Calder At Large

Peter Calder on life in New Zealand

Peter Calder: Uprooted tenants on the march

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Families booted out of their homes by Housing New Zealand are not going to give up without a fight.

Protests are about the experience of being uprooted and kicked out.  Photo / Sarah Ivey
Protests are about the experience of being uprooted and kicked out. Photo / Sarah Ivey

They turn up in dribs and drabs for the meeting of the Tamaki Housing Action Group. It's meant to have started at 6 but it's closer to 20 past before all two dozen have arrived.

As they wait, they swap stories - not just of the battle they are here to wage - but of hardscrabble lives on the shady side of the hill: finding transport to clinic appointments at hospitals, the price of petrol, of getting the kids fed before they could come.

So it takes a while before everyone's found a seat around the wall of the staffroom at the Glen Innes School.

Most are women; at least half - the more talkative ones - are brown. With two conspicuous exceptions, you'll never have heard of these people. They liked it that way; they had no aspiration to be in the public eye. But they're out this Tuesday evening because the very ground they walk on is shifting under them.

Housing New Zealand calls it the Tamaki Transformation project; the developers characterise it in a letter as "improving substandard housing in Glen Innes"; the people here see it as being booted out of their homes and uprooted from their community.

It looks different according to your angle of view but the fact is that 156 state houses are being renovated or removed to make way for redevelopment that will include 140 privately owned homes.

Houses that have been homes since the 1950s are being hoisted and trucked out of the neighbourhood: Thursday nights are popular because on Friday it's hard to get a police escort to hold back the line of protest.

It soon becomes plain that what's taking place in the engine room of the resistance is as much a community-building exercise as it is a political meeting. Yvonne Dainty holds aloft an order of service for a funeral. She wants to note the passing of Reginald Edward Minter, Regiment 610068, 24 Battalion. They had his funeral today - at the Panmure RSA, naturally.

"He wasn't part of what we're doing here," Dainty explains, "but he was one of us. When I was 10 years of age, he used to wipe my snotty nose."

If there was any plan to discuss new guerrilla strategies for protests on the street tonight it seems to have been shelved. Those present are not exactly wary of my presence - indeed, they're very hospitable; they ask me if I want a cup of tea and when I say I do they point at the kettle - but they're not about to risk their battle tactics ending up in the paper.

Instead, they're handing around a copy of the morning's Herald and relishing political editor Audrey Young's report card on ministers. They're loving the bit in which Housing Minister Phil Heatley gets a special caning for "letting the Opposition and activists set the agenda on state housing".

"In other words," says Tere Campbell, who is plainly one of the group's leading lights, "it's time to move on."

Much of the discussion is about the march on Parliament of the previous week. There's excited talk of "all the stroppy women" and "all the politicians who had to shut up and wait and hear us talk". Money donated is meticulously accounted for. Amounts like $200 are spoken of in hushed tones.

Those who made the jam and ran the flea market that financed the trip to the capital are warmly acknowledged. ("We took your spirit down there," reports one of the team, "and the spirits of those who are not affected by what's going on in GI, but who support us anyway.") Veteran campaigners Penny Bright and John Minto are in attendance. The former has been combing through Housing NZ's empowering legislation and wonders pointedly how what's going on chimes with its statutory duty to "have regard to the interests of the community in which it operates". She's full of suggestions and talks a lot better than she listens, but she's tolerated well enough. So are the grizzled unionists of British origin who speak fondly of 1951 and urge those present to "look at it from a class perspective" .

Before 8 it's all over. Arrangements have been made for the next action; tactics discussed; strategies sharpened. Yvonne Dainty sends everyone off with a battle cry, "Whatever we do, we do collectively." There's fire in her eyes, and I detect a little fear too. But it would be a foolhardy man who would bet that this fight will end any time soon.

- NZ Herald

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