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September 13, 2015 | by  | in Features Splash |
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The Good, the Bad, the Bad, the Ugly, the Ugly, the Ugly, and the Ugly

Next Tuesday, Victoria students will vote on whether to remain in basket-case national union NZUSA. From abusive texts, to festering realpolitik, to Don Brash, Salient editor Sam McChesney traces the story of NZUSA’s current predicament.

It was 26 July, 2005. In what right-wing blogger David Farrar would slam as “the most expensive bribe since Muldoon”, Helen Clark and Trevor Mallard unveiled their flagship election promise: to remove interest from student loans for all graduates living in New Zealand. The move cost $100 million in its first year, rising to $300 million a year. From Labour’s perspective, it was worth it. The party, then in its second term in government, had unexpectedly wilted in the face of Don Brash and his Orewa Māori-bashing, and for months seemed doomed to death by racism. But to the fury of Farrar and National, Labour’s “bribe” won them the election; young people defied the demographic trend of the past two decades, voting in numbers not seen since the early eighties. The turnout for 18 to 24-year-olds that year was 76 per cent.

Over the following three years, Brash would resign from Parliament over his links to the Exclusive Brethren, and National would sweep to power with the improbable support of the Māori Party. The media tactics of Brash’s successor, John Key, would themselves come under heavy scrutiny during the 2014 election, but National would continue to pummel a divided and ideologically rudderless Labour. To an ambitious Labour staffer named Grant Robertson, though, those events belonged to a troubling, post-Helen future. For now, Clark’s government had survived—just.

Robertson was a former president of two students’ associations—the Otago University Students’ Association (OUSA) and the New Zealand University Students’ Association (NZUSA). A student-politics geek who wrote his 1994 Honours thesis on NZUSA (in which he criticised the reforms of his future boss, Andrew Little), Robertson had become a key member of the team assigned to developing the top-secret interest-free loans policy. Throughout this period he was in regular contact with Camilla Belich and Andrew Kirton, NZUSA’s 2005 co-Presidents, and once the policy was ready he broke the news to the pair—NZUSA’s decade of campaigning had finally paid off.

After their terms ended, Belich and Kirton moved to the UK together. A few years later, they married.

“We’re not paying”

Rory McCourt opened his phone to discover a stream of abuse.

It was late on a Saturday night in February 2015, soon after McCourt’s election as NZUSA President, and the sweary text had been sent from Rick Zwaan’s phone. Zwaan, President of the Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association (VUWSA)—the job McCourt held in 2013—would claim the next day that a friend had written and then accidentally sent the text, in a prank gone awry. His story looked suspiciously like a white lie designed to protect hurt feelings and a fragile working relationship; the two had previously served together on the VUWSA Executive, and they’d be seeing a lot more of each other that year. Either way, McCourt was taken aback.

Just a few days prior, the NZUSA conference at which McCourt was elected had been a fractious affair. McCourt needed a two-thirds majority to become President, but neither VUWSA nor its Otago counterpart, OUSA, was playing along. The two associations had recently announced their withdrawal from NZUSA—under the Constitution, they had to stay and pay fees for a further year—and neither particularly wanted to be there. OUSA wasn’t there at all—they’d dispatched a member of the VUWSA Executive, Madeleine Ashton-Martyn, in their place. In the first of OUSA’s many fuck-you gestures to NZUSA in 2015, Ashton-Martyn was under instructions to vote No Confidence no matter what. VUWSA, meanwhile, was abstaining, effectively blocking any candidate from reaching the two-thirds threshold.

Stung by VUWSA’s refusal to vote for him, McCourt and his supporters confronted the association’s delegates—telling them, in effect, that if they weren’t going to cast a vote they should just bugger off. They grudgingly did so, and McCourt was elected in the following round.

At VUWSA’s next Executive meeting, Zwaan told his underlings that VUWSA had been “ostracised” by other members of NZUSA.

But Zwaan soon got his own back. At VUWSA’s next Executive meeting, he told his underlings that VUWSA had been “ostracised” by other members of NZUSA, and that this could be grounds for withholding some or all of its $45,000 membership levy. By and large, the Executive jumped at the chance to save money on a service they no longer wanted. At the meeting, Zwaan also warned members of the Executive not to listen to the “manipulative” McCourt.

