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Monday, 24 November 2014 05:59 am

All things being equal (or not) that is the question

Max Rashbrooke at home

THE sun is pouring through the windows of Max Rashbrooke’s Aro Valley house and a canopy of honeysuckle is visible from the deck.

In the summer months Max usually dons gardening clothes and cuts back the vines from the native bush underneath, but this summer he’s been computer-bound, working hard on his first book.Inequality: a New Zealand crisis and what we can do about it, will be launched in May.

“My job [with the book] has been to collate the academics’ writing [on the inequality], and weave in my pieces of investigative journalism so that it becomes more readable and accessible,” says Max.

Max has been freelancing for the past few years, contributing to, among other publications, Wellington’s Fishhead magazine and the Listener.

Sandwiched between Fishhead’s fashion and wine pages in the most recent issue is an up- close-and-personal Rashbrooke-look at some of Wellington’s less-interviewed characters: the man who evangelises in the city centre, a regular chalk-wielding protester outside Parliament and ‘Billy the Kid’, a washer of windscreens of cars stopped at intersections.

Born in Wellington in 1980, Max grew up in Eastbourne and attended Petone College.

“As a 12-year-old, I lived in the world of books, but it was decided that it would be good for me to go to a school where I would encounter a range of people. It was quite a small place, and it suited me. I think, in a big school, it’s easier to find a small group of people who are just like you, but at Petone College I got to mingle more with kids from different backgrounds. It gave me a broader appreciation of how things are than if I had gone to a private school.”

Max says it was his parents’ values that shaped his emerging world view.

“My parents are strong believers in fairness and justice. They are probably the underlying reason why I chose to do this work. My parents shaped my personal values, more than any political ideas I have. We didn’t talk about politics around the dinner table, but we did discuss values. My parents’ values are very strongly on the side of treating people well, and equally.”

When he’s not at home on his computer, he can be seen at the opera or the theatre or perhaps singing with The Doubtful Sounds. This group, led by broadcaster Bryan Crump, specialises in pop arrangements and were last seen performing in The Dell to a large crowd.

Max plays piano, and on the sporty side of things was serious about his soccer for a long time, making the Hutt Valley regional reps while a teenager.

His interest in journalism was sparked by a stint at Salient, the student magazine of Victoria University, where he volunteered from 1999-2001 and became editor in 2002.

Max Rashbrooke, illustration by Toby Morris

Auckland designer Toby Morris, who worked as Salient’s production manager that year, describes Max as an industrious worker, even in the chaotic environment of a student newspaper.

“He worked hard, took his role seriously and was extremely thorough in his reporting and later editing, but at the same time he also rolled with the madness in his own unique way.

“He’s a curious guy at heart, I think that’s what makes him a great writer,” he says.

Toby remembers one stormy Wellington day. “Max was standing at the window looking out for a long time. I was moaning about the terrible weather. No, said Max, weather like this is the best. On a stormy day things are happening.”

Max enjoyed the freedom and independence of working on the student publication, and discovered he wanted to go further with his writing.

“I got a sense of what being a journalist might be like. I realised the power of writing to influence people.”

He headed off on his OE to the UK in 2004 where he freelanced for various newspapers, including The Guardian, and edited a finance magazine.

Returning home in late 2010, the germ of an idea began to grow in his mind. “I started to think about writing a book about inequality in New Zealand.

“Given that was only a couple of years ago, it’s a surprise that it’s almost finished now,” he says.
In 2011 he won the Bruce Jesson Foundation Award as a grant towards his work on the book, which is being published by Bridget Williams Books.

Max has immense respect for Bridget. “She has been closely involved in shaping the book.

“One of the great things about her is that she is committed to doing good books, books that ask questions about New Zealand and why things are the way they are, books that matter.”

He believes the time is right for such a work to hit New Zealand bookshops.

“I think we were at a point, pre-financial crisis, when we thought we had everything sorted, but now people are re-evaluating everything. No one’s really clear of the way ahead. Inequality is now something people are thinking about again, and there’s a lot of uncertainty, which means there’s an opportunity to really shape the terms of the debate.

“It’s maybe not going to be holiday reading, but the hope is that it will be read widely.”

Does he think the book will ruffle any feathers?

“Yes, I think it will. There are people who find this conversation really uncomfortable. A lot are comfortable talking about poverty, but inequality is much more confronting. We haven’t had to have this conversation before, because we were a more equal society.”

For research, he spent three wintry weeks in a damp boarding house. Out of that experience came an article for the Listener.

Max talked about these boarding house horrors with broadcaster Kim Hill on Radio New Zealand and his experience will make their way into the book as part of a larger picture of deprivation in this country.

Ms Hill has also chaired two public meetings at Te Papa, at which contributing academics spoke.

The problem of deprivation in this country is a complex one, says Max. Cramming it into one book has been very difficult.

“For example, what is the best solution to it? Is it that we need incomes to be more equal, or opportunities? What about the idea of social status equality? Then there are the huge issues of education, health and tax.

“And of course, reflecting the Maori experience, since we are a bicultural society, and Maori suffer so badly from inequality.”

Max is only too aware that his chosen life as an investigative journalism will not lead to riches, but he says: “I’d rather have an exciting life than a stable one in which I can’t do what I want to do.”

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