Gerry Te Kapa Coates
Justice & Race: Campaigns against racism and abuse in Aotearoa New Zealand by Oliver Sutherland (Steele Roberts, 2020), 288pp., $34.99
Professor Emeritus David Williams, in his foreword to this important book, says it ‘is not an easy read’. The book deals with issues around systemic racism in the justice and policing jurisdictions from 1969 to 1986. Heavy topics, yes, but the book, thanks to Oliver Sutherland’s masterful handling of the material, reads like a thriller, peppered with well-known names and events highlighted by newspaper clippings and photographs.
Issues of racism and abuse are currently being addressed by the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care that began in 2018. This book was written as an aid to the commission, and Sutherland employed the extensive historical records in his possession to document the long and complex history of this period.
The author was a scientist at the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) and one of the founders of the Nelson Māori Committee and the Nelson Race Relations Action Group. He had the foresight to retain detailed records from those days and says this book ‘closely parallels’ his evidence to the royal commission. He had the idea of ‘writing an account of the anti-racism movement of the 1970s and 1980s’ (p. 13)—an idea which, during a fortuitous encounter, he put to Sir Anand Satyanand, who became chair of the commission in January 2019 and who welcomed the idea.
Sutherland also had a longstanding friendship with, and support from, New Zealand’s first ombudsman and race relations conciliator, Sir Guy Powles. In addition, there were several groups of Māori and Polynesian activists he turned to for guidance in fighting white racism. In those heady days, groups such as the Auckland Committee on Racism and Discrimination (ACORD) and the Citizens’ Association for Racial Equality (CARE) became well known. Looking back, Sutherland acknowledges that he and ACORD ‘got under people’s skins’ (p. 250). ‘Labour and National Ministers, departmental heads and penal and social welfare institutional managers all received the same uncompromising analysis of the racism in their institutions.’ From a distance of nearly fifty years, he now says his group helped to ‘lay the groundwork for changes in the way society deals with our youngest and most vulnerable’ (p. 250).
In the book we learn that 1972 was a pivotal year for the development of a platform from which to examine and combat issues of racial inequality. It was during that year that Sutherland became aware of the plight of Māori children—one as young as thirteen years—apprehended by the police and appearing in court to plead guilty without any legal representation or child welfare assistance. At that time Aotearoa had no duty solicitor or public defender scheme.
Along with John Hippolite, Sutherland campaigned for a public defender scheme, first in Nelson, then nationally. He analysed justice statistics, showing that the imprisonment rate for Māori was significantly greater than for non-Māori. A Māori child offender was twice as likely to be sentenced to a penal institution such as borstal. Sutherland claimed that every child to appear in the children’s court ought to be represented by counsel, and in 1972 the Canterbury District Law Society was the first to set up a duty solicitor scheme. In Nelson the number of Māori defendants represented by a lawyer increased from 18 percent to 79 percent; as well, there was a similar increase in the number of ‘not guilty’ pleas. Sutherland concluded that at least one of every three Māori in prison in Nelson should not have been there.
That year (1972) also saw the formation of ACORD, prompted by a visit to the United States by a New Zealand delegation that included Sutherland and Reverend Don Borrie. On that trip they heard the then newly developed thesis that ‘racism exists when one group views its cultural values, lifestyles and socio-economic self-interests as superior to other groups’ and behaves according to those assumptions. ACORD was formed within a few months of their return.
ACORD was supported by a group of Māori and Polynesian consultants from the ranks of the Auckland District Māori Council, Ngā Tamatoa and the Polynesian Panther Party, among others. Action was speedy. ACORD presented a paper at the 1973 Race Relations Council’s annual conference entitled Justice and Race: A monocultural system in a multicultural society, and introduced the term ‘institutional racism’. Soon thereafter, Sutherland and Hippolite presented the findings of their Nelson court review to Labour’s minister of justice, Dr Martyn Finlay, who announced that his department had been working on a proposed national public defender scheme that could soon go before Cabinet.
But Sutherland notes that the ‘national scheme’ was ‘half-hearted’ (p. 35), and more concerned with lawyers than defendants. Undeterred, he and the team proposed a scheme of ‘duty defenders’ (p. 36) drawn from the ranks of lawyers in private practice to represent defendants in the children’s and magistrate’s courts facing charges likely to deprive them of liberty. Meanwhile, Finlay ‘gave no assurance of when the promised national duty solicitor scheme, even in the children’s court, might get under way’ (p. 43).
