Russell Brown talks to anti-racism campaigner Dr Oliver Sutherland
about the outrages that went unseen in the New Zealand of the 1960s and 70s, the focus of a new documentary
Near the end of Alex Sutherland's beautifully balanced film When Nobody Was Looking, there is a moment of resolution.
Judge Coral Shaw, presiding over an early hearing of the Royal Commission into Abuse in State Care, turns to the witness, Dr Oliver Sutherland, to tell him she has no questions for him, "But I was struck by the fact that you said at the beginning of your evidence that no one was looking – and I want to thank you for looking. Thank you."
The camera cuts back to the stately, silver-haired man at the witness box and, just for that moment, connects him with the tall, skinny young baby boomer who decided many years ago that he had to respond to a racist society. A half-century arc is completed, the man visibly gulps and he's gone – so keen to find the exit that he loses his way.
Alex's film about his uncle Oliver the anti-racism campaigner is the third act of remembering. The first and most prodigious is the Royal Commission itself, whose findings will be released sometime in 2023. The second is Oliver's book Justice and Race: Campaigns against racism and abuse in Aotearoa New Zealand, published just before lockdown last year.
The book, enthusiastically detailed in a way only a man with good archives can, surveys the outrages that went unseen in the New Zealand of the 1960s and 70s – because no one was looking. Brown kids, as young as 8 or 9, picked up on flimsy grounds by police, run through the courts without legal representation, confined in the worst cells of Mt Eden prison and – no other word fits – tortured in the care of the state at places like Lake Alice Hospital.
"I'll tell you something about the 70s, Russell," says Oliver on the phone from Nelson. "It was a decade where successive governments, first the Kirk Government and then the National Government under Robert Muldoon, essentially waged - as I look back on it - a sort of a war against Pacific Island people and Māori. It was politically expedient to hammer people of colour."
Oliver had left New Zealand to study entomology at Cambridge in the mid-60s, armed with the certainty of every Pākehā New Zealander back then that his country of birth enjoyed "the best race relations in the world". It wasn't until 1968, when he went with his new wife, Ulla Skold, to take a post-doctoral fellowship at UC Berkeley, that the certainties began to dissolve.
"Berkeley was in a state of civic emergency," he recalls. "There were troops, Federal troops, with bayonets on the streets. It was an extraordinary time – the campus was tear-gassed from the air. It was the first time an American city had ever been attacked by its own government. They were very, very unsettling times.
"It made me confront, really, what it means to be white in a society. You know, I wasn't able to do much. I was just a visitor to the United States. But coming back to New Zealand, well, it was a very different thing. There I was in New Zealand and I was a white male in a bicultural, multicultural society and a racist society. And what did that mean?"
He and Ulla settled in Nelson, where he found both a job with the Entomology Division of the DSIR and a way into activism. His relative, John Te One Hippolite of Ngāti Koata, read a Nelson Evening Mail interview with him about the Berkeley troubles and asked him to become secretary of the Nelson Māori Committee. He then became the committee's spokesperson.
Awareness of the absurdity of a middle-class Pākehā speaking for Māori gradually dawned – and reached its conclusion at a 1973 race relations conference where he was confronted by Ngā Tamatoa and the Polynesian Panthers.
"In street terms, I basically stepped him out," says former Panther Will 'Ilolahia in the film, "and just said, hey look, racism is not our problem. It's your problem – do something about it."
The film pivots on that meeting in more than one way. Alex had grown up knowing Uncle Oliver as a family patriarch – always the one to organise the family holiday – and had seen his work through his own parents, who were also drawn into activism. But he struggled with centring a white man in a brown people's story, worried about creating a "white saviour".
"But the point in the film where Oliver's challenged and where he really has his consciousness changed, that it's about actually taking responsibility for our own problem – understanding that kind of turning point for Oliver actually made me realise that this was a story that needed to be told."
As it transpired, the brown firebrands quickly grew to like their new ally. Being associated with a doctor impressed their old folks ("obviously they thought he was a medical doctor – I didn't want to tell them he was a doctor of ants," chuckles 'Ilolahia in the film) and it turned out that the scientific mind had something valuable to offer the struggle.
Oliver had come to the conference to present an analysis he had done with his DSIR colleague Ross Galbreath on the Department of Justice Statistics for 1968 and 69. It would be routine stuff for an NGO now but it was new then – especially outside government. Their findings were damning.
The imprisonment rate for Māori was significantly greater than for Pākehā – and it was worse yet in the children's courts, where there was generally no legal advice or representation. Māori children were vastly more likely to be arrested and prosecuted. Senior judges saw no problem with expecting 8-year-olds to arrange their own defence.
That work became the foundation for the Auckland Committee on Racism and Discrimination (Acord), under which banner Oliver, Ulla and their Pākehā colleagues worked for years to come. In Nelson and in Auckland, they took in Māori and Pacific Island kids who would otherwise have been remanded in prison. They presented uncomfortable truths and provoked angry responses from government ministers. In 1974 their Grey Lynn home was raided under the Offical Secrets Act 1951, after they were leaked a Cabinet paper on a proposed duty solicitor scheme – something Acord had been campaigning for.
"That was Martyn Finlay and Mick Connolly, the ministers of Justice and Police," says Oliver. "They did collude and they did decide to search our place. There was only Bill Sutch and the spying case and me and Ulla that the act was ever used against."
They were taken off for questioning. Under the act, they were not permitted to take legal advice and faced jail time if they refused to answer any question. Ulla's right to remain in New Zealand was threatened. The threat of prosecution tailed off after the document was returned, but meanwhile newspaper editorialists had weighed in on their side – and eventually the old, draconian act was replaced in 1980 by the Official Information Act.
It wasn't the only time the press proved useful to Oliver and Acord. He speaks particularly warmly of the work of the New Zealand Herald's justice reporter, Peter Trickett, whose front-page stories rattled ministers after Oliver's path led him to the horrors of Lake Alice.
"Peter did a great job as did the Herald in publishing in such depth what he had uncovered. He was such a powerful voice in the Lake Alice story. I make no bones about it – we used the media. They were the only way we could get Cabinet ministers to be held to account."
Trickett died in 2013 but another friendly journalist, then Salient editor Roger Steele, has become part of the arc of resolution. His company Steele Roberts is the publisher of Justice and Race. Oliver also maintains contact with the Māori and Pasifika activists who first challenged him –'Ilolahia, Tigilau Ness, Ripeka Evans and others. As he reels off the names, it's clear how important those relationships have been to him. But what about the mahi? What did they change?
"I think if you look back into the 70s when Hana Jackson was leading the petition for teaching Māori language in schools, you see how widespread that has become, along with the use of te reo in everyday life. We got the duty solicitor scheme in 1974. We stopped the remanding of children to adult prisons in 1984. Campaigns that we were involved in got Lake Alice closed down within the space of six years.
"So there were positive changes. And we ended up in a situation now where people will ultimately talk about institutional racism and understand it more fully than they were able or willing to do back in the 70s when we first saw it and called it out for what it was."
And yet, we still have race as a political flashpoint – and in some hands, a political tool.
"We do, but that's always been a vote-winner. It was a vote-getter when we were talking about what happened to Pacific Island people under the Kirk Government and the Muldoon Government in the 70s. That's always been a vote-getter, because there has always been hardcore racist thought and even racist behaviour in the Pākehā majority - and that hasn't gone away. It may never go away. Certainly not while there are politicians who are willing to prod and stoke those fires."