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New Zealand's clobbering machine

There's a lengthy feature about my colleague Hautahi Kingi in the February issue of North and South.

Born and raised in Whanganui, Kingi is the progeny of a Māori father and Pākehā mother. Educated at kōhanga reo and kura kaupapa Māori, he spoke no English until he was seven. He went on to win scholarships to attend St George's, a preparatory school for Whanganui Collegiate, and another scholarship to finish his secondary education at Collegiate itself. In 2005 Kingi topped the school in accounting and statistics; from there the list of academic and sporting achievements continued, including runner-up for dux in his final year. In 2006 he won more scholarships to attend Victoria University to study maths and commerce.

Returning from Wellington to Whanganui for a Collegiate house party that year, Kingi assaulted a male student who'd been dating Kingi's girlfriend of three years. After completing 250 hours community work, apologising to the victim, and paying reparation, he was later sentenced to five months in prison, an extraordinary sentence given the very significant amends he'd already made. His case was later taken up by Queen's Counsel Colin Carruthers, and in September 2007 the judgement was finally overturned.

The story has the narrative arc of a movie script, a young man's fall from grace and subsequent redemption. Kingi has now almost completed a PHD in economics at ivy league Cornell University in upstate New York. Our paths first crossed last year when I was looking for speakers for a health symposium in Wellington. Google his name and news coverage of the case comes up. I was unperturbed; take the incident out of the picture, and Kingi's profile is insanely perfect. The stories were a remarkable glimpse of human frailty.

Kingi was ostracised by Whanganui Collegiate after the 2006 incident. The North and South article is, therefore, a quietly troubling read about the nastiness of provincial New Zealand (I was reminded of Janet Frame's Owls do Cry) and the latent racism of our criminal justice system. The big question posed by the article is would Kingi have been treated so harshly if he were white? Maori constitute 14.6% of the population of New Zealand and account for 51% of the country's prison population. The figure is even higher for Māori women at 58%. Researcher Kim Workman has found that Māori are five times more likely than other groups to be arrested. Not two years ago, the United Nations warned that New Zealand's high incarceration rate of Māori was a breach of international law.

Even in the case of a high achiever like Kingi, the system unleashes its prejudice. A decade ago when I left a management position at the Ministry of Education to start my own business, a senior manager said to me 'well aren't the Māori middle-class doing very nicely then?' Only last year a Pākehā literati pontificating about the position of Māori literature within the New Zealand canon, told me that 'some people would argue that literature is a European tradition.' Māori failure and success are both open to being judged and penalised.

Dr Carla Houkamou from the University of Auckland, Hautahi Kingi and I are now developing a study of systems bias towards African American and Māori children. Along with his experience as an international academic, Kingi brings a refreshing Gen Y positivity to the project, his mind is open, unfettered by dogma. His writing has the same breeziness and optimism, even when it focuses on weighty issues like immigration, poverty and Māori development. When our team of three meets on Skype, his face is fair, the eyes wide set, the smile broad. Despite the adversity of his recent history, I can still see the senior student from Whanganui Collegiate smiling at me from the pages of North and South. He is holding two trophies and a medal, and his face is beatific.

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