Sutherland was very aware of the importance of public opinion, and held many public meetings, with people such as Ranginui Walker, to further the cause. Walker had a regular column in the New Zealand Listener and wrote: ‘Our institutions have been transplanted from Victorian England and rest on two assumptions: cultural superiority and cultural homogeneity’ (p. 36).
To Sutherland, the justice system was ‘racist by reason of its very existence as a wholly Pākehā system in a multiracial society’ (p. 38) and needed to be re-examined. He campaigned tirelessly throughout 1973, when he and his wife Ulla Sköld moved to Auckland. By March 1974 Martyn Finlay was ‘beginning to agree’ that there was some substance to the charge that New Zealand’s judicial system was racist. Critical to progress was obtaining the support of a young lawyer and up-and-coming politician named David Lange, who said, ‘What is needed is not advice but representation’ (p. 53). Finally, in July 1974, a scheme was introduced, and within a week more than 100 lawyers had volunteered. Members of ACORD served on the administration committees.
The numbers of this era were staggering. ACORD and its precursors published the results of a survey of Māori participation in the various branches of the police, justice and welfare agencies, finding that, while the proportion of Māori in the total population was 10 percent, Māori made up 40.4 percent of the prison population, 12.1 percent of prison officers, around 4 percent of police and probation officers and around 2 percent of magistrates and justices of the peace. There were no Māori judges and no Māori members of the Privy Council. The discrepancy could hardly have been starker.
In 1978 ACORD published a leaflet titled Whiter than White Collar Jobs. They wrote to Secretary of Justice Gordon Orr asking why nothing tangible was being done to redress the recruitment discrepancy in his department. Orr had in fact gone further than the heads of other government departments, and he bridled at ACORD’s strong language. It would be years before there were any concrete results.
A further example lies in Auckland police’s Operation Cleanstreet, a brief knee-jerk response to the problem of street violence in the early 1970s, which involved a 200-officer police taskforce. Police data showed that the majority of the people arrested by the taskforce on Friday nights were Māori or ‘other Polynesian’. Very few enjoyed legal representation or interpreters. ACORD published a broadsheet called Task Force: An exercise in oppression, which they sent to Prime Minister Bill Rowling and Minister of Police Mick Connelly, asking for the taskforce to be disbanded. Connelly replied simply: ‘The only reason for arrests is that the person has broken the law, and the fact that he belongs to a particular race is purely coincidental’ (p. 223). ACORD pushed back, stating that the arrest rate for Māori was fifteen times higher than for non-Māori. Assistant Commissioner Bill Overton eventually reviewed the taskforce, renaming it the Auckland Team Policing Unit.
Meanwhile, the Child Welfare Act 1925 was also under review; official Justice Department statistics revealed that children as young as eight years old had faced criminal charges or, worse, had been remanded to psychiatric hospitals. Here, too, serious work was needed to create systemic change, for the seven-member parliamentary select committee did not include any Māori, even though Māori and Pacific children made up over 40 percent of those appearing before the children’s court. Sutherland and ACORD pushed hard to change this (despite Prime Minister Norman Kirk dismissing their criticism as a ‘load of rubbish’ (p. 56). Debate in the select committee hearing became heated, and police were called in.
Not much changed with the election of Robert Muldoon’s National government in 1975, and ACORD’s attempts to change the court system were ‘marked more by acrimony than success’ (p. 69). Small successes were hard won; the membership of the 1977 Royal Commission on the Courts included ‘a woman and a Māori’ (p. 70), but there were still challenges over the lack of interpreters. Meanwhile, the Children and Young Persons Amendment Bill 1977 stalled, with the proposal that children aged 10–13 who were alleged to have committed murder or manslaughter would be treated as Young Persons and tried in the Supreme Court, potentially facing a life sentence in an adult prison.
