Far North hits back over 'underclass' label

01:01, May 23 2010
Ngahau Davis
'A GOOD PLACE': Ngahau Davis, who runs He Iwi Kotahi Tatou Trust says Michael Laws should pay a visit to his community to see for himself, after making comments those who live in Far North being an "underclass".

Michael Laws' rant about Maori communities in the Far North being an "underclass" whose children were "feral" might have passed the taste test with the Broadcasting Standards Authority.

But Moerewa's favourite daughter, award-winning actor Rena Owen, has condemned the Whanganui mayor and talkshow host's comments as "vile".

"He [Laws] has crossed the line. They [the people of the Far North] have already been put down enough. It is like kicking a dog when it is down," Owen told Sunday News from her Los Angeles home.

Rena Owen

"Michael is sounding like a real dinosaur".

Following a complaint about Laws' comments on a Radio Live broadcast in January, the BSA ruled they were "extreme" but "did not encourage discrimination against or denigration of Maori in the Far North".

It also ruled they "did not stray beyond the norms of good taste and decency".


Michael Laws

Those comments included Laws comparing Far North Maori communities with the developing nation of Haiti.

He said residents were "beyond help and beyond redemption...They do not have sufficient initiative, intelligence or insight to be able to turn their lives around or the lives of their children".

Owen, who played Beth Heke in iconic Kiwi movie Once Were Warriors, said Laws portrayal of her former neighbours was "incredibly derogatory".

"[Laws is] pretty much saying, 'Well you are useless, you are a waste of time and we should sterilise you... My God! It is disgusting, it lacks empathy [and] it lacks sympathy. It is very vile."

Instead of condemning the communities, Laws should be channelling his energy into coming up for ways to help them.

"If he had family members himself who were unemployed in the North I am sure he would have a very different attitude. There are people up there, including my own family members, who [are unemployed]. Give them a job and they would go to work," she said.

But on Friday, Laws said he stood by his comments.

"[Rena] Owen can go and get as upset as she likes. I spoke the truth," he told Sunday News.

"The opinion of [Rena] Owen is just irrelevant to me. All my opinions... have factual evidence to back them.

"The Broadcasting Standards Authority obviously agree with me. The reality is there are feral families living in the north. And the crime statistics, the child abuse statistics would tend to back that up."

Owen conceded the town she left in 1982 – initially to pursue a nursing career in the UK – was a world away from Moerewa in 2010.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, up to 5000 people a day travelled to Moerewa, which currently has a population of 1533, to work at the town's Affco freezing works.

Both sides of the section of State Highway One, which runs through the middle of the town were packed with shops, including "two shoe stores, multiple clothing stores, the toy shop, the IGA, the Four Square, the Post Office and we even had a hairdresser".

The idyllic nature of Owen's hometown was partially shattered in 1979 after rival Storm Troopers and Black Power gang members rioted in the main street. The incident made national headlines after gang members tried to throw a police officer into a burning van.

They were stopped by freezing plant workers who armed themselves and confronted the gangsters.

Owen returned from London in 1988, by which time she had discovered her passion for acting, to be "horrified with the state of my town".

She said Moerewa, like other heartland towns, had been ravaged by the economic policies of "Rogernomics".

The workforce at the town's freezing works had been slashed.

"That is what killed my hometown. And it didn't only kill Moerewa, it killed a lot of small towns," she said.

Twenty-two years on and 13.9 percent of Moerewa's adult population is unemployed. That is more than double the Northland's average unemployment rate. Moerewa's median wage is just $16,200.

Owen said while the unemployment rate in Moerewa was high, in most cases it wasn't by choice.

"There are some who may go on the dole because they are lazy. But I also know there are a lot of people out there who [want] a job," she said.

The need for money also saw some break the law.

"I knew of someone in my area who ended up growing a patch [of marijuana] just to feed his kids. He grew a crop, not to smoke it, simply to make some money and feed his kids," she said.

Laws will announce in eight days whether he will seek a third term as Whanganui mayor.


SundayNews visited Moerewa week to gauge their views on Laws' outburst, as well as find out their hope for the Far North's future.

The local tavern is long gone – the sprawling venue, renamed the Te Punawai Centre, now houses the Moerewa Celebration church.

Local pastor Howard Edwards said while the community was struggling economically, there was a "groundswell for change".

Graffiti in the area was at a minimum – with tags which previously dominated some local businesses and empty offices being removed by increasingly proud local youth.

Across the road from the Te Punawai Centre is the headquarters of the He Iwi Kotahi Tatou Trust.

Run by born-and-bred Moerewa resident Ngahau Davis, the trust is playing a leading role in providing jobs, training and hope to locals.

Davis challenged Laws to pay a visit to the Far North himself and then try to justify his comments.

"When people like Mr Laws make a throwaway comment about people up north, bad people, then we need to ask why. You can't just look at the issue and say they are bad people.

"People like him... they just see and make assumptions of how things are. I know that this is a good place!"

The trust was involved in a raft of initiatives to help the area's economy – including producing anti-drink driving advertising campaigns for the Land Transport Safety Authority and also securing a contract to retro-fit houses in the Far North with insulation.

Davis said training was provided to help locals "be who you were born to be".

That includes giving youth the pathway to follow in Rena Owen's footsteps and try to take the entertainment world by storm.

Among those are aspiring hip-hop artists who were laying down tracks in a studio in the trust's office when Sunday News visited. Davis is an old high school friend of Owen.

The actor said she was confident that with people like him playing a leading role in Moerewa's recovery, the town would again be spoken about for the right reasons.

"There are people like me who love Moerewa... people who are trying to bring some life back into town," she said.

"I am very protective of my home town. I will always be proud of my old home town."

Sunday News