Chris Tooley talks about moving from research on self-determination to his role in the New Zealand government.
Chris Tooley may have done his PhD on establishing an ethics of self-determination, but his interest is far from just academic. Not only has he gone on to put theory into practice, but he has done so at the highest level, as Chief Advisor to Minister of Maori Affairs in the New Zealand Parliament.
He is now a consultant working across Government and academia, mainly focusing on governance restructuring and strategy and sitting on some PhD assessment panels.
He says he really enjoyed working in Parliament, providing advice and participating in the executive decision-making process. “It’s a high pressured environment that has a hectic pace. The amount and flow of information coming into the office is extraordinary and the engagement with leaders across various sectors is highly rewarding,” he says.
Sometimes, he adds, it can be surreal, for example, working on a multi-million dollar budget then hoping on a plane at short notice to attend the funeral of Nelson Mandela.. He notes the need for policymakers to escape the bubble and be connected to the world outside parliament. He says: “Sometimes when dealing in abstract or general terms with high fiscal numbers it’s easy to become detached from the nuances on the ground, which is a constant battle.”
Another challenge is dealing with constant opposition and the pressure to get things right at the right time is high. There’s also a clear difference between politics and academia. He says: “Theory does not have a place in parliament. It’s a constant interplay between historical memory, philosophical ethos, modelling, scenario mapping, efficiencies and statutory requirements within enclosed electoral cycles.”
Born in New Zealand, Chris  was initially drawn to a career in teaching sports after seeing his Physical Education teachers in track suits, sunglasses and playing sport in the sun all day long. “I thought, that’s the life,” he says. He excelled at sport at school, making the New Zealand Secondary and Junior Athletic teams. He was in the Junior Athletic Team until his early 20s, which involved a lot of training. He says his athletics’ prowess taught him to be competitive and develop an individual work ethic where he only had himself to blame if he did not win.
He attended Massey University and trained to be a PE teacher, but while he was there he became interested in politics and sociology, in particular the concept of power and how it was exercised.
“Towards the end of my undergraduate degree I lost interest in being a teacher and education really. My interest in politics, sociology and philosophy took over as I became interested in power across the national and international spectrum, in particular nationalism/self-determination issues.”
This led him to apply for a Master of Arts in politics and the sociology of education at the University of Auckland.. For his masters he looked into the Maori education framework that was created in opposition to the mainstream framework and offered a break-away alternative. “It addressed long oppressed knowledge and language systems of Maori, but acted as a vanguard of cultural renaissance for the entire self-determination movement which other frameworks then developed,” he says.
After his masters, he received a scholarship to do a PhD in New Zealand, but he wanted to be challenged on the international stage at an internationally renowned university and he also wanted to study in an environment which offered different perspectives and expertise. The Gates Cambridge Scholarship was the deciding factor in him choosing Cambridge.
He did a research internship at the Ministry of Education’s National Office in Wellington to get a taste of working in the public sector and then sent in his application.
He was appointed Co-Chair of the International Youth Parliament that involved developing position papers on a number of policies and attended the UN World Youth Forum as New Zealand delegate during this time. He also studied at the United National University in Tokyo on the UN System and International Development.
At Cambridge, his PhD was based in the Faculty of Education. He says this is because he looked at power and self-determination from the fields of philosophy, law, politics, sociology, psychology, international relations, ethics and pedagogy and therefore didn’t fit neatly into other departments.
He focused on self-determination. He says: “It’s the pinnacle expression of freedom that any one group of peoples can achieve – and for that reason many people around the world continue to struggle, be persecuted, be oppressed, be killed, under its banner,” he says. “I’m interested by how peoples and states have achieved self-determination throughout history, how they achieved it and why others have failed and continue to fail. Ultimately, the status of self-determination is itself a pointer to the current global and geo-politics and power-dynamics at play. I also chose it because it is a fundamental element of New Zealand’s political landscape.”
In addition to his studies, Chris was in the inaugural Gates Scholars Council and in the First Mens Boat for Girton.
Straight after Cambridge he undertook a two-year post-doctoral fellowship in politics at the University of Auckland and then took up a job as Chief Advisor to Minister of Maori Affairs in the New Zealand Parliament where he stayed for six years before taking on his current consultancy role, straddling the academic/policy divide.
He is positive about the progress of the Maori towards self-determination. He says: “The self-determination of the Maori has continued to advance, Treaty settlements have enabled Maori to build up their asset base and allow them to fund their own initiatives. One of the significant milestones was to get the New Zealand Government to adopt the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People which we announced when we were in Office. Recently I wrote an Op-Ed in a national paper arguing that the Maori are going through their next renaissance cycle, from creating spaces to consolidating them as there are multiple restructures occurring across the country.”
*Picture credit: Wikipedia.