Kelvin Davis' demons

by Guyon Espiner / 30 July, 2015
Backbench Labour MP Kelvin Davis is hogging the headlines with revelations about prison violence. But his big regret is not doing enough as a school principal to flush a paedophile teacher out of the woodwork.
KelvinDavis Kelvin Davis: determined to be Parliament’s voice against sexual violence. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

Demons are haunting Kelvin Davis. That’s why he’s on a mission. His mission is men. Blokes needing to speak up and speak out. In a guy’s way. Cut it out, bro. Just bloody get out there. Talk about it.

We can’t talk about all the demons in this story. Some of them are in small communities. Some of them are relatives of prominent politicians. None of them involve anything Kelvin Davis has done. But one of the demons involves something he didn’t do. He tried. He could’ve tried harder, probably. Nothing was done.

In 2007, when Davis was principal of Kaitaia Intermediate School, he was told of more than a dozen sexual abuse cases in the town. He called a meeting of school principals and community leaders and gathered about 35 of them in a room.

“I said, ‘Welcome. Look, this is why I’ve called you here. I’ve just heard of 13 instances in the past three weeks of sexual abuse …’ And I sort of expected people to go, ‘Oh my god, that’s terrible! What are we going to do about it?’ Instead it was just dead silence.” An awkward silence.

“And then someone said, ‘Well, what do you hope to achieve from this meeting, Kelvin?’ And I went, ‘Well, I don’t know. I just want to bloody blow it out of the water. If we say something in the newspaper and create a bit of a stink, we may be able to stop someone else from being abused.’”

Silence again. Then another school principal spoke up. “He said, ‘Have you given any thought to what might fall out of the woodwork and whether we are resourced to cope with that?’”

Davis remembers the question as clear as day. He hadn’t thought about it. He felt stupid. He ended the meeting. The idea was to get together again in a couple of weeks with a plan. But for whatever reason, it never happened.

“What does fall out of the woodwork about five or six years later is James Parker.” He shakes his head at the memory. In August 2013, paedophile teacher James Parker was sentenced to preventive detention after admitting 74 sex charges relating to his actions with boys on sleepovers at his Awanui farm in Northland. Parker had been deputy principal of Pamapuria School. Between 1999 and 2012, he committed more than 300 offences.

“I just thought, ‘In the five years [since calling the meeting], how many more kids were abused by James Parker?’” He’d broken his own rules. “Often in education I would back my instincts and go against the grain, and that was an instance where I knew there was something wrong and I should have backed my instincts and I should have gone with it,” he says. “If we’d done something,then maybe we could have prevented some kids from being abused by him.”

Family The Davis family, with Kelvin in the middle.


Let’s be honest. Davis’ political career did not have a stellar start. The past three weeks have easily been the highlight as he has dominated the media daily with revelations about the running of Mt Eden prison by private operator Serco. He admits he’s not a natural politician. He lost Te Tai Tokerau to Hone Harawira three times. He entered Parliament on the list in 2008 and was turfed out in 2011. He came back in on the list in May 2014, when Shane Jones quit, and then he finally beat Harawira in the 2014 general election when the Mana Party leader committed political suicide by teaming up with Kim Dotcom. Endorsements from Winston Peters and John Key probably also helped Davis over the line.

This time he was determined not to repeat the mistakes of his first term. “I remember giving a speech after I got the boot from Parliament at the Kaitaia Rotary Club and I said I was not sure what I actually achieved in those three years,” he says. “What was my legacy? So I thought if I ever have the chance again I have to narrow my focus and really make a difference.”

Just what that focus would be crystallised in late 2013. He was still stewing over the Parker case. He was out of Parliament and not up to much. He was sitting in an armchair at home watching the TV news. “Boomf. The Roast Busters burst. I sat there thinking, ‘These little pricks. They intoxicated, violated, humiliated and celebrated abusing girls on Facebook.’” Carol Beaumont fronted the issue for Labour. “I was sitting there going, ‘No one is listening. She is not getting cut through. Something is wrong with this picture. Why is it little Carol sitting there almost pleading with men to keep women safe? Where is the male voice? Where are the men?’”

