Notes on the life of my brother: Andrew Robb, 1955-2022

When we were very young, my mother was in the habit of dressing my brother and me in identical clothes, which often led people to ask us if we were twins. We were not – we were born 18 months apart – and we pleaded with our mother for a change in the dress code. Yet we were so close, as children and again as adults, that in fact we had the kind of sibling relationship that twins sometimes have.

Andrew Robb, 1955-2022

The world we were born into, and the childhood we shared, seem so remote from today that looking back it almost seems like another family’s life, in a distant country.

New Zealand in the 1960s was a very peculiar little place – dependent, insular, and smug. It retained, long after it became a modern capitalist state, a strong dependence on Britain in trade and migration, and a corresponding orientation in culture and political-military alignment. This combined with a culture of welfare-state self-righteousness which boasted that New Zealand was a country unafflicted by divisions of class (as Britain was) or race (as the United States was). These conceits were the culture of its ruling class in the first instance, of course, but they were pervasive. Meanwhile, the Maori people reached a kind of nadir – the last fragments of land still in their possession being rapidly chipped away, te reo Maori heading along the road to extinction. Rural Maori communities were choking under housing policies that were designed to force labour into the cities, policies that made it impossible to build on tribal land. Te reo was then only really spoken by the last of a generation of older people for whom it was their first language, and it was expected to die with them.

Our family shifted to New Zealand from Australia a few months after Andrew was born, and a year before I was born, when my father was appointed managing director in New Zealand of the British chemical monopoly ICI.  Although my parents’ own capital holdings were minor, as a generously-salaried manager of a large corporation, they were very much part of the capitalist ruling class. On the other hand, coming from Australia, they remained slightly aloof from its culture, our mother especially. (Australia shared many of the characteristics of New Zealand society at the time, but was less insular: even after having stolen a generation of Aboriginal children, and the children robbed from Britain’s wartime orphanages, it still experienced a severe labour shortage, and so embarked on a policy of mass immigration from Italy, Greece, and later Turkey, Lebanon, and elsewhere. This pre-dated corresponding developments in New Zealand by decades.)

Andrew and I enjoyed the kind of sunny, idyllic childhood most of the world can only dream of, free from material want, and surrounded by the love of our parents and three older siblings.  The most exceptional privilege we enjoyed was the place we spent our summer months: Waitawa, which is today an Auckland regional park. In those days it was designated an ‘explosives reserve.’ ICI was an importer and manufacturer of explosives used in road-building and mining. Waitawa – at an hour’s drive from urban Auckland – was where the explosives could be safely unloaded off ships and stored. It was and is a beautiful little area of farm and forest, with two little sheltered bays on the Hauraki Gulf.

Waitawa – Mataitai Bay on right, Waitawa Bay on left, explosives wharf bottom left. All three headlands in the picture once had Maori pa.

Most of Andrew’s and my memories of childhood relate to this place, where we explored both the land and the sea: swimming, riding horses and sailing boats, hunting rabbits and possums, catching fish and gathering oysters, sleeping in tents and waking to the incredible dawn chorus of the birds. One of our more ambitious expeditions was to sail a little Sunburst sailing dinghy in a circumnavigation of Ponui Island, following the path of James Cook’s ship two hundred years earlier. Because of the slight danger from the explosives magazines (forbidding-looking windowless concrete-block bunkers with steel doors, bristling with lightning-conductors, that were nestled in the valleys) public access was forbidden, so we had this playground almost entirely to ourselves.

Pawhetau headland, Waitawa. The notches in the ridge at left are the remains of fortification trenches

Both of the headlands between the bays were occupied by Maori pa in pre-European times. On the ridge leading to Pawhetau Pa, the remains of the fortification trenches are still visible today. (This pa was one of very few that successfully resisted an assault by Hongi Hika in the 1820s, despite the fact that Hongi had muskets and the defenders did not. Hongi returned a few months later and succeeded on the second attempt, and inflicted a terrible slaughter, after which the pa was abandoned.) These pa sites held a particular fascination for Andrew, and at the age of about 8 or 10 he organised an archaeological dig at the site of one of the trenches, himself and his younger brother, with our mother providing a packed lunch. He led me to believe that we might find a greenstone mere lying in the dirt.

