“My father was Willie Paki of Takahiwai and we lived at Titahi, just over the hill from Takahiwai. We had a great upbringing – poor, but clean, tidy well fed and well turned out. However, I worked out fairly early that there must be a better way of making a living than working the small family dairy farm that we were on. I did fairly well at school and teachers encouraged my mother push me towards higher education."
“There hadn’t been that many people from our family who had been to university but there were a few. Jim Peters was one. My grandmother was his great aunt, and I can recall her telling us all that ‘Jimmy was at university in Auckland’, and that I was quite impressed. Another was my father’s cousin, Tom Parore, who had qualified as an accountant and was working for the Treasury in Wellington. He later worked for the Maori Affairs Department and ended up as The Maori Trustee. Another cousin, May Paki attended Otago doing PhysEd. My father’s Takahiwai whanau also produced a large number of schoolteachers after the 2nd world war.”
After secondary school at Waipu and Northland College Ben moved to Wellington to study commerce at Victoria University. During his second year his Mum, Tottie, died suddenly and Ben transferred to Auckland to be closer to his four siblings, who were all still at school.
In Auckland he finished commerce and law degrees before securing a job with law firm Russell McVeagh. He thinks he was the first Maori lawyer to work there. A few years later he was joined by another young Maori lawyer, cousin Winston Peters.
In the 1970s Ben and his wife and daughter went to Europe on an OE, living in London for 2 years. On their return, with an extra child who was born in London, Ben worked for Russell McVeagh again and then as Regional Solicitor for the Accident Compensation Corporation in Auckland before spending 3 years in Melbourne as a general manager helping to establish the Victorian Accident Compensation Commission.
On his return to New Zealand in 1989 Ben took up employment in Wellington. Wellington had some appeal to him from his student days and it was where work for bureaucrats was most available.
“Uncle Bert Mackie had phoned me in Melbourne to ask if I was interested in a job – I was not at the time, but put it on the backburner. My brother John also worked there and by this time Winston had become part of the fabric of the nation."
“I was offered a job as a Crown Counsel but Crown Law remuneration levels were not of the order that they are now. Instead, I accepted a role in assisting new Manatu Māori Chief Executive John Clarke to establish the new policy focused Ministry."
The start of an era
“The Department of Māori Affairs was in the process of being disestablished – its policy focused role taken over by Manatu Māori, with plans to devolve operational funding to iwi over a five-year period, through the Iwi Transition Agency. It so happened that Kara Puketapu and Māori Trustee Neville Baker were recruiting for the Iwi Transition Agency and I ended up being appointed Office Solicitor for the Iwi Transition Agency."
“That was probably about the most exciting part of my career, working with the Iwi Transition Agency. There were interesting people. It had a big budget – about $250 million at that stage because it was still delivering housing and other services of the old department. It seemed and was more exciting than a small policy ministry with a limited budget."
“They were exciting times because a lot was happening. There were a lot of iwi authorities setting themselves up as incorporated societies or charitable trusts in order to access Mana and Maccess funding."
“Keeping things tidy was a major challenge because funding was being allocated and progammes undertaken all in great haste."
“They were heady days. Kōhanga reo was bubbling and trying to get its own funding stream. The Rūnanga Iwi Act was being developed and I came straight into that. We managed to get it through but it was never actually operational because there was an election and part of the National Party policy was to repeal the Act. That was my first piece of legislation. It got enacted and then it was repealed within about 6 months.”
Then came the Ministry of Māori Development Act – which still governs Te Puni Kōkiri.
“That was an interesting little one,” recalls Ben.
“It was enacted about the end of 91, and there was an issue as to whether there was even going to be an Act because you can set up a government department under the State Sector Act just by an Order in Council. But we lobbied for an Act of Parliament because the Māori department had always had an Act that established it and set out its powers and functions. The Government agreed to that so it was passed and set up TPK.”
By then, Winston Peters had ended his stint as Minister of Māori Affairs and his successor Doug Kidd came into the role with an interest in Māori land and sorting through some of the complex legal issues within the Māori Affairs Act of 1953,
It had been under review for more than 15 years, but the new Minister approached it with new gusto – determined to finish the job. The result was Te Ture Whenua Act, one of the first of several land related acts that Ben has worked on. (He hasn’t worked on the current review of the Act but says after 23 years, the time is right),
“In those days, the solicitors took on a role of engaging with stakeholders to ensure the legislation met as many of their needs as possible. It’s a role more likely to be undertaken by policy people now days, but back then, the legislation reviews and that sort of thing was done through legal.”
After nearly 30 years, retirement is calling. There will be more time up north, painting the whānau homestead, and shifts of childminding the mokopuna in Australia and at home.
But before he left, one last legislative job – work on Te Ture mō Te Reo Māori (the Māori Language Act) 2016 including drafting the supplementary order paper to acknowledge that the Crown’s past policies and practices concerning the Māori language have had a detrimental effect on generations of iwi and Māori.
“That’s been great. I’ve enjoyed working on it even though my reo is not that hot. I enjoy working on legislation and moulding and stretching its drafting to secure the best outcome for the final product. Some think that late amendments by supplementary order paper are a nuisance. I think they present as opportunities to enhance the legislation. Innovative adjustments can often be advanced during this late stage of the legislative process.”
“We were a whanau that didn’t grow up speaking Māori. We were in an area where there wasn’t a lot of Māori spoken. My grandparents spoke Maori among themselves and their children, but no one spoke to us in te reo. My father was a Māori speaker but he died when we were young. My mother didn’t speak much Māori."
“So it was a privilege to work on the reo Act, as one of my last jobs at Te Puni Kōkiri. I’m fairly confident that it will last longer than the Rūnanga Iwi Act.”