Our People: Annette SykesSave
By Jill Nicholas
Drop the name Annette Sykes into a conversation and it's odds on a string of adjectives of the "firebrand", "rabble-rouser" and "Maori activist" kind will come hurtling back ... and we haven't even begun on the racist slurs that are part and parcel of her public persona.
Yes, she is a wahine toa (female warrior), yes, she is a woman railing against causes by the dozen, yes, she has had a charge of sedition, courtesy of then Prime Minister Jim Bolger, hanging over her head, but just how well-placed are her detractors' denunciations?
Having the advantage of knowing Annette Te Imaima Sykes well for the past three decades Our People can confidently urge readers to put preconceived prejudices aside. There's a great deal more to this Rotorua-born lawyer and Mana Party president than her horde of critics claim. With the controversial party's AGM opening in the city today what better time to peel back the superficial branding its executive leader's generally accorded?
First off the blocks let it be known that pure Maori blood doesn't course through her veins. Sykes shares her ethnicity 50-50 with the Maori and Pakeha worlds. Her late father, Jack, was the son of a blacksmith whose British birthplace carried the Sykes name; her Maori side stems from her mother Hilda's iwi links to Te Arawa, Mataatua and Tuhoe.
"When Dad moved on to his Taneatua farm Tame Iti served him with a trespass notice for being Pakeha, my mother sternly gave him her whakapapa [genealogy] and Dad became an intrinsic part of the Tuhoe community."
Later, so did Sykes.
Much of her schooling was in Kawerau, a town with an unenviable reputation for teenage pregnancies. English teacher and mentor Merata Mita wanted better things for her star pupil, steering her towards a scholarship to the United World College's Singapore campus. During her two years there she scored "pretty reasonable" marks in the tough International Baccalaureate exams, became head girl, chaired the school council and attended summer schools at Cambridge and Geneva Universities.
A social science project took her to Sumatra for six weeks, delving into trans-migration trends, "a parallel to the urbanisation of Maori"; Singaporean orphans learned English from her.
While visiting "high-powered aunties" in London the late John Rangihau and Bob (later Sir Robert) Mahuta convinced her to come home: "They said I was losing my Maori culture."
Winning a Victoria University scholarship, her sights were set on a BCom but that went out the window on July 29, 1981, the day the newly radical Annette Sykes was born. She was among the 2000 anti-Springbok tour protesters embroiled in the infamous battle of Molesworth St.
"I was a girly girl, we'd gone along as a group from the Maori Club with a guitar when right in front of us these cops battened this tiny woman's head wide open. At that moment of brutality my whole way of thinking was transformed."
Incensed by the injustice of the attack on such a vulnerable victim she swapped commerce for law; nor was the switch the only consequence of her staunch anti-tour stance. "It caused a major rift with my father. He was on the Bay of Plenty Rugby Union executive: That was one of the most testing times of his love for me."
From Victoria she transferred to Auckland, graduating in 1984. Returning to Rotorua she joined Trevor Booth's legal practice, working on Maori land lease issues. "It was at the time of the privatisation of forestry, my Waitangi Tribunal involvement had begun."
History will record Annette Sykes was the first Maori woman lawyer to present to the Tribunal, among her successes the Maori language claim: "It saw the revitalisation of te reo."
Next move was to Rangitauira and Lake, a firm with Maori claims and cases as its core business. "I got to junior with some very senior counsel on cases such as establishing Maori radio and TV, litigating the Fisheries claim." A direct result was her appointment to the Maori broadcasting funding agency, Te Mangi Paho, and deputy chairperson of Aotearoa Fisheries.
Annette Sykes, trailblazer, was becoming a force to be reckoned with.
"I became acutely aware of the privatisation of assets [which] was detrimental to Maori as a whole." The topic took her to the Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) meeting in Scotland and to represent New Zealand at South Africa's World Conference Against Racism, hosted by Winnie Mandela.