Andrew and I grew apart at adolescence. He developed interests in various sports – rowing, rugby, and trout fishing – that held no appeal to me, and his attitude to school seemed to me annoyingly positive. He went to Victoria University in Wellington, but wasn’t at all sure what he wanted to study. He enrolled in an eclectic mix of science subjects and – almost as an afterthought – a Maori language course, since he had quite enjoyed learning a few words of te reo at school.

Andrew and I sometimes joked that at least at the level of pronunciation, he and I found learning new languages easier than most people did, and we knew exactly the reason why: our mother, bless her soul, had made great efforts when we were young to get us to speak ‘correctly’ – by which she meant, with an accent resembling that of the Queen or Boris Johnson – and had frequently corrected our speech to erase all traces of the kiwi accent. We got used to listening carefully to linguistic sounds and consciously shaping them. Andrew, at least, put this training to good use.

He joined Te Reo Maori Society at university, and through that came into contact with the handful of Maori students that were then studying at the university. This proved to be a life-changing decision. He has described elsewhere how it was at meetings of Te Reo Maori Society that he first heard te reo spoken by native speakers who had learned it as their first language. It was a revelation. He was utterly captivated by the sound of the language spoken by these people, but was also astonished at his own ignorance – that as a person growing up in New Zealand, he had not even realised that first-language speakers of te reo existed. He set out to rectify that ignorance.

There were several aspects to this. One of the most important was that he began visiting some of the small communities where this layer of native speakers lived. Most Maori migration to Wellington came from the East Coast, and to a lesser extent from Hawkes Bay and the Bay of Plenty/Urewera regions. The Maori students and teachers at Victoria University were also mostly from these regions. With their help, Andrew was able to visit these places, sometimes with others and sometimes on his own, and to get to know the people there.

He has often told me how amazed he was at the way he was welcomed into the homes of these kaumatua, who lived on very little themselves and owed him nothing. Although he was a stranger to them, he usually knew family members of theirs, or friends, or family of friends and friends of family. He learned to introduce himself to them in this way, recognising and remembering family names and making connections with others he knew who shared that name, learning and remembering people’s whakapapa and relationships. He developed a lifelong interest in whakapapa, including his own. He learned what it meant to be part of an intricate and wide network of relatives and friends, and to make that the starting point of everything.

He also learned what it means to be connected to the land – both in the historical sense of a connection to a particular piece of the landscape as the ancestral home, and in the more general sense of being part of the taiao, and having an obligation to defend and protect the taiao. He developed a lifelong interest in foraging for wild foods – watercress, mushrooms, puha, blackberries, karengo, and more – whenever he could.

In short, what he learned from these people was how to be a human being. It is something that people who were born into the class he and I were born into can go through their whole lives without ever learning – going straight from the competitive education system to the competitive world of money-making. Andrew was well known for his generosity – anyone who invited him to a meal knew he would bring a smoked trout or a crayfish. I sometimes thought people exploited his generosity, and I told him so. But it was a matter of principle for him: it was his way of repaying those kaumatua who had opened their homes to him.

In the 1970s it became increasingly common for young people, university graduates especially, to escape the confines of New Zealand’s colonial narrowness by travelling and living overseas for a year or two, usually to the United Kingdom or Australia, where it was easy enough to get a work visa. So common it was, that it became a kind of rite of passage, the Overseas Experience, or OE. Our older siblings had all done this (and never returned to live in New Zealand.) Andrew did not.

He used to joke that he did his OE in New Zealand. For some people, the communities in the furthest reaches of the Coast or the Urewera were just rural backwaters where nothing much happened. For Andrew, they were a portal to a new world –  te ao Maori. And having discovered this world in these rural communities, he soon realised that it also existed in the cities.

A second aspect to Andrew’s efforts to educate himself was te reo itself. He got more serious about learning to speak it, and to absorb all that he could from his teachers of all kinds. He worked hard at it, and raised himself to the point where he could not only speak it fluently in both formal and informal situations, but could also appreciate the richness of the language, the songs he committed to memory, the and poetry and proverbs, and the deep connections between te reo and social life. He became intolerant of laziness in pronunciation of Maori place names by anyone, and politely corrected them whenever necessary. I am sure that both the care he took in pronunciation, and his self-discipline in speaking te reo whenever the opportunity presented itself, played a large part in the welcome he received from the kaumatua.  