That Saturday Zwaan got drunk, and a sweary text was sent off his work phone.

“Throwing tantrums”

Over the following months, VUWSA and OUSA engaged in a drawn-out game of brinkmanship with NZUSA over their levies. Despite receiving legal advice that it was liable to keep paying until September, VUWSA only budgeted $11,250 for NZUSA levies in 2015—gambling (incorrectly, as it turned out) that McCourt would not be willing to sue over the remaining $20,000. VUWSA capitulated in late May after unrelenting pressure and legal threats from McCourt. Over the following two months, the association rewrote its budget from scratch to plug the resultant hole.

OUSA, meanwhile, paid its levies for the first half of the year but refused to pay the remainder. The Executive told McCourt in July that the funds had been “reallocated”, and sent NZUSA a letter asking the association to wind up—a request McCourt described as “bizarre”. Eventually, OUSA also—sheepishly—backed down.

McCourt is polished and even-tempered, an obvious politician in waiting. But when I spoke to him in July, he was downbeat and clearly furious. Accusing VUWSA and OUSA of “throwing tantrums” over their levies and describing the two associations as “completely childish”, he also expressed grave doubts over both NZUSA’s survival and the ability of students’ associations to work together.

“Our student movement is dying,” he said.

“Not run by very bright people”

How did it come to this?

Last month, McCourt travelled to Hamilton to speak to the Waikato Students’ Union (WSU). The meeting was to discuss the WSU’s large (and heavily disputed) debt to NZUSA. But to McCourt, the debt was more than just a red budget line—it was what dragged him into this mess in the first place.

In 2013, WSU President Aaron Letcher announced the association’s immediate withdrawal from NZUSA, and the withholding of its levies. The move prompted a wave of renewed scrutiny of NZUSA. Simmering discontent with the national body suddenly belched forth.

The previous year, NZUSA had accepted polytechnic associations into the fold for the first time, rebranded to the New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations, and appointed a polytech graduate, Pete Hodkinson, as its president. University associations were unhappy with Hodkinson’s performance, and at the distraction that the polytech associations were causing.

“Suddenly [NZUSA] was being dominated by the polytechnics,” Letcher told me this year. “You had polytechnic associations that were not very well funded, not very well resourced, not run by very bright people, with quite shocking histories in some cases, and they required quite a lot of support to keep them afloat.”

Letcher felt that far too many of NZUSA’s limited resources were being devoted to individual polytechnic associations. “There were NZUSA staff focusing on helping them negotiate contracts with their institutions and that sort of thing. We would have liked more focus on support for students nationwide.

“Pete Hodkinson’s a very bright guy, don’t get me wrong, but some elements of the job he wasn’t up to,” Letcher says. “He didn’t really understand the university sector. [NZUSA] were just out of touch with what university students’ associations and their members needed at that time.”

“You had polytechnic associations that were not very well funded, not very well resourced, not run by very bright people, and they required quite a lot of support.”

But Letcher himself was a divisive figure, a Young Nat in a sector dominated by lefties. The presidents at the three largest students’ associations—Francisco Hernandez at OUSA, Dan Haines at Auckland’s AUSA, and McCourt at VUWSA—quickly put out a joint press release calling for reforms to NZUSA but criticising Letcher for his “rash and hasty decision”. Calling themselves “the troika”, the three presidents—all Young Labour members and close friends—aimed, in Hernandez’s words, to “seize control of the reform process” away from Letcher and the WSU.

The troika commanded significant influence. The three associations, along with Canterbury’s UCSA, were NZUSA’s founding members. (UCSA withdrew in 2008.) OUSA is NZUSA’s wealthiest member association and its second-largest by membership; AUSA is the second-wealthiest and has the highest membership; and VUWSA is third on both counts. Between them, the three associations contribute $145,000 in NZUSA membership levies. NZUSA’s income from levies in 2013 was $201,000, and its total income was $381,191. Losing one, two, or—whisper it—all three members would have been—and still would be—a crippling blow to both its finances and mandate.

nzusa largest assoc

At the centre of the troika’s concerns was NZUSA’s limp campaigning. Students—particularly postgrads—continued to suffer from deep funding cuts, and Hodkinson was criticised for weighing in on issues—such as asset sales and the retirement age—that had no relevance to students. Earlier that year, Hodkinson’s “Big Questions Tour” had largely involved the president lugging his guitar around the country and befriending other student politicians.

