No one likes the tax man. Not even his mum. But Dany Miller-Kareko is the modern face of the IRD, who’s out to convince Kiwis she’s here to help. James Borrowdale followed her around Auckland while she tried.
If there was one place to prove that old adage wrong – the one about about the inescapability of life’s twin inconveniences, death and taxes – it may’ve been the far-north town of Rawene in the late 19th century. Indeed, both still seem vaguely hypothetical if you visit on the right day: the town sleepily occupies the terminal point of a canine-tooth-shaped peninsula jutting into the Hokianga. At high tide, the buildings on the town’s waterfront appear almost to float on the ocean’s surface; low tide reveals the full length of spindly legs affixing them to the foreshore. A ferry plies the harbour, and, nearby, the Takeke River merges into the sea. Clendon House, the handsome former home of James Clendon, a magistrate and witness to the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, stands – red-roofed, brilliantly white – in the centre of town.
In 1898, Clendon decided to enforce the dog tax, a tax of two shillings and sixpence per dog, to the law’s full letter – it had previously been happily ignored in the Hokianga. The tax’s imposition was opposed by Hone Riiwi Toia, a local prophet and leader of Te Huihui, a group of Wesleyans who, partly inspired by the ideals Te Whiti and the peaceful resistance at Parihaka, aspired to live free of colonial interference. The tax became a lightning rod for the group’s frustrations: “If dogs were to be taxed,” the prophet is reported to have told a meeting of his followers, “men would be next.”
The disagreement escalated. The rebels armed themselves; the army arrived. Rawene was evacuated, its citizenry taking refuge across the harbour in a schoolhouse in Kohukohu, crossing the water by the same route the ferry does today. Three ships arrived from Auckland and Wellington. Troops bedded down in the town’s public buildings. Toia’s men fired shots over the heads of the assembled constabulary, and an all-out battle was feared.
Only negotiations undertaken by Hone Heke Rankin, nephew to his famous namesake and a Māori Member of Parliament, mean the so-called Dog Tax War will forever be one of history’s overstatements. “Trouble Satisfactorily Settled” a contemporary newspaper report was titled: the rebels were arrested and sent down the line to serve terms in Auckland.
Their ideas, of course, survived the imprisonment.
Dany Miller-Kareko (Ngāpuhi), 22, is an Inland Revenue Department Kaitakawaenga Māori Community Compliance Officer. She’s the kind of 22-year-old who impugns what you remember of your younger self with the sheer precocity of her competence. Especially when, with the self-assurance of someone twice her age, she addresses a room full of people double her age: market gardeners, plasterers, a woman setting up an anti-money laundering consultancy – an optimistic cross section of Auckland’s entrepreneurial class. “Friendly, kind, respectful,” is how one 29-year-old house painter, two weeks into his career as his own boss, described Miller-Kareko to me as we chatted during a break in a seminar she was leading under the unforgiving lights of a downtown meeting room.
Had Miller-Kareko, and her job description, been around in Toia’s day – and her marae isn’t far from Rawene, across the hills and to the northeast, in Kaeō, near another glorious harbour, the Whangaroa – there may’ve been no need for shots fired and eventual imprisonment. Her role is designed explicitly to counteract the kinds of sentiments displayed by Toia and his rebels; on her endless circuit around Auckland she meets with business people – often Māori, but not always – in homes and workplaces and on marae, explaining their tax obligations and offering advice on how to meet them.
Under Te Tiriti o Waitangi, government institutions have a responsibility to make services as accessible to Māori as they are to everyone else. Part of that, of course, is providing services in what Miller-Kareko calls a “culturally appropriate context”. Her fluency in tīkanga Māori provides that context. It’s a far rarer talent than she would like. “Not everyone has the skills, unfortunately, and I hope that one day everyone does.” But in the meantime, she sees herself as a kind of mediator, using those skills to build bridges between Inland Revenue and the businesses she deals with.
She would call Toia’s reasoning the “I’m-not-a-taxpayer” argument. And it’s a familiar one.
