Letter to Laws: Kids are doin' it for themselves

The hypocrisy was bad enough, but Michael Laws' ignorance is worse. How dare he say that young New Zealanders can't come to their own conclusions about issues that matter to them

So Michael Laws thinks 11 and 12 year-olds are only interested in Harry Potter? How, he asks, could children that age possibly care about the way their country is run and their history? How dare they express their anger to a mayor of a city, let alone a city that they don't live in?

As you'll know by now, seven children from Otaki School's kura kaupapa unit challenged the Wanganui mayor's view of how his city's name should be spelt in letters sent as part of a school project. Heck, everyone from Australia to Britain knows about those letters.

They were forthright missives, expressing "anger" at Laws' refusal to use the correct Maori spelling for Whanganui, whanga meaning 'harbour' and nui meaning 'big' (although I'd be interested to know the Maori word that was translated into "anger" and its typical use in te reo. I wonder how much was lost in translation). They were brief letters that didn't go into great depth. But none of that would have mattered if the children had agreed with Laws. No, their great sin was to disagree with the mayor.

He replied with his own anger, saying that he would give credence to their views only "when your class starts addressing the real issues affecting Maoridom particularly the appalling rate of child abuse and child murder within Maori society, then I will take the rest of your views seriously."

He added: "Perhaps sacking your teacher for allowing such misapprehension to flourish?"

In a handwritten note at the bottom of his letter, Laws signed off by adding: "PS Controlling your anger might be a start!"

I've heard his comments called "ironic" this morning, but the word that really applies in this case is 'hypocritical'. Let's spell out the hypocrisy here:

1) Laws makes a decent chunk of his living out of broadcasting his righteous rage on air and in print and expressed anger in his reply, yet urged the children to control their own anger.

2) Laws has tried to turn the story about his rant into a story about Maori child abuse. Yet he urged these children to take Maori child abuse more seriously by verbally abusing Maori children. (And let's not namby-pamby around how abusive this was. Laws' outburst would have earned him a telling off and detention if made in the classroom).

3) Laws criticised the children for having a view about the spelling of Wanganui even though they live "nowhere near Wanganui". This from a man who has a view on everyone and everything in this country and makes a living expressing it [see 1].

It's a simply ludicrous response by a grown man to children. However what really provoked me was Laws' belief (and the belief expressed by some in the public) that 11 and 12 year-old children couldn't possibly think for themselves or care about social issues. The assumption is that the teacher must have planted these opinions in their heads and must be disciplined because kids can't possibly think for themselves. How insulting.

I've been thinking about how kids get politicised this week, dipping into my own memories.

I was ten in 1981 when the Springbok tour tore the fabric of this country. I remember the wall-to-wall news coverage, the radio interviews, the newspaper editorials. And I remember a visit we had from a cousin of mine, Alan Watkins (don't ask; because of a birth certificate mistake one branch of our family has an S added to their names). Alan was a rugby player; a first-five eights for Auckland in 33 games and an All Black trialist. I remember seeing him written up in a book about the unluckiest non-All Blacks. Most experts had pencilled in Alan as the All Black number 10 for the 1970 tour to South Africa, but for whatever reason the selectors went for Blair Furlong instead.

Alan was pro-tour. He would probably have agreed with Laws on most issues. He was a classic rugby, racing and beer Kiwi bloke who spoke his mind wherever and to whomever; he worked hard and partied hard. But on this visit, as we sat around the dinner table and discussed the tour as so many families did that winter, he did something special.

I've got four older sisters. Growing up it was, as you might imagine, hard to get a word in. Alan said, "right, I want to hear what each of you think about the tour". Remarkably, I got equal time to everyone else. Maybe it was because it was a grown man treating me like a man myself. Maybe it was having my words taken seriously. Maybe it was simply the chance to get heard amongst the usual Watkin babble. But I remember that evening to this day. I felt a million dollars, like my opinion mattered. And I made a strong enough case that my father later relented and let me go on an anti-tour March, complete with my home-made sign.

Had I been influenced by the views of adults around me? Of course, but then aren't we all even as adults ourselves? Did I have a nuanced grip on the issues? No, but then how many of adult punters on talkback radio do? Had I come to my own conclusions and were my views strongly and genuinely held? Most definitely.

But more importantly, whatever view I took and however I had reached it, that was the beginning of a life engaged with politics. And that's what matters. The encouragement of adults, and of cousin Alan on that evening, was crucial. And I'll always be grateful to him for putting aside his own views and taking the time to listen to a ten year-old kid bursting to be taken seriously.

Laws should be ashamed that he couldn't bring himself to do the same.

I was thinking of that evening this week because yesterday we laid Alan to rest. Cancer took him last week, aged just 62. For the courtesy you showed a ten year-old all those years ago, thanks cuz.