“The irreplaceable thing about NZUSA is a national student voice,” Haines told me at the time. “If we’re not doing campaigns, then we’re just like a service provider or providing cheap deals, and that’s so far removed from why NZUSA exists that we should just let it fall over.”

For all their tough talk, the troika were NZUSA supporters and wanted their associations to stay members. But by going public, Hernandez and McCourt inadvertently sparked calls to withdraw. Pressure from Hernandez’s Executive, and a petition organised by Victoria student (and Young Nat) Nick Cross, forced the pair to call unwanted referenda on OUSA and VUWSA’s membership.

In response, McCourt and Hernandez drafted referendum questions that were clearly leading, foregrounding the pair’s desire to stay and reform NZUSA. In VUWSA’s referendum (“That VUWSA stay in NZUSA”), the two options were “No” and “Yes, but only with reforms”. Meanwhile, OUSA’s referendum asked “Should OUSA continue its membership of NZUSA if it [NZUSA] implements reforms that enhance its campaigning capacity?” At the end of the year, both associations voted by comfortable margins to stay. But the fuse had been lit.

nzusa referenda

The following year brought new presidents. Sonya Clark was that rare thing—a VUWSA President who wasn’t a member of Young Labour. Nor did she feel any particular loyalty to NZUSA, which, in an election year, had once again failed to pull up any trees. In September, Clark and her Executive abruptly decided to withdraw, exploiting the ambiguous wording of the previous year’s referendum. “Students gave us the mandate to stay if there were significant reforms,” Clark said. “There haven’t been.” Two months later, OUSA followed suit.

And WSU? The association has continued to withhold most of its levies, its (alleged) debt hitting $60,000 at the end of last year. Meanwhile, NZUSA has refused to recognise WSU’s withdrawal and, despite all evidence to the contrary, still considers it a member. Hodkinson, for his part, now does stand-up comedy. He probably has a lot of material.

Mutinies and machinations

When Hernandez and McCourt drafted their referenda in 2013, they had another motivation in mind. Both, as it turns out, wanted to be NZUSA President. Was this why the questions were so leading? Hernandez—always the more blithe and self-deprecating of the pair—now openly admits that he had a conflict of interest, while McCourt strenuously denies it. Whatever the reasons, the pair—having secured their associations’ membership—were both presidential candidates at the NZUSA Special General Meeting in November 2013, along with Haines. The troika were about to face off.

The realpolitik and emotional manipulation that has come to mark the annual NZUSA SGM is often the most visible and least palatable aspect of the organisation. The SGM usually takes place during the summer holidays when students are disengaged. It’s also poorly advertised, attended only by insiders and wannabes. Stripped of any visible signs of accountability—student media, actual students, non-reptilian organisms—participants indulge their most childish and Machiavellian impulses; all of which, of course, is immediately leaked to the press anyway.

In 2012, Hodkinson marked the end of an entirely unremarkable year as President by running for re-election. Though he was running unopposed, he failed to gain election after the first round of voting—meaning that more than a third of all delegates had voted No Confidence. Hodkinson cried at the result, and in the second round enough delegates switched their votes to push him over the threshold.

The realpolitik and emotional manipulation that has come to mark the annual NZUSA SGM is often the most visible and least palatable aspect of the organisation.

In 2014 only one person ran—a protest candidate—who lost to No Confidence. The failure to elect a president led to the re-run in early 2015, when McCourt was elected among the aforementioned scenes of bitchiness. But 2013 was even more farcical.

After the first round of voting, Hernandez was leading but fell short of the two-thirds threshold. In the second round, after which the bottom-ranked candidate would be eliminated, McCourt engineered a mutiny by three of OUSA’s four delegates, convincing them—behind Hernandez’s back—to switch their votes. How he pulled this off is unclear—“I had the most compelling vision, and I had their confidence,” McCourt told me unctuously; whereas the three told Hernandez that it was a tactical move designed to eliminate Haines and force a runoff between Hernandez and McCourt. Others present believe McCourt had simply bad-mouthed Hernandez, casting aspersions on his friend’s ability to lead. Either way it backfired spectacularly.

