Obituary: Syd Jackson

By Arnold Pickmere

Sydney Keepa Jackson, who has lost a three-year battle with cancer, spent most of his life fighting battles.

Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia observed that "Syd has lived his life with a totally unswerving commitment to revolution".

But she said his leadership of the Nga Tamatoa Maori activist group in the 1970s and its staunch advocacy of Brown Power "laid a foundation for a dynamic period of Maori renaissance".

It was true that when Jackson set out to attract attention, particularly to his views on the place of Maori, he usually managed it with an antagonism that stirred up widespread dislike.

Even as a skilled and educated negotiator when secretary of the Northern Clerical Workers' Union, his presence and style produced rifts.

Notably, three clerical workers in 1989 were granted exemption from the-then normally obligatory union membership by telling an exemption tribunal they were not happy that he was secretary of the union.

One expressed dislike of his visit to Libya and his television interviews, in which she heard him say he did not rule out the use of physical violence by Maori activists.

Jackson's view was that as a union secretary, he did not expect women who suffered sexual harassment to accept the dictates of their boss.

And "I don't have to accept members' views on what I should and should not do in my private life".

His reputation was cemented by some of the reactions he produced from well-placed people.

In 1989 Prime Minister David Lange upbraided him for comments on radio that Maori taking part in the approaching 1990 Commonwealth Games would be branded as collaborators.

"Extremist threats by the likes of Syd Jackson should be dismissed for the racial nonsense they are," he said.

Overseas Trade Minister Mike Moore described Jackson's comments from an attention-grabbing visit to Libya with Deidre Nehua in 1988 as "so dishonest, hysterical and fanciful that not only has he denigrated New Zealand exporters but New Zealand's history and culture".

National police spokesman John Banks sent a telegram to Libyan leader Colonel Gadaffi warning of two visiting "arch-exhibitionists" and inviting him to let them stay "as the vast majority of New Zealanders would be pleased to be rid of them".

And Winston Peters once accused Jackson of "sickly brown liberalism" who offered no future for Maoridom.

Behind this public persona were occasional glimpses of a man who achieved a master's degree in political studies at Auckland University, who found much to laugh about and had a sense of social concern.

Jackson, the son of All Black Everard Jackson, grew up in the shadow of the Whakatu freezing works in Hawkes Bay. When the works shut in 1986, some 44 of his relatives lost their jobs.

That was a shock for a unionist who, when Labour was elected to power in 1984, urged unions to show a high level of discipline to ensure it was elected for a second term. And he called on the Government to join Maori people and acknowledge past injustices.

But then came Rogernomics. Jackson later reckoned the Government's corporatisation of government services and economic restructuring ended up with Maori making up 60 per cent of the redundancies involved.

Jackson's style also brought him trouble on the marae for departing from traditional ways. But he held that many of his actual views on treaty rights, land losses and other matters that upset Europeans were also being expressed in private on the marae and were rarely criticised there.

"Finally it became respectable within Maoridom to clearly and publicly state what had always been thought," he told Tony Reid in the Listener in 1989. For all the years of protesting at Waitangi, One Tree Hill, Moutoa Gardens, almost anywhere, it may be that the improving treatment of Maori grievances owes something to Syd Jackson, however much some may resent the notion. Jackson is survived by his second wife, Deidre Nehua, and children. Arnold Pickmere.

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