Annette Sykes

Lawyer and Maori activist Annette Sykes says her path in life was chosen for her


Down at Island Bay, lawyer and activist Annette Sykes scrambles across the rocks in her heels.

Like a hand? She scoffs. She's a country girl and has never minded a scramble.

Where there's a rocky track to be trodden - a protest march, a land claim, an acrimonious debate with the Crown over matters Maori - Sykes' name pops up.

She and fellow activists Ken Mair, Moana Jackson, Tame Iti and Titewhai Harawira have been to the forefront of meetings with ministers at hui.

Sykes is now 42 and her face has been staring out from newspapers for two decades. She presents a steely jaw; her eyes are usually narrowed.

She looks scary and says scary things. In 1995, police considered charging her with sedition.

Then as now, she denies advocating lawlessness. Then as now, she was simply warning of the possibility of unrest in response to uncontrolled foreign ownership.

So here we are, almost a decade on and it's groundhog day.

The water around the mangrove roots at Island Bay, on Auckland's North Shore, is as murky as most people's understanding of what is happening with the country's foreshore and seabed.

This is what most of us know: Titewhai Harawira has called for a march on Parliament. Ken Mair has called for Maori to occupy beaches.

On civil disobedience, Sykes is careful.

"I look at Gandhi as a model of someone who advocated all strategies possible to effect change within a peaceful manner.

"Civil disobedience has often been the most effective and the least expensive - one of the key issues for Maori who don't have money."

Prime Minister Helen Clark has said that public access and Maori customary rights will both be protected.

What's the confusion? The seabed and foreshore argument sounds like a debate between two people speaking the same language but impenetrable dialects.

John Tamihere has said the confusion arises from the fact that no one has defined customary rights.

Sykes says customary rights should not have to be defined in Pakeha law terms - that is the point.

"I don't think it's about confusion - it's about fear," she adds.

If the fear is that granting customary rights to Maori means restricted access for Pakeha, let's look at this another way, Sykes suggests.

Maori have already given private ownership to harbour companies. Look at Port of Tauranga, she says.

Is the Government "proposing that they will require those people to also have their rights subject to these new changes? Are they going to say to Port of Tauranga that ... the public have a right of access any time of day?"

That privately owned island?

"Are they going to share those rights with other people? So what's the fear? They've already done it."

SYKES didn't want to do this interview: she has no interest in sharing her private life. And, she said, this is not about individuals.

She agreed after ringing round her activist mates, who told her not to be such a wuss.

Wuss is not the word that springs to mind. Her friends call her Cyclone Sykes - she never stops working and she never stops talking.

So, despite protestations that little is known of her personal life because it is nobody's business, she is candid - possibly because stopping herself talking would be like trying to stop a hurricane with a fly swat. In any case, the personal is so intertwined with the political that the strands are inseparable.

She could have had a cushy life, lawyering for big money. Sykes was top of the class at law school and was offered a place at Cambridge.

She says she could not have chosen another way because her way is not about choice.

As a child she would walk the beaches with her grandmother, the secretary during the Te Arawa Maori trust board's inception.

The walks involved picking up rubbish and being taught about responsibility. "I think I've had a pathway designed for me."

Sykes may be high-profile but most of her work is done quietly, within communities.

"You're not going to see it. Those are intimate things between women and children and fathers."

The cases involve incest and violence.

"I work every day for those cases to be overcome. I expose them within our communities."

Such cases are not "the rich and sexy bloody Fisheries Commission cases".

But the fact is that Sykes is part of what many New Zealanders call the treaty grievance gravy train, with money supposedly going to fat-cat lawyers; the ones who truly get the cream.

"Some of us don't work for that kind of money. I work for nothing for a lot of my clients."

She is scathing about Maori getting rich "on the backs of their people".

You might think that Sykes might be dispirited, but it's not in her nature.

"Nothing's dispiriting. I feel beautiful. I feel every day's a good day.

"I believe we've made enormous gains in the last 20 years. We didn't have Maori language schools. We didn't have our land coming back to us.

"We have a society that is becoming more and more aware of what Maori aspiration is."

SYKES lives on "around $50,000. I think that's enough to live on."

She has a home in Beach Haven, and another in Rotorua. The North Shore house is bright and comfortable, with a dozen toothbrushes in the bathroom and a spare bed in the dining room. You couldn't call it flash.

She shares both homes with an assortment of nieces and nephews. She is a good person, she says.

"I like to be a good role model." She doesn't drink or smoke, although she doesn't nag either: "Life's too short."

Sykes is good at being good. She is bad at personal relationships. Her marriage to the father of her two boys failed, as did her relationship with Mike Smith, the activist who attacked the pine on One Tree Hill.

"I'm not around at home, frankly. I could never be in a Ma and Pa Kettle relationship."