McCourt was eliminated in the second round despite the extra votes. In the third, confused by the vote-switching affair, suspicious of McCourt’s duplicity, and startled by Hernandez’s cartoonish persona and constant Game of Thrones references, the other associations fled to the safer, blander Haines. Hernandez was devastated at the betrayal—the delegates were his colleagues and friends—while the OUSA Executive was furious, fining two of the delegates (who had been under instruction to vote for Hernandez) after an hour-long dressing-down. The troika have remained good friends, but the affair earned McCourt a reputation in student politics circles for underhanded tactics.

“The solutions are a bit more difficult now”

This isn’t the first time NZUSA has faced a mass revolt from its members.

“When I was involved in NZUSA and OUSA in the late 80s, NZUSA had half its members threaten to withdraw,” David Farrar recalls. Farrar was co-President of the Otago Commerce Students’ Association, and served as an Otago delegate to NZUSA on a number of occasions.

“NZUSA back then makes NZUSA today look incredibly competent, well-managed and efficient,” Farrar says. “They had I think seven vice-presidents and seven research officers, so there were fourteen, fifteen people on the full-time payroll. They had a vice-president for everything, like international affairs. I think there was one education vice-president, and that was it—there was one out of fifteen for education issues! And in ‘86, ‘87 there was a huge restructuring.”

But this time, the situation is different. “This is the third time I’ve seen NZUSA have a significant number of associations say they’re leaving,” Farrar says. “But the solutions are a bit more difficult now.” Whereas in the past members would use the threat of withdrawal to force a bloated NZUSA to sharpen up, there are now associations that literally can’t afford to keep paying, and NZUSA’s revenue and overheads are lower than ever. On paper the association makes a surplus of around $50,000 a year, but this is swallowed up by members reneging on their levies. Now the existential threat is real, and the culprit is Voluntary Student Membership. Fuck; it’s time to go even deeper down the rabbit hole.

Tired of hearing about VSM? Old timers can skip ahead

“A training ground for future Labour MPs”

On 13 October 2008, I and hundreds of others poured into Union Hall at Otago University to hear Helen Clark speak. By then the Fifth Labour Government was rag-tag and spent. Clark was doing the university tour, a final attempt to drum up support in the face of John Key’s slick, resurgent National, and in Dunedin she delivered another timely bribe—a promise to restore universal student allowances.

Though we cheered, deep down we all saw the desperate gambit for what it was. Universal allowances didn’t even make social-democratic sense—it was a policy that would only benefit the middle class—and besides, if the poll results were anything to go by, it wouldn’t matter anyway. Sure enough, within a month Labour was defeated, the National dog had a new ACT-shaped tail, and the 18–24 vote had plummeted to 60.1 per cent.

Unlike interest-free loans, NZUSA had little involvement with Labour’s universal allowances policy. Instead, they were too busy attacking Labour from hard-left positions, calling ad nauseum for “free, publicly funded tertiary education”. So it was little surprise that the association quickly alienated itself from the new National government.

National made one early overture to students, providing a 10 per cent subsidy on all voluntary loan repayments over $500. But NZUSA attacked the proposal on the grounds that it would benefit wealthy students more than poor students. According to Farrar, a National Party member and sometime employee, the reaction pissed National right off.

“You expect lobby groups to have a great wallop at you when you don’t give them money, or when you do stuff that they think is hostile,” Farrar says. “But when the Government comes out and says, ‘hey, make a voluntary repayment and we’ll knock ten per cent off’, and the national union of students comes out attacking it, that just signifies that you guys don’t want any relationship with us, you’re full of Labour and Green Party politicians who just want to change the government. I thought that was a huge error and something that quite badly tarnished the relationship.”

“You guys don’t want any relationship with us, you’re full of Labour and Green Party politicians who just want to change the government.”

Soon after, in late 2009, Heather Roy’s bill to make all students’ associations voluntary was drawn from the private members’ ballot. At that point, students’ associations earned most of their revenue through compulsory membership fees set by members. The bill, titled the Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill but popularly known as Voluntary Student Membership (VSM), posed a direct threat to that funding by banning the ability to extract compulsory membership fees.

It soon became clear that National supported the bill, and those on the left had no doubts why.

