Tauranga: Where Racism Has Reared Its Ugly Head

Society

02.12.2019

Tauranga: Where Racism Has Reared Its Ugly Head

After experiencing racism in Tauranga firsthand, Shilo Kino discovered the prevalence of racism in the city is fostered by anti-Māori councillors and citizens alike.

I used to think Tauranga was the most underrated beacon of paradise Aotearoa had to offer. I have so many fond memories of packing up the car and road-tripping to the Mount. I was seduced by the summer rays, the waves, the epic waterfalls, and Mauao. Everyone loves Mauao. Just the right number of steps to make you feel like you've accomplished something in life and not enough to kill you on the way to the top. So, what’s not to love about Tauranga? 

Disclaimer: There are parts of Tauranga that I love and I have met some amazing people while living here. However, if you don't want to hear anything negative about Tauranga, I suggest turning away from your screen and enjoying life in a state of ignorant bliss.

I have lived in Auckland for most of my life. I lived in the ‘hood’ of Avondale for years (although I didn't actually know it was the hood until a friend told me). Tāmaki Makaurau is a city bursting at the seams with all different types of people. Māori, Pacific, Chinese, Korean, Middle Eastern, South African. Rich, poor, middle class. 

When I moved to Tauranga for work, I expected it to be the way I saw it in the summertime. But boy, was I wrong. Take away the beach and the mountain and the pretty little waterfalls and what’s left is an ugly town filled with racists. Not just closet racists, but open racists too. 

This discovery triggered a memory about an article I’d read a few years ago. Two car salesmen left a racist message on the phone of a potential customer, who was a Māori woman. They said "Tell her don't be a f..... clever Māori. You little Māori girl... Go back to Maketu and dig pipis out of the sand." The location of the car dealership? Tauranga.

And after 15 months of living in Tauranga, I now understand this wasn’t an isolated experience, but more of an accurate depiction of what to expect when you live there.

Take away the beach and the mountain and the pretty little waterfalls and what’s left is an ugly town filled with racists. Not just closet racists, but open racists too.

As a Māori journalist, I began to find myself in weird, uncomfortable situations that had not happened to me previously. Bear in mind I lived on Auckland’s North Shore for over a year, an affluent place with expensive housing and loads of rich white people. But compared to Tauranga, the Shore is a melting pot of cultures. Seriously.

There was the mayoral candidate who asked me, “Where does your colour come from?” and the ensuing look of disbelief when I told him I was Māori. And on top of that to then be told, “Oh, you don’t look Māori. You are attractive.”

I covered a story about homelessness in Tauranga, and upon arrival at the homeless shelter, the person working there shoved a box of tampons into my hands and told me, “It's the last one.” I was mistaken for a homeless person. That was because the majority of the homeless people there were brown and I guess she thought we all looked the same.

And these are just the experiences I had. 

University student Reremai Cameron had a landlord message her and ask, “Just by reading your name, are you Māori?”, going on to say, “We had a Māori in our home before who had multiple family and friend visitors. That is something we will not tolerate.”

There were the white supremacist flyers delivered to Tauranga houses, the flyer directing readers to the website of an extremist white-power group.

But the story that I found hardest to comprehend happened at 11 Mission Street. Tauranga City Council proposed to gift 11 Mission Street – which is valued at $1 million and adjoins The Elms, a historic site in Tauranga that was a place of early contact between Māori and Pākehā – to the Otamataha Trust, which represents hapū Ngāti Tapu and Ngāi Tamarawaho, the local iwi of Tauranga. 

The iwi was happy, the trust was happy, the council was happy. Ka pai, all was well. Until the council called for submissions from the public on the transfer, which opened up a can of (racist) worms. A mob of like-minded community members – who were, strangely, all old and white – opposed the transfer of the property. In fact, 58 percent of the submissions opposed giving the land back to iwi.

It was the comments that were written from the opposers that were most offensive: 

"Please don't gift this land to Māori – no no no! – no more freebies." 

"The whole Bay of Plenty is being given away and it is never enough. The burglaries, rapes, child murders and car theft will continue unabated."

Submission 96 linked giving the property to Otamataha to "giving them special privileges" and creating a "hate group".

The list goes on. 

Maybe the people opposing the land transfer are unaware of what the phrase ‘gifting back’ means. As in, when you gift something back, you are returning something to its rightful owner.

What is now 11 Mission Street once belonged to local iwi. In 1866, however, the Anglican Church Mission Society sold 423ha of Māori land to the government without seeking hapū agreement. This led to a public apology last year to local iwi from the Anglican Church.

Maybe the people opposing the land transfer are unaware of what the phrase ‘gifting back’ means. As in, when you gift something back, you are returning something to its rightful owner. Maybe they thought local Māori would turn 11 Mission Street into a marae and have multiple family and friend visitors to stay, the way the landlord assumed Reremai Cameron would do? 

The Otamataha Trust still promises to lease the property to the Elms Foundation for $1 a year, for the next 100 years. Therefore, the Elms Foundation will get cheap rent and they can still use the building as they always have. Nothing will change except the name on the ownership papers. There were 775 submissions, 58 percent of the submissions opposed to giving the land back to iwi. So one has to ask, why is there such a large group of people opposing the deal? The reasoning many people gave was that it’s about Tauranga Council keeping their ‘promise’. I find that very hard to believe.

