Lara Greaves: Māori politics, policy and protest

Dr Lara Greaves' research spans sexuality, voter apathy, Māori voting, Māori identity and referenda. She answers questions about her academic path for UniNews.

Dr Lara Greaves is part of the Public Policy Institute.
Dr Lara Greaves is part of the Public Policy Institute. Photo: Elise Manahan

What’s your role at the University?
I teach first-year New Zealand Politics and Politics 229, Māori Politics and Public Policy. I really like teaching first-year because there’s so much energy in the class and it’s a lot of fun, especially in an election year. I recently got the students to do a political meme assignment which doesn’t sound that academic but, in fact, the meme is really the modern version of the political cartoon. Those little images and memes are so important to our political culture now. We pull them apart and explore the ideological assumptions behind them.

You’ve taught in various disciplines. Why?
I started in psychology and then moved into politics at Waikato and then to social sciences and public policy at AUT. But back at Auckland I have the best of several worlds. I’m part of the Public Policy Institute (PPI) so I have numerous threads of research aiming to inform public policy.

What kind of research?

I do a lot on sexuality. That began when I started working on the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study (NZAVS) in 2011, helping out Professor Chris Sibley. Part of the survey looks at the way people label their sexual orientation over time. It’s important research to me, being pansexual takatāpui. I feel like I can have a good impact there.

My PhD at Auckland (psychology) was on Māori political attitudes and behaviour, and that theme is ongoing. I’m interested in voter apathy and why Māori choose to go on either the Māori roll or the general roll. Also important is my research on Māori identity. I’m Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Kuri, Tararā and Pākehā and I’ve been looking at issues that affect those of Māori descent or Māori ethnicity and the negative social outcomes even among those who don’t list their ethnicity as Māori. That has drawn me to look at Māori health inequities.

I’m also doing a paper about referenda and contributing to a chapter about the cannabis and euthanasia referenda. They’re both so important but with Covid-19 they’re not getting air time.

That’s a lot of threads.
Ha! I’m like Jill or Jack of all trades, but trying to master all of them. To me, it’s like having different hobbies. When I really get into something I like being able to switch topics when I need to. So, say it’s Māori issues there’s a point at which I go ‘damn this is heavy’. So I head into Rainbow topics but then I might say ‘Oh this is heavy too’. The swing voters stuff is never too heavy, but it might get a bit depressing.

Anyway it’s all fascinating and at age 30 I’m really just finding my place in all this. One of my mentors, Jade Le Grice in psychology, she’s really a tuakana to me, like a big sister in academia. She’s encouraging me to find where I fit, especially within Māori research. As someone who didn’t grow up in te ao Māori, but is Māori nonetheless, I am just figuring that out. Jennifer Curtin in the PPI has been great, Chris Sibley of course, Associate Professor Terryann Clark from nursing and Professor Janine Hayward, from politics at Otago.

It does seem like academia is moving towards having an impact, rather than just publishing in traditional journals. That was one reason I was happy to change disciplines from psychology to politics, because I really like working with public policy. A lot of the PPI’s work is directly applicable to New Zealanders’ lives.

What’s been your path to academia?
I didn’t go to high school. I did Correspondence School because I had chronic fatigue syndrome. I didn’t get enough NCEA credits for University Entrance and finally qualified aged 19. I had a year off to work and then did extramural study – psychology and politics – at Massey for a BA. I wanted to try law so came to Auckland but it wasn’t for me, although I do find law really interesting. There are overlaps between public and electoral law and some of what we do in political science. What led me to what I’m doing now was working with the NZAVS – that was the spark.  

It seems like academia is moving towards having an impact, rather than just publishing in traditional journals. 

Dr Lara Greaves, Public Policy Institute University of Auckland

You won an emerging researcher (Rangahau Hauora Māori stream) grant from the Health Research Council (HRC). What’s the project?
It’s called ‘The Māori in-between: Identity, health and social service access needs’. Tracing whakapapa can be difficult for Māori and many don’t know their iwi. We have policies targeted at reconnection to culture for Māori but many are like ‘yes I identify as Māori but I can’t connect deeply as I don’t know my iwi’. So if we are addressing health and social service needs and creating a kaupapa Māori health system run by iwi providers, a segment of the population will fall between mainstream social service providers and iwi-based providers because of this disconnect.

Are you still doing research with the NZAVS?
Yes, for example it’s such a good way to study Rainbow groups because it’s a big longitudinal survey. So with sexuality, there are plenty of asexuals, for example, in the study and we can do interviews to broaden it further. We also know there are changes in sexuality over time, and I’m working on a paper around that.

Do you feel there’s a lot of research happening but not much action in some areas?
Yeah, Rainbow communities have been saying for a while, ‘how many times can we do this research?’ But it’s still important to monitor things over time.

What do you prefer, psychology or politics?
When I was teaching psychology and told people at social gatherings what I did, they shared their stories of mental health with me. Which was fine. When I tell them I lecture in politics, I get trapped by people telling me everything that’s wrong with Jacinda Ardern. I’m like, can’t I just eat my barbecue and talk about the weather?

What do you do in your spare time?
I was learning te reo but – and I sympathise with my students here – I found doing classes via Zoom just too hard. Despite being a classic overachiever, I just couldn’t do it. So I dropped out but I will get back into that self-guided journey. I have a two-year-old son so in my spare time I pick up tiny teddies from the rug and run around after him in the playground. For relaxation, my go-to is Pilates and I admit to liking really bad reality TV shows.

This Q and A first appeared in the July 2020 edition of UniNews