And "one of the problems is I attract a lot of people who come and live with me". Hence the toothbrush collection.

Her family are Tuhoe, Te Arawa and Pakeha. "I'm very clear on my Pakeha things, too."

In the 1980s, when Sykes was protesting against the Springbok tour, her father was involved in the Bay of Plenty rugby union.

"We didn't talk for a long time about that stuff." He is not, in a family of strong women, much of a talker in any case.

"He's a very quiet fella. He actually speaks more to the cows than he does to us." You begin to see why.

Sykes loves talking, loves other gregarious people. She also quite enjoys the thought that she frightens people.

Fear, after all, can effectively express contempt, which she has in spades for the fat cats, racists of any colour, men who are violent towards women.

She is as generous a host as she is a talker, offering food and good coffee.

"Right," she says, "I've told you all about me. Tell me about you."

It's a genuine curiosity. She's a good listener, which must help to make her such a good lawyer.

I tell her, sorry, I don't think she's scary.

"When I'm in full flight I am. It depends on who you ask and the context."

She made a Maori lawyer cry in cross-examination recently. Another lawyer came up to her afterwards and said: "I've never seen that done before."

Despite her public profile, she says she is driven by justice and love.

"I love our people. And I don't know if you know, but I actually quite like Pakeha."

What looks like anger is "more about frustration than any hatred".

Speech to Otago University Faculty of Law August 2006
08 Aug 2006 10:38 am

If the foreshore-seabed confiscations were a defining moment in our
development as a nation, how then do we see the nation being
changed by it?

If the sentiment in my foregoing introduction in Maori is true then we haven’t learnt much at all as a nation. Rather we have embarked upon further processes of colonization that are deliberately designed to assimilate and keep Maori in the margins, notwithstanding our tangata whenua status and the increasing recognition of the importance of that status at International Law in the 21st Century with the recent affirmations by the United Nations of the Declaration of Indigenous Peoples Rights, a document which many of my closest friends Moana Jackson especially have had a major hand in developing over many years for the indigenous nations and peoples of the world .

At present while there is a lot of discussion regarding the relationship that exists between the Tangata Whenua of Aotearoa and the Crown (or government) that relationship is being systematically dismantled and the few protections that have been made through long hard court battles, that have spanned generations for most iwi, and involved whanau, hapu and community based strategies for empowerment and social justice are under real threat as the Treaty of Waitangi Principles Deletion Bill accentuates.

This relationship which has been described by some as one of partnership, or as one of tangata whenua and manuhiri and is to be underpinned always by good faith has been a fragile one at best in the past one hundred and sixty six years, but notwithstanding that fragility it has survived strategies of war and conquest; strategies of genocide and assimilation; strategies of denial and destruction. My challenge to us today is will it survive the rationale of the neo liberals and the new colonization processes being devised in back room deals in Parliament to ensure power bases are maintained for political parties more concerned about their longevity than any desire to ensure the platform for a society based on principles of equality and fairness; mutual respect and understanding is sustained, or are we embarking into a new era of conflict.

One hundred and sixty six years ago many of our tupuna put their names to a document that was to guide the relationship between Maori and the Crown. The words were not created lightly or in haste. Etched onto that parchment was the faith and belief that the kupu mana (words of honour) would be recognised and respected. The hope for peace was entrenched in the preamble of the covenant.

Over the next hundred and sixty six years, Maori then witnessed a
consistent effort on the part of the Crown, through their policies and
practices, to minimise, marginalise, and then invisibilise the role that the Tangata Whenua of Aotearoa played in the relationship. Thus the union that was created has become a very one sided relationship determined at the whim of just one of the partners. In this relationship, one partner makes all the decisions. While the Crown may recognise the adverse effects these decisions may have on Maori, they are not bound to include them actively in
a decision making capacity.

This relationship is very similar to that of Jake and Beth Heke of ‘OnceWere Warriors’ Fame. A metaphor I think which is very apt given the spotlight on family violence prevention strategies that have been made against Maori in recent weeks. Jake decided that Beth should cook some eggs. This was obviously a decision that affected Beth so he consulted with her … She made her opinion quite clear – she did not want to cook eggs at that point in her life. As what typically happens with consultations with the crown, there followed a ‘negotiation towards agreement’… It must be noted that at
the end of this process, all Beth’s identity and dignity as a woman, a
mother, a human being capable of free thought and speech was stripped away until all that remained was a grim effigy, scarred and battered by her oppressor. Her oppressor then wakes to face the new day, tells her he loves her and that in future she shouldn’t be so lippy. And so her wishes are then forgotten, and her role in the decision making process disregarded. The oppression is complete.

It is clear then that this type of abusive relationship is not something
that Maori want to be a part of. Beth got out, why don’t we?