It was at an Asian Bank conference press gathering that her alleged sedition reared its head. "The BBC and Chinese newspapers reported me saying Maori would blow up dams, burn forests, but they totally misconstrued what I'd said; I was talking about activists in other countries. Jim Bolger wanted me charged with sedition."
With people such as the late Mike Bungay QC, civil libertarians and Te Arawa kaumatua Sir Charles Bennett on her case the threatened charge was dropped. "Sir Charles pointed out the Maori Battalion had fought for the freedom of speech, with that wonderful affirmation I refused to be silenced."
Unlikely as such an alliance then seemed, Sykes and Bolger later developed "a healthy respect" for each other; she invited him to facilitate her iwi's Treaty claims. She's stood shoulder to shoulder with Tuwharetoa and Tuhoe on similar, successful claims and is working with Ngapuhi on others yet to be resolved.
She was back under the spotlight during nationwide resistance to the fiscal envelope $1 billon offer to settle all outstanding Treaty claims and "mobilised" the hikoi protesting the Seabed and Foreshore legislation.
Spearheading protests and demonstrations aren't the only arrow in Annette Sykes' quiver. Four years ago she became a founding partner in Rotorua-based Aurere Law. A sought-after defence counsel, she makes regular appearances in courts at all levels. One day she'll be in the district court acting for a minor offender, the next may well find her making submissions before a bench of Supreme Court judges. It was there she succeeded in having charges thrown out against those she represented at the infamous Tuhoe terrorism trial.
In the 1990s she defended former partner and fellow activist Mike Smith on the wilful damage charge he faced after felling One Tree Hill's lone pine.
"Mike took the rap for that. It was Eva Rickard who planned it, she reckoned the pine was a symbol of colonial oppression, that it should have been a totara."
Annette Sykes established Rotorua's Rape Crisis Centre, prompted by the number of Rotorua women scarred by violence she met after her 1984 homecoming. Her commitment to the Women's Refuge Movement's on-going.
"When we started I got the elders, men, involved and visionary women with leadership qualities like the late Taini Morrison. People remember her for her work with kapa haka but what she did for battered women transformed their lives."
With so much time devoted to others does Annette Sykes have a life of her own?
"Of course I do, I have two wonderful adult sons from my five-year marriage to Thomas Tichborne. We met in Singapore, he was in the army. My mother remains the love of my life, her ill-health's dictated my private life in recent years. I spend as much time as I can with her."
Exactly where she finds that time is unclear. She's been at the political coalface since the Seabed and Foreshore furore, joining the Maori Party it spawned. Incensed by Hone Harawera's subsequent expulsion, she joined his breakaway Mana Party, becoming president at the urging of her predecessor Matt McCarten, when ill-health forced his resignation.
She has two strong sentiments about McCarten's recent appointment as Labour's chief of staff. "I'm very pleased David Cunliffe has him on board, but I'm even more pleased his cancer's in remission."
At the 2011 general election Annette Sykes stood unsuccessfully in the Waiariki Electorate against former Maori Party colleague Te Ururoa Flavell. Will she be taking another tilt at the seat? "That's for this weekend's hui to decide ... people who dismiss Mana as a political joke, a non-starter at the polls, are in for a shock. We're there to win."
Born: Rotorua, 1961, "A child of Aquarius."
Education: Rotoiti and Kawerau North Primaries, Kawerau Intermediate and College, United World College, Singapore, Victoria and Auckland Universities
Family: Two sons, one a lawyer, the other's in the army, mother Hilda, two stepbrothers, two sisters, two brothers, one of each whangaied (adopted).
Interests: Whanau, politics, netball (played for Wellington U20s while at Victoria) rugby, Waiata Tawhito (tangi laments) "I'm not bad at that stuff", "passionate" reader, social media, "I've developed an addiction to it".
Self-evaluation: "A passionate Maori rights activist making sure our people grow up in a society that achieves social and economic justice for all."
Personal philosophy: "You can't achieve your dreams without hard work."