It was a light-bulb moment for Davis. “These words went through my head: ‘Kelvin, if you are ever back in Parliament, you have to be that voice.’” Fate did the rest. “Then Shane resigned and boomf. I’m back down here and you have to go for it.” And he has. Whereas Labour’s other Maori MPs have got little traction in Parliament or the media, Davis has expanded his anti-violence focus to prisons, where his crusade against Serco has led to the Corrections Department stepping in to run Mt Eden prison, a huge hit for an Opposition backbench MP.

He’s also been walking the talk on his crusade against sexual violence. He’s just finished a huge trek covering the length of his electorate to raise awareness of the issue. Davis led supporters of Massive – Men Against Sexual Violence – in the hikoi from West Auckland to Cape Reinga, covering 25km a day, visiting schools and small towns along the 440km journey. He brought along for expert advice the founders of the Maori support service Korowai Tumanako, Russell Smith and Joy Te Wiata, because, as expected, there were disclosures made along the way, including by a Whangarei woman who’d just found out her husband of 30 years was a sexual violence perpetrator.

Most revealing were the school visits. Davis’s advisers told him that one of the ways into offending is sharing explicit messages over social media. “When we went into schools and said, ‘Just don’t do this sort of stuff’, you could see a few heads go down, some shuffling of feet and nudging of mates – so we called them out on it.” Davis managed to convince MPs from every party to join him at some point on his journey and won plaudits from Human Rights Commissioner Jackie Blue for the cross-party approach. He even had 100 bikers turn up at one event.

The more he talks and the more people talk to him, the more he realises how bad the problem is. “It’s just rampant. It’s just everywhere,” he says. “There are bugger-all families I know that are untouched by sexual violence. It’s the silence that allows it to happen.”

He wants men to break that silence. “Speak out in a blokes’ way. Let’s not be embarrassed about it. Let’s just bloody get out there.” That includes men calling out other men for their language and culture around sex. “There is a lot of behaviour that we engage in as men that is actually inappropriate. Instead of going into some intellectual thing and calling it inappropriate behaviour, just say, ‘Bro, cut that out. I don’t want to hear about it. Don’t talk about your girlfriend like that.’”

He’s passionate about this and determined to cut through with his plain-speaking style. But how much does he actually know about the subject? “The hikoi is just about raising awareness. So I started sitting down with people who work in the field. I’m new to it. I admit I don’t know anything. I just jumped in and actually pissed a few people off and made a lot of other people happy.”


Davis360 Kelvin Davis at Parliament. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

Some of his ideas sound a little optimistic. Naive even. He’s calling on potential sexual abusers to speak out before they abuse. “Wouldn’t it be the greatest thing if people started to go, ‘Oh my God, I’m having these weird thoughts about my daughter’ or step-daughter or niece or something. If you are thinking like that, get some bloody help before you actually cause some harm.”

Although, to be fair, he has heard perpetrators speak out about their behaviour, including a kaumatua at a marae meeting on sexual violence. “This guy says, speaking as a victim but also as a perpetrator, ‘I think back to the poor girl that I helped violate.’ That speech was bloody moving,” he says. “It must be pretty therapeutic to go and tell someone, ‘This is what I did’, and if they can actually connect with the person – if the person wants to and if the survivor wants to connect – that must be really healing.”

If that sounds unlikely in many cases, then Davis admits he’s shooting for the moon. When I ask him what he wants to achieve, he says: “A New Zealand that is free of sexual and family violence.”

He believes there is a strong link between youth suicide and sexual abuse. He says this is cloaked in denial, illustrating his point with another anecdote from his travels in the Far North. “This guys stands up at a meeting and goes, ‘My son committed suicide and it was terrible and it gutted me.’ And he sat down and I was thinking, ‘Mate, we know what you did to your wife, we know how you bloody bashed her and raped her and you are sitting here wondering why your son committed suicide. Seeing my mother get the bash like that would bloody drive me to suicide too.’”