Now we bring our minds to the foreshore debate. After one month’s
deliberation, the Chief Justice of New Zealand presented a perspective of a full bench of the Court of Appeal. This perspective allowed for the examination, discussion and debate of Maori rights pertaining to the foreshore. Two days later in knee-jerk reaction, the Prime Minister and the Attorney General stated unequivocally that such debate will most certainly be quashed by the legislative might of the Crown. These types of attitude are not defining moments in the development of a nation. They are merely an entrenchment of old positions that once again see the crown standing withtheir boots at Maori throats asphyxiating them into the colonial rank and file.

A distinguished gentleman from Tamakaimoana once told me of an epiphany that Te Kooti once had. Te Kooti saw that if the Crown was turned upside down, it would become a claw that would strip us of our rights and rent us from the land. How true this vision is considering the government’s movements in 2006.

There is no evidence of a desire to build relationships within such
attitudes. What is patently obvious is the governments desire to tell Maori who they are and what rights they have within the paradigm of the western state. Even when their actions have been judged at domestic and international forums like the Waitangi Tribunal and the United Nations as being in contravention of basic human rights and fundamental principles of natural justice their bullying tactics and efforts to bring Maori to submission continue. Dr Peter Sharples in a recent speech in parliament articulated the Crown’s behaviours and inaction in response to these findings in this way:

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.

If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality”.

and hence why I chose to describe he and Te Ururoa my whanaunga as the kiore that have made and continue to make, the elephants roar in the hallowed precincts of Parliament. We can not help but remember the name that Te Kooti gave to describe this neutral behaviour; Kupapa.

What lessons will we take from this? Should Beth have been neutral to Jakes behaviours or the ministrations of Uncle Bully which sought to defile the generations that would follow. Could she remain neutral confronted with such injustice by those that would wield power over her and her family? Is that the foundation of a principled relationship?

Just as Beth discovered that she had to leave Jake to enable her to express herself and protect her family, so too are Maori coming to the same opinion regarding the ministrations of the Crown. They are now finding a voice within international forums to discuss those issues that the Crown would silence them on. Domestically they are once again embracing the relationships which preceded the onslaught of colonisation and asserting the principles and values of their ancestors as the basis of their independence. Any one who attended the recent secondary schools kapa haka competitions will see the true nature of the renaissance that is being inspired within our rangatahi by the concerted efforts of language activists like Huirangi Waikerepuru; Kathy Dewes; and Amster Reedy.

No longer can we look to the Crown to protect our rights because it is this protector that redefines the rights and denies them life in contemporary Aotearoa. The separation of development paths is nigh just as the disconnection by Crown imposed processes of our rights to the foreshore and seabed is imminent, notwithstanding the vacuous promises that their unjust imposed law has been constructed around.

Jane Kelsey suggested at Waitangi this year that changing formal legal system would require a revolution, not simply a written constitution especially if we are to achieve a state as Annie Mikaere has argued where tikanga Maori, with its ethical foundations in whanaungatanga, manaakitanga and kaitiakitanga, should provide the basis for law in this land. I am sure my relatives of Tuhoe agree. I pay tribute to my comrade Tame Iti who at the direction of his iwi has tested the limits of our governments tolerance for Tuhoe’s right to be Tuhoe.

What is becoming more and more apparent to me is that the architects of this new wave of colonization are forever hopeful that we will spend all our energy and resources arguing in the margins of what they have deemed as permissible behaviours for Maori to achieve. The language of Crownspeak in the many Waitangi Tribunal hearings that I have participated in recent times is an interesting indicator of this belief. They have deemed our assertions of tino rangatiratanga and sovereignty as aspirational goals and have urged that these issues around unrealistic utopias should languish in intellectual debates in institutions of this kind which are underfunded, underresourced and more and more alien to a Maori philosophy given that since the privatization of education fewer and fewer of our people can afford the luxury of these ivory towers.

In the meantime of course the Crown and its bureaucrats carry on with their agendas to disenfranchise us further in our own homelands in their negotiation and endorsement of international treaties that guarantee rights to foreign corporations and their patron governments, such as the US, Europe, China, Japan or Australia. Every one of these treaties involves giving up some of New Zealand’s sovereignty to foreign interests, who can enforce them by imposing economic sanctions. Every one of these arrangements clearly non compliant with the basic assertions of tino rangatiratanga entrenched in Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Every one of these arrangements out of step with the majority of world opinion if the recent Doha rounds of the World Trade Organisation are any indication because of course all of this talk of free trade and removal of trade barriers like in the agricultural and other primary produce sectors have been brought to a halt.

Every one of these arrangements runs contrary too to the promises that the New Zealand government made when they placed their name and ratified international covenants which purported to protect fundamental human rights such as the right to development; the right not to be discriminated against because of your race and the right to freedom; physical, temporal and aural.