ACORD also examined the treatment of children in social welfare care. Thousands of children passed through the twenty institutions scattered throughout Aotearoa every year, with evidence of ill-treatment including physical and mental assaults, extreme deprivation of liberty, inhumane and degrading treatments and punishment, enforced sexual examinations, and unhygienic and culturally offensive practices. The chief concern for both boys’ and girls’ homes was the use of solitary confinement, whereby children were left alone for twenty-three hours per day, with no outside view, and with an open toilet beside which they sat to eat their meals.
One case in particular deserves mention, as it’s in the details of these stories that Sutherland’s dogged determination shines through. He writes, ‘Of all the outrages perpetrated by the State against children in “care”, the horrendous abuse of those detained in the Adolescent Unit of Lake Alice Psychiatric Hospital was surely the worst’ (p. 134). The hospital was relatively isolated—40km from Whanganui and 50km from Palmerston North—and therefore it was difficult for families to visit their children held there. ACORD became aware of the unit’s existence through a Department of Education psychologist, Lynn Fry, who these days would be termed a whistle-blower. Fry alerted ACORD to the case of a thirteen-year-old Niuean schoolboy who had been made a ward of the state in October 1975 and first placed in Owairaka Boys’ Home, then, within a month, was transferred to the Lake Alice Adolescent Unit run by Dr Selwyn Leeks. One week after admission the boy was given electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) treatment. This continued over eight months, sometimes without sedation, and with no authority for the treatment.
ACORD first complained to Bert Walker, Minister of Social Welfare, in December 1976. He ordered a departmental inquiry, and hearings took place over two weeks in February 1977, exposing the fact that ECT was being used as punishment, with children being forcibly held down during treatment. Meanwhile, in 1977 Sir Guy Powles had been investigating a similar case at Lake Alice. His report concluded that ‘the cumulative effect of a number of the actions and decisions of officers of the Departments of Health and Social Welfare was in my opinion to cause the boy a grave injustice’ (p. 152). Sutherland called Powles’ report ‘a tour de force that would change the treatment of children in psychiatric hospitals forever’.
An ACORD/Ngā Tamatoa/Arohanui panel report noted that submissions had cited cruel and inhumane treatment in several homes. In most homes Māori and Pacific children made up 70–80 percent of residents, while only 1–5 percent of staff were Māori. The panel noted that ‘by stripping children of all their support systems and making them dependent on the internal system within the home, and its staff, the institution makes the child obey in order to survive’ (p. 103).
The Lake Alice Adolescent Unit closed in 1978, and it wasn’t until 1999 that the full scale of the abuses there was revealed. The government subsequently apologised and awarded compensation to victims.
Oliver Sutherland was also a champion for children in prison. He said of their systematic abuse: ‘It cannot be tolerated: not for one more day, not for one more child’ (p. 165). The Auckland Star understated the situation when it wrote, ‘There are flaws in a system that makes it possible for children to be remanded to prison.’ ACORD issued a report in 1976 entitled Children in Prison: Where’s the justice? Who’s the criminal?, and once again Sir Guy Powles headed a full inquiry.
There was more action in the 1980s, but by 1986 ACORD and some other anti-racist groups had wound up, after more than fifteen years of ‘highly intense involvement in a range of causes’ (p. 253) as one of the pre-eminent activist groups in Aotearoa. Even so, reading this book reminds us of the need for continual effort. Indeed, Sutherland’s activism got him arrested by his old adversary Inspector Ross Dallow at an anti-racism demonstration in Auckland in February 1976.
Almost fifty years on, the events covered by this book are being relitigated at the hearings of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care. And I am reviewing this book against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement and the international outcry against racism. Activism is surely a journey, not a destination. The wheels of justice move slowly but, with the example of activist individuals such as Oliver Sutherland, can eventually achieve positive change.
GERRY TE KAPA COATES (Ngāi Tahu, Waihao) was born in Ōamaru, and has had poems, reviews and stories in Huia Short Stories collections 4, 5 & 7, and other publications in Landfall, Ora Nui 3 and Te Karaka, as well as a wide variety of non-fiction work espousing environmental issues among other themes. His collection of poems and short stories from 1961–2011, The View From Up There, was published in 2011 by Steele Roberts. He was a panellist at the 2013 Christchurch Readers & Writers’ Festival. He also works as a consultant and commissioner on EEZ, RMA and similar hearings, also doing Māori and technology advisory work.