What makes this whole debacle worse, is that the most vocal opponent of the site being gifted back to local iwi was Western Bay of Plenty elected councillor and mayoral candidate Margaret Murray-Benge. Murray-Benge openly stated that local Māori can't be trusted and fought tirelessly to stop the Elms site from being transferred to the Otamataha Trust. 

A video of Murray-Benge also circulated on Facebook, in which she gave a very inaccurate history lesson on how the British colonised Māori (maybe secondary schools could use this video to highlight what can go wrong when New Zealand history isn’t taught properly in schools). 

In the video she says, “Don’t tell me, when the British came to this country, that Māori were doing well. They weren't. It was tribe against tribe, they took land from each other, there was no rule. The tribe took the land, they took slaves, they forced the slaves, they would eat them… the difficulty is today you have come into a system... I am thoroughly annoyed, frustrated and disappointed that you are pretending to be victims.”

What shocked me the most was not Murray-Benge’s comments, but that despite the public knowledge of Murray-Benge’s views on Māori, she received the most votes out of all the councillors this election with 5165 votes, elected again onto the Western Bay of Plenty Council. Sadly, this only tells me that Murray-Benge’s view on Māori is a reflection of the community and people she represents in the Bay of Plenty.

She isn’t the only councillor to hold these views. Andrew Hollis, a newly elected member of Tauranga Council, freely posts his views on social media.

Similar to Benge, Hollis’s views made the rounds on social media before voting day. This was Hollis's first time running for council and he was voted in with an overwhelming 7000 votes. Popular guy, indeed.

In a story that I wrote for the New Zealand Herald, Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon called for councillor Andrew Hollis to resign over his comments. 

Tauranga iwi and hapū in general are not happy with the election result. A city council Māori committee, Te Rangapu Mana Whenua o Tauranga Moana, refuses to work with Hollis on any issue relating to Māori, Te Rangapu chairman Puhirake Ikaha calling his remarks “deeply offensive” and “racist”.

However, Hollis is far from apologetic and said he did not regret any of his comments. In fact, after Hollis was sworn in as a councillor, he declared that “some people tried to shut my voice down and they’re still trying to do it now. But the overwhelming support that I’ve had from all corners of New Zealand has been to stand my ground and keep my speaking going.”

New Councillor Jako Abrie showed support for local Māori and the Race Relations commissioner’s call for Hollis to resign. Unfortunately, Abrie deactivated his public Facebook page soon after he wrote the post as he was getting too much backlash from the Tauranga community for his public support for Hollis's resignation.

On the other end of the spectrum, I interviewed a Māori candidate who was incredibly passionate about Māori. They spoke fondly of their marae, iwi, and the work they do for Māori. But as soon as I turned the camera on, they seemingly morphed into one of their Pākehā counterparts, brushing my questions off when I quizzed them on Māori issues. Off-camera, they admitted that if they revealed themselves to be pro Māori, they wouldn't get a foot in the door. Their belief was that the best way to help Māori was to present a non-authentic ‘white’ version of themselves so they could win Pākehā votes. Once they were on council, they would help Māori, apparently. (Although not too publicly, they wouldn't want to lose their seat.) The fact that they couldn't openly express their love for Māori in fear of losing votes seems absurd. 

... in Tauranga there is “no longer a racist underbelly, racism has reared its ugly head.” There is so much truth in this statement and it is one of the reasons I am packing my bags and moving back to Tāmaki. Tauranga is a broken city and a broken place.

Yet when election day came and I saw the results, I realised they were right. Because despite the experience and incredible calibre of Māori candidates running for council this year, not one of them was elected. And yet Andrew Hollis was elected, someone who vocally speaks out against Te Tiriti. 

The history of Tauranga is deeply rooted in Māori tikanga and values, yet there is a lack of voice, a lack of perspective when it comes to making decisions on issues in Tauranga that deeply affect Māori and local iwi. 

In an interview with former Race Relations Commissioner Susan Devoy, she told me that in Tauranga there is “no longer a racist underbelly, racism has reared its ugly head.” There is so much truth in this statement and it is one of the reasons I am packing my bags and moving back to Tāmaki. Tauranga is a broken city and a broken place.

I find it ironic that the same people who changed their profile picture to the frame ‘they are us’ following the Christchurch massacre are probably the same people who are sticking up for Hollis, who are doing everything in their power to stop 11 Mission Street from going back to the Otamataha trust, or don’t understand or even care to understand why Māori perspective is necessary on council.

Iwi leader, and former director of the Waitangi Tribunal, Buddy Mikaere told me he didn’t think racism was a big problem in Tauranga until the local elections came around. He says the solution to racism is making way for the younger generation. “The young people have a much better appreciation of Māori kaupapa and tikanga Māori, as well as a better awareness of Māori history.”

The new Tauranga Council seems a little bit better than what it was previously. It will be interesting to see what will happen under new mayor Tenby Powell. Powell has spoken publicly about wanting to collaborate with iwi, and perhaps under his guidance the Council will involve Māori in decision making. This is necessary in restoring the mana Māori have lost in Tauranga. Change begins under new leadership, let's hope it will drip down to grassroots. 

I’m not sure what the solution is to the racism in Tauranga. It feels complex, generational. But what I do know is that if we don’t call out the racism now, it’s only going to escalate. 

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