He says focusing on young peoples’ self-esteem misses the point. “You don’t boost their self-esteem by taking them fishing. You boost their self-esteem by loving their mothers and looking after them.”

The last thing he wants, though, is for fathers to pull back from displays of affection for their kids through fear of being misinterpreted. “Every morning since the day they were all born, I kiss [my kids], I cuddle them, I tell them I love them. My son hasn’t grown up to be effeminate or anything like that – he wants to go into the army, he’s into his mixed martial arts and he’s just a good man.”


A good man. That would sum up how many people view Davis. A good, keen man. Humble, strong and honest. The backstory, growing up in Kawakawa, certainly fits the image. “We weren’t wealthy by any stretch of the imagination. Dad was a freezing worker and Mum held down a number of jobs.” Life was good. “We were all living in each others’ houses, all mates, going into the bush, building huts and swimming the floods – it was really cool.” Home was Leonard St, at the end of Whiteman Rd, funnily enough. “All Maoris on both streets. But on Leonard St there were 14 families, and I think 96 kids in those families, and there was the one Pakeha family down the bottom of the cul-de-sac. They had the good old nuclear family: one boy and one girl. Our families had heaps.”

Of the 96 children, just three of them went to university. “One being my sister, who is a teacher, one being my brother, who is a judge, and the girl across the road who also became a teacher.” The extraordinary strike rate of the Davis family can be put down to his parents’ relentless focus on education. Kelvin wasn’t given the option of leaving high school – in fact, his parents refused to let him take a job he desperately wanted halfway through his last year. The Davis kids went to school come hell or high water. “I remember one time when it flooded and at that time we were on one side of Kawakawa and the school was on the other and there was just this single-lane bridge. The bridge was out with the flood but somehow my parents found a way across. No one went to school except the Davis kids. It was like, unless you’re dead, you’re going to school.”


It’s not surprising, then, that Davis embraced education as his first career, teaching in schools in Mangere and Kawakawa before becoming principal of Karetu School in 1994. He did a stint with the Ministry of Education and in 2001 began a seven-year stretch as principal of Kaitaia Intermediate.

Then politics came knocking. Shane Jones asked him to replace Dover Samuels as Labour’s Te Tai Tokerau candidate for the 2008 election. The approach caused some soul-searching for Davis, who had in 2005 voted for Hone Harawira, then in the Maori Party, because he was “brassed off” about Labour’s foreshore and seabed actions.

But the attraction of Harawira was fleeting. “I thought, ‘He’s just about grievance and protest and blame.’ We have to be successful despite our past, and so I got disillusioned with that sort of rhetoric and thought, ‘Here’s an opportunity to put my money where my mouth is.’”

So Jones got him into politics, Jones got him back into Parliament and Jones has been a political hero and mentor for him. He even occupies Jones’ old office in Parliament. The Jones character seems to stalks him. “People sort of want me to be the next Shane Jones,” he says. “People just love characters and he’s this loud, out-there, don’t-give-a-damn sort of person.”

But that’s not Davis. He does give a damn. He’s doesn’t have Jones’s rhetorical flourish or confidence. He’s cautious, even a little unsure. But he’s brave, determined and willing to put himself out there, as shown by his dogged pursuit of the Serco scandal. “I just have to be myself. If I try to be anyone else, I’m going to come a cropper,” he says. You get the sense he is only now finding himself as a politician. “I’m not a natural politician. I wasn’t born to be a politician. I guess I was outspoken as an educator but not radically so.”

He’s humble, then, although his goals are anything but. He wants to end sexual and domestic violence in New Zealand, no less. No victims. And he wants Maori to stop being victims too.

“If we think that we’re in the bad state we’re in because Pakeha did this to us, then we’re basically admitting that Pakeha New Zealand is better than us. They are stronger than us. They won. Hell no. I just refuse to accept that victim tag and I want other Maori to refuse to accept that victim tag and go, ‘We’re going to be successful despite our past.’”

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