“There’s certainly a perception among the National Party that NZUSA, along with the TEU and virtually every other union, is against them,” Grant Robertson says. By 2009 Robertson was an MP, and was one of VSM’s most vocal opponents in Parliament. “Don’t mistake, one of the big reasons for the National Party accepting the ACT VSM stuff was they wanted to undermine students’ associations. They didn’t like people who held them to account, who criticised them.”

David Farrar puts a slightly different spin on it. To him, it stood to reason that National wouldn’t help out a group that neither lobbied helpfully, nor was truly representative of its membership base. After all, why would they?

“As with almost any public sector lobby group, NZUSA always tends to lean left of centre, calling for higher taxes and more spending, and you expect that,” he says. “That’s not a particularly big issue. But the perception is that they are just anti the National Party, regardless of what the National Party does… and that they are just there to attack us and get headlines.

“When people see the Labour front bench dominated by people who were NZUSA alumni, including the leader, the finance person, the chief whip, education spokesman, it’s not surprising that people at National tend to think of it as a training ground for future Labour MPs.”

VSM passed in September 2011. Most associations removed membership fees in an attempt to retain members, and signed Service Level Agreements (SLAs) with their universities. Under these SLAs, students’ associations were contracted to provide the same, or similar, services that they had provided pre-VSM. But in most cases, the funding was drastically diminished. VUWSA lost around three-quarters of its revenue, and WSU about two-thirds. With many associations no longer able to afford their levies, the national body lost $160,000 in revenue.

“A discussion”

Throughout 2015, VUWSA and OUSA both insisted they wanted “a discussion” about the future of the national student voice, but the organisations have been accused of failing to offer any serious alternatives.

OUSA has been especially waffling. Having threatened withdrawal at various points since 2010, each new president has had a different approach and a different opinion on how best to fix the national union. In 2010, under Harriet Geoghegan, OUSA withdrew its full membership to become an “associate” member. In 2011, under Logan Edgar, OUSA cancelled its withdrawal after NZUSA increased its funding of Te Mana Ākonga, the national Māori students’ association. In 2013, under Hernandez, OUSA put the matter to a referendum; and in 2014, under acting president Ryan Edgar, OUSA decided to ignore the referendum result and withdraw anyway. When the 2015 President, Paul Hunt, complained this year that NZUSA doesn’t intuitively understand what OUSA wants and needs, it raised the question whether anyone does. For his part, Hunt wants NZUSA to adopt “a federal model” comprising the presidents from each member association—a change that already took place last year.

Where are our handouts? Why is nobody winning our battles for us? Why is NZUSA so fucking useless?

But maybe we shouldn’t be looking for the logic in it. The reality is that for student politicians frustrated by the ever-increasing financial pressure that both students and students’ associations face, NZUSA has been a convenient whipping boy. After all, who doesn’t feel that students simply should have more political influence, that if NZUSA were doing its job properly we wouldn’t be so loaded with debt and relegated to the political margins? Our parents got their degrees pretty much for free. Now they’re about to start cashing their superannuation checks, and we’ll be the ones paying for it. Where are our handouts? Why is nobody winning our battles for us? Why is NZUSA so fucking useless?

“Paul is living in fantasyland”

NZUSA works out of a cluttered office on Lambton Quay, which it shares with media outlet Scoop. Hundreds of ring binders and file boxes line the shelves, and a hand-painted banner emblazoned “Stay in NZUSA”—destined for the Victoria Hub—is draped over a table. The office houses McCourt, NZUSA Executive Director Alistair Shaw, an NZUSA intern, and the heads of Tertiary Women New Zealand (TWNZ) and Te Mana Ākonga. TWNZ is fully funded by NZUSA, and Te Mana Ākonga by both NZUSA and its ten member roopu; with NZUSA teetering on the brink, both face uncertain futures.

McCourt runs through his, and Haines’, list of achievements. They’re not insubstantial; across the political spectrum, most agree that McCourt has done a solid job. This year saw the culmination of a long-term project between NZUSA and the Government that massively reduced Studylink waiting times and reduced the number of dropped calls by over 99 per cent. After years of campaigning—albeit by associations around the country as well as NZUSA—the Government has indicated it will introduce minimum rental property standards. Last year, swathes of Labour and NZ First tertiary education policy were lifted from NZUSA, and NZUSA’s “First in Whānau” policy was adopted by the Māori Party. Next year, the Ministry of Social Development will partner with TWNZ to run consent education during Orientation.