Anyone who made a serious effort to learn te reo at that time was confronted with a question, often posed in a very blunt way: why do you bother putting all that effort into learning a dying language? He answered this by becoming a campaigner for the language. The political campaign to raise its status in the education system, in broadcasting and in wider social discourse, was vital. Fighting for te reo was already part of the kaupapa of Te Reo Maori Society, a necessary and important task. But the political fight required also went broader than that.

By this time new political movements were sweeping the world. These had begun with the massive anti-colonial rebellions that began in the middle of the Second World War in China, Korea, Vietnam and other countries occupied by Japan, spread to the whole Asia-Pacific region with Japan’s defeat, and beyond to the Middle East and Africa, and the Americas and the Caribbean. These in turn inspired movements of the oppressed nationalities in the imperialist world itself, above all the mighty Civil Rights movement in the United States. All these movements impacted on New Zealand, and fueled a growing upheaval among Maori and others. As they moved to the cities, Maori sensed their collective strength as part of the working class: in key industries like meat processing and timber, Maori made up a substantial part of the workforce, and played a leading role in the unions.

Maori Land March 1975. Marchers begin to cross Auckland Harbour Bridge. Photo: NZ Herald

A seminal moment was the Maori Land March of 1975, protesting the continuing alienation of Maori land, with its thundering demand of Not One More Acre!  This was the first big political demonstration Andrew participated in. I well remember how excited he got as the march neared Wellington and how he worked to persuade me to join it too – without his urging, this historic event would probably have passed me by.

The Land March set in motion a wave of struggles around both land and language questions in the following years. The most significant was the 507-day occupation of Maori land at Bastion Point in the heart of Auckland.

Ngati Whatua begin occupation of Bastion Point, March 1977. Photo: NZ Herald

In the meantime I had joined the Socialist Action League, which also threw itself into Bastion Point support work. Both Andrew and I were actively involved in organising solidarity actions in Wellington, and on several occasions we rushed to Auckland with other supporters, packed into an ancient van that he had acquired, when eviction was threatened. Andrew spent long periods at the occupation.

For over a year, the occupiers’ rough meeting house at Bastion Point was the scene of far-reaching political discussion and debate, in two languages, as Maori from all over the country converged on the occupation, told of the history of their own land and its loss, argued about how to defend the remaining land and how to revitalise te reo, debated political strategies and appraised allies. Formal whaikorero lasted late into the night, as did informal discussion over meals and chores. Pakeha supporters were welcomed to join these discussions – a ban imposed by the Auckland Trades Council had helped to forestall early attempts to evict the occupation, and everyone was mindful of the importance of that wider solidarity. Andrew took part in the whaikorero, but he was more at home in the informal discussions that took place as part of the organising work, dealing with the donations of food, building supplies and other things that appeared as if by magic, helping with meal preparation or construction tasks.

When the government mobilised a massive contingent of police, with army support, to evict the occupiers, Andrew was one of the hundreds arrested. If you watch the documentary made about the occupation, Bastion Point Day 507, you can catch a glimpse of him in a police bus with dozens of other people arrested, joining in the haka.

Police surround the meetinghouse and end the occupation in May 1978. Some 222 people were arrested that day. Photo: Fairfax

Andrew was determined to make the most of his day in court defending the trespass charges. Like many of the others arrested that day, he defended himself without a lawyer, cross-examined the prosecution witnesses, challenged on historical grounds their right to issue a trespass notice, called witnesses of his own, and generally did his best to prolong the proceedings and use them to win wider support for the cause. As his case dragged on towards the end of a Friday afternoon, he considered dropping it and accepting the inevitable conviction, since an adjournment would require him to take more time off work and more expense. In the end he opted to fight on, and was vindicated in an unexpected way: over the weekend the government decided to put an end to the continued embarrassment the court proceedings were causing, and dropped the charges against all those not yet convicted.  

Andrew was active in other struggles as well in those days. At the time of the big anti-apartheid protests against the Springbok tour in 1981, I was living in Hastings, where the protests had been relatively muted. I travelled to Wellington to be part of a big mobilisation on the day of a test match, and while driving through town I happened to see Andrew, dressed in a familiar grey swanndri, but looking a bit bulkier than usual. I stopped the car and called him over, and when he leaned over the car window to greet me, some coils of chain he had around his neck fell out the front of his swanndri. He quickly shoved them back inside his clothing saying “They’re not supposed to see that.” I noticed he was wearing plenty of cardboard body armour – that was the reason he looked bulky. The cops in those days were generally not armed, but for the protests they had been organised into special squads called Red Squad, Blue Squad etc, which were issued with new long batons. They used these in a jabbing motion against the chest to force lines of protestors back.

