a karakia began in 1998 when Graeme Ramsey was mayor.
These days he teaches business at NorthTec but he still lives at Baylys Beach on Kaipara’s wild west coast.
“As soon as I was elected we started trying to open meetings appropriately. If councillors weren’t comfortable with karakia they took it in turns to open in a manner of their choice — a prayer, a poem, a waiata, whatever.”
Ramsey said karakia were not necessarily religious.
“The aim is to bring people together and get them collectively focused and thinking about what’s ahead. It’s seeking a blessing on the work you’re about to do.”
Ramsey described the initial reaction as “mixed” but as time wore on it became more and more accepted.
“Also, as we educated ourselves around inclusiveness, particularly with our Māori population, it just became part of the way we did things. Quite clearly, Māori had been really disengaged from council activities for a long time — and fair enough too, if you look at the history.
“I’d always open in te reo. That wasn’t always well received but I thought it was important. I thought the council had an obligation to engage and be inclusive,” he said.
“This was the time of the Te Uri o Hau settlement and we’d just signed a Memorandum of Understanding with them about how we’d work together. That was a big step for us, but the Government was really supportive of the work we were trying to do to overcome a whole lot of history. It’s important to understand what has happened and where that leads people.”
Ramsey wrote to the mayor and councillors earlier this week to express his dismay that almost 25 years of work was being undone.
His letter lamented what he described as a “woeful lack of knowledge” and raised concerns about the effect on Kaipara’s reputation, relationships with its significant Māori population, and its ability to recruit a new chief executive or work with neighbouring councils.
(The Far North District Council is travelling in the opposite direction. Its mayor, deputy mayor and a majority of councillors are Māori; the council even uses maramataka, the Māori lunar calendar, to help schedule its meetings.)
The answer, Ramsey believed, started with education. Treaty of Waitangi training would help build understanding and encourage good engagement.
“That requires people to have an open mind and be prepared to listen and learn from constituents. The more we listen, the greater our understanding. The more our understanding, the more accepting we become and the more we’re prepared to try new things, not just repeat the mistakes of the past,” he said.
“There’s a need for the new council to really build its understanding. Because I certainly think the future is quite bleak otherwise.”
Ramsey said he was pleased the council had reversed its karakia ban and shown a willingness to learn from mistakes — something he also had to do when first he was elected mayor.
“At the end of the day council is about compromise and working together for the benefit of the district. I just think it’s a shame we haven’t moved on from where we were 20 years ago. I thought we had.”
‘We just have to start again’
One of the claims by those opposed to the use of karakia is that they don’t belong in a secular society. Another is that they take too much time away from the important business of councils.
Both are misconceptions, according to Dargaville Methodist minister and Te Uri o Hau kaumātua Rex Nathan.
“Karakia can take many forms. They don’t have to refer to God. They can simply be a call to respect each other’s views or set the tone for the work ahead. It’s not a long, drawn-out process. A karakia can take all of 20 seconds,” he said.
Nathan said the mayor’s views, such as his opposition to co-governance and Māori wards, were well publicised before the election so came as no surprise to the people of Kaipara. He was also endorsed by the Democracy Northland group founded by John Bain, who quit the Northland Regional Council when Māori wards were introduced.
“But what was surprising was how he dealt with councillor Paniora. I think that’s what really upset people.”
While he was pleased the mayor seemed to have changed his mind, hapū still wanted to meet him and the councillors to find a way forward.
“Let’s have a discussion, let’s lay the issues out on the table.”
Nathan said the council had introduced some good processes around the Treaty and tikanga Māori over the years, starting even before Ramsey with the Kaipara District’s first mayor, Peter Brown.
“So I guess we just have to start again,” he said.
‘Throw him off the waka’
Te Rarawa leader and former Māori Language Commissioner Haami Piripi did not accept the karakia ban was about keeping the council secular.
“The main reason it was done, I think, was not religious but cultural. He did it to provoke a situation. That’s what I find unacceptable.”
Piripi likened the mayor’s initial stance to that of right-wing groups such as Hobson’s Pledge, which he said were “determined to prevent iwi Māori from taking our place at the table”. Those sentiments were then fuelled by a tide of anti-state rhetoric.
“What he seemed to be denying was our tangata whenua status as Treaty partners, at a time when public opinion and jurisprudence are beginning to support it and respect it. We’re not going to tolerate that anymore. We are firm enough on our feet to assert our place economically, socially and politically.”
The answer, Piripi believed, was to “shine a light on it”.
“I don’t think it reflected a majority opinion. People aren’t stupid. I’ve been really impressed by the way New Zealanders have embraced the language and the concepts associated with it. I think it adds tremendous value to our society. It’s the only really unique identifying feature we have as a country. People need to accept it, embrace it,” he said.
“Denying the place of Māori in New Zealand is like saying, ‘I don’t want two arms, thanks. I’m happy with one’.”
Piripi told a story of how the great explorer Kupe returned to Hawaiki, then instructed his grandson Nukutawhiti to travel to Aotearoa.
“Kupe told his grandson, you’ll be about two-thirds of the way back to Aotearoa when somebody will stand up and say, ‘Hey, you’re going the wrong way! You have to go the other way’. When that happens you must immediately throw him off the waka. You can’t afford to let the seed of doubt grow.”
Hope for healing
Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon — a former Gisborne mayor famously fluent in te reo Māori — initially told the Advocate he was “shocked and disappointed” by the karakia ban.
“Councils are there for all communities. They are also required to take Māori views and tikanga into account, especially under the Local Government Act and the Resource Management Act,” he said.
On Thursday Foon welcomed the mayor’s decision to restore the Kaipara council’s almost 25-year tradition of using karakia.
“But it’s more than karakia. It’s about involving his community, his councillors and the staff, to provide an environment where people can have their cultural rights, human rights and beliefs acknowledged in the realm of the council.
“I hope the council and community can heal over this particular issue and move forward for the wellbeing of the Kaipara District,” he said.
Nothing to fear
Like most experts interviewed for this story, Melinda Webber, a professor at Auckland University’s School of Māori and Indigenous Education, wouldn’t be drawn on the causes of the backlash against Māori culture and language.
She did, however, offer a question: “What is the mayor afraid of?”
Webber continued: “There are many communities all around New Zealand who’ve embraced multiple ways of knowing, being and doing in everyday activities. They don’t feel afraid of difference, and celebrate diverse expressions of identity, language and culture in their homes, schools and organisations.
“As an educator and researcher I work in many schools where children speak English, are learning te reo Māori, and are excited about being and becoming global citizens. They aren’t afraid of difference and change — they embrace it. They like the fact that New Zealand has a distinct indigenous culture. They see learning from, and being led by others, as an opportunity rather than something to fear.”