I spent several days with Miller-Kareko, travelling around Auckland to the soundtrack of FM radio’s former top-40 hits, talking about the unique challenges of her job. There was the time she was chased off a suburban property by a marauding ostrich, another when she had to advise an illiterate man his tax obligations surrounding an ill-gotten $600,000. Most appointments, however, stick more closely to the mundane – a meeting with one of the owners of Katrina’s Kitchen Gardens in a verdant pocket of West Auckland, to talk about depreciation and preferred accounting software, an appointment with a former cop to discuss his tax obligations in regards to his cryptocurrency-trading venture. But between such meetings, as we drove, Miller-Kareko told me about the encounters that have proven far more challenging.
“I had a terrible experience last week,” Miller-Kareko told me one morning as we set off. She filled me in: a woman had asked to see a Kaitakawaenga Māori, and had been upset from the outset – “as sometimes happens in my job, people seem to be looking for a platform to air all of their vague criticisms about ‘the system’ and the government and, you know, ‘the man’.” Miller-Kareko spent two increasingly fraught hours – “a long time to spend with someone who is not very happy” – answering questions about tax obligations surrounding Māori land and the client’s whānau trust.
“She initially very softly accused me of not understanding the Māori way of doing things… She sort of accused me of trying to be Pākehā, or of only seeing things through a Pākehā lens. Eventually she did not want to interact any more. She’d had quite enough and she said, ‘I asked for a Māori person to help me but instead I’ve got you and I don’t want to deal with you.’” By now, Miller-Kareko says, this client was hysterical. “She sort of followed me down the driveway, talking about how she was disappointed and how she felt I couldn’t help her and how I should be ashamed to take a government salary.”
Encounters like the one described above have happened often enough to give Miller-Kareko an indication of the country’s attitudes. “When I started this job I was just absolutely floored by people’s distrust in the government – I was genuinely shocked. I was surprised at how mistrusting people were… I think that a fair number of people genuinely believe at the core of their belief system that the government makes things difficult for them on purpose, or is intentionally disadvantaging them.”
That’s a sentiment Ellen*, 45, can understand. She works as a translator, contracting to hospitals and courts, and had fallen severely behind on her taxes. The distrust with which marginalised communities view institutions of government was evident in the reactions of those close to her when they found she had invited Miller-Kareko into her home: her accountant told her it was impossible to reason with the department, and her mum was even more cynical. “She was like, ‘Why? Why are they coming over? Are they going to like lock you up or arrest you or something?’”
But previous experience had taught Ellen the opposite. In 2008, under the financial pressure of unpaid taxes, she said – voice falling to a whisper at the mention of the “s word” – her husband had attempted suicide. It became a catalyst for change. The couple met with an IRD community compliance officer and began to sort through the mess, relieved some of that pressure, and came up with an affordable plan to start paying back what was owed. “When you get to that level, all you want is some lifesaver that will come in and say, ‘Hey, look, there’s another solution, I understand what you’re going through. It’s going to take some time but let’s work through it.’”
Ellen, who was already supporting her mother and grandmother, got into renewed tax trouble when “a whole village” of relatives moved in and she could no longer keep up with her repayments. She says Miller-Kareko, whose father is one of 21 children, immediately understood. “She was like, ‘Yeah, I so get it.’ Because that kind of thing happens with her family as well.” The two sat down in Ellen’s home, went over her finances, and came up with a plan for repayment, one that was manageable for Ellen and agreeable to the IRD.
For Ellen, personal connections are vital; being reduced to a number and a bunch of notes passed along to different disembodied voices on the other end of a phone line does nothing to help people comply – it merely scares them away. She likes that Miller-Kareko, by contrast, sees how the people she helps live their lives. “I think the community liaison people have built a lot of trust, confidence from the Polynesian people because we’re not very communicative. Like, if we know we’ve got problems, we don’t share it with people; we just sit there thinking we’ll manage it ourselves. At the last minute you have someone turning up and they’re going to seize your car.” A cup of tea in your own home with someone relatable is, of course, better than a voice on the phone making obscure threats of “further action”. “That’s scary as! All I could think was, ‘Heck, oh my gosh! They’re gonna, I don’t know, send the police around.’”
