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.

Comments (11)

by Ian MacKay on September 04, 2009
Ian MacKay

Tim. Well said. As the youngest kid kid in the family decades ago, I always felt that my opinion just didn't register.  Now I applaud the Otaki kids for expressing their view. H or no H, I am sure that those kids will have a lifelong beief in their right to an opinion, and the will to speak up. Democracy....eternal vigilance....

by Sam Vilain on September 04, 2009
Sam Vilain

I watched an excellent documentary on Human Development by the BBC last year, called The Human Body with Robert Winston.  In part 3 or 4 it talked about the development around childhood to puberty, during which point it showed how from the age of about 10-12 children develop the ability to weigh contradictory ideas, and form an opinion on complex issues.  Very interesting series, the whole thing...

by stuart munro on September 04, 2009
stuart munro

Tim, that would be self-righteous rage - not righteous rage.

by Luc Hansen on September 04, 2009
Luc Hansen

My childhood experience was one of sitting with adults at a young age under photos of Michael Joeseph Savage and I remember their smiling indulgence when I piped up with an opinion. And it would apear that according to Michael Laws my father was abusing me by recognising my interest in political matters and taking me to election meetings while I was still at primary school. Laws' intemperate reply to the kids and the rednecks out in support of his ignorant actions, coupled with the demand to be permitted to whack our kids, amply illustrate the inbuilt hostility we have towards our children.  The OECD report discussed by Andrew Geddis is another sad indictment on our society.




by David Small on September 07, 2009
David Small

And while you had the sense to recognise the rights and wrongs of the Springbok Tour as a child Tim, Michael Laws was a pro-tour advocate.

by Tim Watkin on September 07, 2009
Tim Watkin

Nice mental picture there Luc. It was interesting hearing Savage this week with his 'where she goes, we go' speech being replayed on the war anniversary. Those photos really were everywhere!

by Craig Ranapia on September 07, 2009
Craig Ranapia

(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).

I certainly suspect that any teacher who subject Laws' children to similar treatment would not be getting verbal bouquets from Daddy Dearest on Radio Live the next morning.  Nor should they, but its funny how very thin-skinned and, dare I say it, "PC" Laws gets where he and his family are concerned.

by stuart munro on September 09, 2009
stuart munro

Perhaps the most unfortunate thing about Michael Laws is that he displays many of the pathologies of his political mentor, Winston. So why does he get better press? I attribute it to better sociolinguistic facility rather than race - the same criteria that has most Russians believing Yeltsin was more sophisticated than Gorbachov, who is forever marked by his Primorian accent.

Interesting too, that children are increasingly the new model for virtue for our society. No adult group is given the same unquestioning validity. The post modern dream (or nightmare) of a society without a dominant culture or role seems to be nearly achieved.

Is there no way to assess the merit of name changes beside the preferences of relatively persuadeable youths?

by william blake on September 09, 2009
william blake

How about a referendum on the necessity of the h in Michael?

by Tim Watkin on September 11, 2009
Tim Watkin


I'm not making any judgment on whether Wanganui should have an H or not and I'm not saying you have to be convinced by those kids or ascribe then any virtue other than a heartening willingness to engage in democratic debate. Indeed, I mentioned that the letters didn't go into great depth; these kids almost certainly don't have the depth of understanding of the issue of Michael Laws, Ken Mair, Chris Trotter or any of the adults who have waded into the debate.

That's not the same as saying their views are ill-informed or illegitimate and not worthy of respect. They deserve to be heard and encouraged, not yelled at for expressing a view.

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