But to many associations, these small wins—especially after the prolonged fallow period and backward steps of the past few years—aren’t enough. When I asked Hunt what NZUSA would have to do to prove its value to OUSA, he demanded a reduction in tuition fees and an unfreezing of the allowances and living costs cap. McCourt does little to hide his contempt for such a position. “We’re not the Government,” he says. “I’m not responsible for Steven Joyce’s decisions. The Government has a policy to reduce the cost of the loans and allowances scheme. To reverse that we’re going to have to make a very strong case and campaign over a number of years.”

On Hunt himself, McCourt is scathing. “I think Paul is living in fantasyland if he thinks we’re going to change the Government’s entire approach to tertiary education overnight without doing anything,” he says. “That’s the rub—that Paul wants to do nothing, sit around and criticise. It’s not good enough, he should get active and get off his arse.”

“He should get active and get off his arse.”

Hunt’s demands, unrealistic as they are, do point to a wider problem—that NZUSA has no long-term plan, no measurable targets or key performance indicators. And nobody seems that interested in writing them. McCourt, for one, is an activist at heart, and allergic to any notion that NZUSA should be results-driven. Instead he’s focusing his efforts on the “one big campaign” he promised when he was elected, which, he’s now decided, will be for “a debt free future”. All of which sounds like the polarising, hopelessly idealistic NZUSA of the pre-VSM years—but McCourt, pointing to the explosion of support for Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders in the US, argues there is now a genuine appetite for radical, youth-oriented politics.

“Students should thank Don Brash”

And what of that great victory, interest free loans? How does NZUSA recapture its 2005 mojo?

“Of course we like to mythologise interest free loans as a win by NZUSA,” McCourt says. “But we happened to have a former president in the Prime Minister’s office and a sympathetic government looking for a third term. It’s not a direct relationship with the success or not of NZUSA.”

As David Farrar puts it, students “should thank Don Brash, for making it such a close election.”

“Of course we like to mythologise interest free loans as a win by NZUSA.”

Where NZUSA deserves credit, McCourt believes, is in keeping interest free loans on the political agenda. Interest free loans happened because NZUSA had been campaigning on the issue for the past decade, putting the issue at the front of Labour’s mind when it came to tertiary education matters.

“Helen Clark credited NZUSA with having been a consistent advocate of making tertiary education more affordable,” Grant Robertson says. “Their ongoing campaign was a factor in the fact the issue stayed in the minds of the public and the politicians. Bear in mind that’s 2005, and student loans with interest were [introduced in] 1992, so you’re talking about a 13-year period in which that was a significant campaign that NZUSA ran. So it’s not something that got delivered to students instantly.”

Robertson, Labour’s education spokesperson David Cunliffe, and Cunliffe’s counterparts Tracey Martin (New Zealand First) and Gareth Hughes (Green), all agree on one thing: effective lobbying takes time. They argue that the demand by student presidents for quick fixes and immediate results is both shortsighted and naїve.

“We know that at some stage there’s going to be a change in government,” Martin told me. “John Key can’t last forever.”

Like McCourt, Martin is scathing about what she sees as Zwaan and Hunt’s short-termism. “Rick and Paul don’t understand the long-term implications of what they’re doing,” she says. “If NZUSA falls over we’d have major concerns around the student voice with regard to its ability to speak to Parliament. It’s Parliament they need to speak to, not just government.”

But Martin also delivered a thinly veiled threat. “Labour will notice and [New Zealand First] will notice if students’ associations decide not to speak to us when we’re in opposition. Do they think we won’t notice that? At some stage one of us will be a place of influence, do you think we won’t remember?”

Um… fuck you? To all the Victoria students out there: next week’s referendum is about your movement, your money, your future. You’re not obliged to chuck away lucre to make some MP’s job marginally easier. Nor are you obliged to cast aside an 86-year-old institution purely because your local association can’t, or rather won’t, keep its books in order.

Clearly, NZUSA is not in a good place. It arrived here by a mixture of poor luck, naїveté, arrogance, and ineptitude—sometimes its own, and other times visited upon it.

Whether it can get out again—that’s for you to decide.

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