What is required of the Crown is an indication that a meaningful
relationship with the Tangata Whenua of this country is truly desired. This can only be achieved through constitutional change that allows Maori to share power and participate and control decisions that affect them. Anything less tramples on those honourable words in Te Tiriti and indicates that the governments true perception of Maori is as a judder bar to development, their development.

I have to agree with Jane Kelsey and Moana Jackson that a written constitution is not a necessary precondition to this state of being. Rather if we are to achieve the Treaty vision which we as activists have long advocated it is important that the New Zealand Aotearoa constitutional framework sits within the Tikanga of Te Tiriti o Waitangi te kawenata tapu. That requires us as a nation to mature and to embrace the vision of social justice that is embedded in the values of Maori law which are not dissimilar from Pakeha law but which have been seeded in this land for many thousands of years. It does not need governments deleting references to Treaty principles in legislation, school cirriculums or denying rights that are international norms being upheld in international fora. It does need governments to look deep within their souls to analyse the legitimacy of their imposition and once having survived that gaze put right the injustice that has been done and continues to be done to Maori people.

Forensic attention has turned into almost an obsession for the New Zealand public with respect to the Kahui family and their plight, as the media has hounded this whanau like some Big Brother reality show for all the world to have an opinion upon. Where was the right to silence; the right to a fair trial; the right to the protections of the modern Bill of Rights afforded in the frenzy of grief and anger that has flowed as a consequence of the tragic passing of these tamariki mokopuna. It was almost as if the public needed a scapegoat to explain so they advocated for the illegal detention of innocent people to crack the whanau into submission like some medieval dungeon regime which would seek confessions regardless of the truth. As a result of the media trials which has ensued we have multiple and inconsistent stories making an objective assessment almost impossible in this country. I wish the same forensic attention and obsession could be given to the state of the relationship between Maori and the Crown, the abused and the abuser, the oppressed and the oppressor as we strive for social justice in our futures.

Kia tau nga manaakitanga a te mea ngaro ki runga ki tena ki tena o koutou me kii ra o tatou katoa. Kia toi te tapu, toi te mana, toi nga tikanga o te whare wananga, toi nga whakawhitiwhiti korero, toi te aroha, toi to tatou reo Maori. Kia tuturu whakamaua kia tina, tina, hui e, taike e.


GATT Watchdog

October 24, 1997

Indigenous rights activists Mike Smith and Annette Sykes condemn the CHOGM forum as a political anachronism based upon a nostalgic desire to cling to the notion of the "Empire".

Mr Smith and Ms Sykes, both veteran indigenous rights advocates representing the Maori people of Aotearoa/New Zealand have been attending the NGO forums as part of an international speaking tour of European nations.

The Empire has long ceased to exist. The current reality is that the economic and political sovereignty of the Commonwealth nations are being systematically eroded by the policies of the Free Trade agenda espoused by the groups such as the World Trade Organisation.

The whole historical notion of the Commonwealth has been based upon the relentless dispossession of indigenous peoples by various military, religious, or political regimes. One only has to visit the Museums in London to witness the results of the systematic pillaging of the wealth of the common peoples that is the postcolonial legacy.

The general populations of the modern nation states are now beginning to face the horrendous implications of the systematic asset stripping of their nation's wealth by foreign interest in modern times.

We experienced this phenomenon late last century and it took our society to the brink of extinction. Creating cycles of poverty and dependence that generate the environment for the proliferation of well meaning NGOs and other charities.

New Zealand has been at the forefront of implementing these experimental economic policies and we can report that the standard of living in New Zealand has radically declined for the general population. For the first time since the worldwide economic collapse of the 1930s we are witnessing widespread reliance on charity for basic human needs such as food and shelter.

Rather than repeat these mistakes and the subsequent misery they inflict upon populations we urge people's organisations within the Commonwealth to defend the basic notions of democracy. The development agenda of a nation must be decided by the popular will of its citizens and not by stand-over tactics of the corporate elites who resort to blatant forms of economic blackmail to seek advantage in the global markets.

We are supporting the newly established Peoples Global Action (PGA) coalition as a more positive replacement for these outdated international alliances.

We believe that the PGA principle of adopting a confrontational attitude is unfortunately unavoidable in that lobbying has minimal impact on such biased and undemocratic bodies such as the WTO.

We return back to New Zealand to engage in the organisation of non-violent civil disobedience against the global tyranny of the current trade and investment policies being advanced at CHOGM.

We call upon the populations of the Commonwealth nations to take direct democratic action in May 1998 as part of a global campaign of popular action against the WTO.

We must act to defend the basic human rights and responsibilities of the diverse peoples of the Commonwealth nations because it is clear in our view that the political will to confront these issues does not exist within CHOGM.

PGA is an international coalition of people's movements with a commitment to direct action and civil disobedience in opposition to the World Trade Organisation and all other instruments of globalisation and privatisation.

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