Miller-Kareko understands that the relationship between the Crown and Māori – and, potentially, therefore, between her and Māori clients, when she meets them in her professional capacity – is fraught with socio-political baggage. But also that it is mitigated by her experience as tangata whenua. “I can quite honestly and quite genuinely, as a Māori person and as a Māori woman living in New Zealand, say I understand your frustrations with the government… there are ways in which the government disadvantages Māori people that I understand and am aware of.”
In the eyes of the irate woman who hurled insults her way, Miller-Kareko’s professional heritage – stretching back at least as far as James Clendon and the Dog Tax War – had superseded her personal whakapapa. “Does it hurt, I asked, having your loyalties, your very identity, questioned? “It stopped me in my tracks, definitely. I think, probably, if I were a more sensitive person it would be upsetting. I don’t like that, that’s unpleasant. I don’t want people to think that I’ve sold out on Māori culture. And I don’t like that… I try not to worry too much about it but it’s definitely unpleasant.”
In the Māori communities Miller-Kareko predominantly works in, there is a proportion that believes that sovereignty was never ceded under Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and that, consequently, there is no moral or legal imperative to pay tax – especially to a government some see as the agent of their oppression. While Miller-Kareko herself has her “own beliefs about how the Treaty was potentially misinterpreted or translated in different ways”, she says she has no internal conflict about the role she performs – not that, ultimately, her opinion matters. “People just have to understand, when we come into their businesses, when we come into their places of work or their marae that we are coming as agents of Inland Revenue. We have to keep the mana of the department intact.”
In Miller-Kareko’s view, she is in the trade of harnessing that mana, not for the government, but for the ideal that imperfect body purports to service and represent: society. “I think of tax in terms of being able to support people in our communities who are unable to support themselves… I think of it in the context of, these are the ways we contribute, not to government, but to the society we live in: to health care, to schooling for our children, to people who are sick and can’t work or who can’t find jobs, new parents.”
She thinks of herself as a kind of salesperson – but hers, she says, is the “absolute worst product of all time: you have to give the government 30 percent of your money”. Even so, on more than one occasion, after knocking on someone’s door unannounced – after running a report and seeing that all was not well with their accounts – she has been welcomed with tears and an “Oh, thank God.”
“It’s a good feeling to have your shit in order,” is how she puts it, and her arrival on your front doorstep might be your first step towards achieving that feeling.
And perhaps there is also another element in play. Ellen had mentioned to me her desire to be a good citizen and to conform; I began to think of tax, not only as our shared fund, but also as the price of inclusion, the shaded area of society’s Venn diagram where everybody – in an ideal world – meets: Māori, Pākehā, Pasifika, rich, poor. It’s an instinct Miller-Kareko finds useful in her work. “When I have issues with people who really disagree with the notion of tax, that is definitely one of the tacks that I take: you know, you will be the abnormal one in the situation. Our societal standards in this country do dictate that we all pay tax and we all contribute.”
A society in which everyone has a shared stake is one more likely to go some way towards easing the distances between groups in our society especially when, from another direction, much of the revenue gathered funds services that poorer communities are in greater need of. By helping people from historically disadvantaged communities meet their tax obligations, Miller-Kareko helps those with the most to gain from the welfare state contribute to its upkeep. And so, when she is accused of being somehow insufficiently Māori because of her work, she can remind herself that the “vital services that our communities, and Māori communities, badly need” that are, in part, funded by her efforts.
But, still. “It’s a clash that exists for me, and for all Māori people living in New Zealand,” she says of participation in Aotearoa’s post-colonial society, “and I understand that from as many perspectives as one can.” Those perspectives, with their genealogies grounded in the mess of history – in the Dog Tax War, in Clendon and Toia – resist neat, pithy reconciliation; and for Miller-Kareko, as she continues her journey around Auckland, there is ultimately no need. “I can separate the historical pains from the need to contribute to a society that functions now and is able to support its vulnerable people.”
* Not her real name
This content is brought to you by IRD. Ready for a cash flow game-changer? Only pay provisional tax when you’re making a profit. AIM, a new option with MYOB, Xero and APS.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.