Cops beat back helmeted anti-apartheid protestors, Auckland 1981. The name of protestors’ squad is a homage to murdered South African anti-apartheid leader Steve Biko

I turned up for the protest, like a naïve country cousin, with neither body armour nor motorcycle helmet. Someone handed me a helmet, and I became part of the protestors’ ‘Brown Squad,’ which marched off towards Athletic Park. I didn’t see Andrew on the demonstrations that day, but I saw what the chains he carried were for: as we neared Athletic Park, we were confronted with long lines of barbed wire barricades between us and the park. Seemingly out of nowhere grappling hooks on chains and ropes were produced and thrown over the barbed wire, and within a few minutes the lines of wire had been pulled into huge tangled heaps, opening wide spaces for us to get through. Unfortunately, while this was happening busloads of extra cops were hurriedly unloading, and by the time we were ready to move, there was a formidable barrier of riot cops with batons – which we decided not to confront. Andrew was arrested that day too: he had been assigned to a group which was trying to open a hole in the perimeter fence at another point. More court battles followed.

In the midst of these events, the first of his three children was born. The children became the centre of his personal life for the next few decades; and in them, the battle to revitalise te reo Maori took on a personal aspect.  

Working in common cause in these political struggles brought us back together again as adults. I tried during these years to win him to a revolutionary outlook, but without success – he had already found a worldview and a life cause which he considered sufficient, and had no need. While he was as critical of the society in which we lived as I was, he had a kind of patience for the machinations of government, parliamentary parties, the state bureaucracy, and the proceedings of law courts that I did not share. He worked within this environment most of his life, employed by various state institutions, parliamentary parties, and broadcasting and news media organisations, doggedly doing his best to advance the status of te reo Maori. There are others who can tell the stories of Andrew in these years better than I can. (Several of his colleagues have written some reminiscences here.)

The big political struggles of Maori in the 1970s and 80s, at Bastion Point, at Waitangi, and elsewhere, brought about some major and lasting changes in New Zealand society, which continued to broaden even as the rising working class movement, which had fuelled them in the beginning, turned and retreated from the 1990s. The Waitangi Tribunal and the formal recognition of historical land theft and injustices, the expansion and development of te reo Maori in education and broadcasting, the breaking down of barriers that had excluded Maori from tertiary education, the legal recognition of Maori kaitiakitanga in matters of environmental protection – in a sense, these were all set in motion at the great meeting house at Bastion Point. None of these things happened automatically – there were further battles, tense negotiations, court hearings, and disappointments along the road. But the relationship of forces had changed irrevocably at Bastion Point.  

Andrew felt privileged to be part of this historic change. He always saw himself in the role of supporter, and preferred to stay in the background. I think he would have been surprised to see just how much his work over the years was appreciated.

16 responses to “Notes on the life of my brother: Andrew Robb, 1955-2022

  1. A sincere and respectful account of a brave and principled brother by his brave and principled brother James.
    Your love and integrity will result in you missing Andrew as much as he was worth to you and your wife and children.
    Kia ora.

  2. Kia ora mo tou poroporoaki mo tou tugnane te mate – e pai ana . Ka haere ia ki Hawaiki . I never did not meet your brother but our paths have definitely crossed and who knows if there is an Hawaiki maybe will again

  3. Thank you for this tribute to your brother, James. Both of you, there you are, rooted in your very specific spot of world history, and through your lives I learned a great deal more about New Zealand and social forces through the decades. You brothers responded differently, as individuals do, intertwined awhile, and branched off. Through what you share of his life and legacy, I was struck how Andrew displays his courage, his ability to pay attention – an act of profound respect. I especially enjoyed your account of the Bastion Point movement, the trial, the entirely unexpected bonus from staying to fight. Beautiful work. You honor Andrew here, and I am so sorry for your loss. Kathleen

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  4. A great read…we were the same age and lived through same times.
    So sorry for your loss Jeremy and for Andrews own family. Sending hugs x

  5. Thanks James, sorry for the loss of Andrew, but great to hear your shared earlier story

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