More than 60 years ago, Winnie Laban’s mum and dad left Samoa and settled in Wellington.
They made their home in Wainuiomata where they became significant figures in the community – and where they brought up Winnie and her younger brother, Ken.
They, too, have led lives of service at many levels. Ken told Dale his story on e-tangata in “The lasting legacy from migrant parents”.
That was nearly two years ago. And now here’s Dale again, chatting this time with Winnie.
I was in your home suburb of Wainuiomata just a few weeks ago, Winnie. And, naturally, I was taken by its charm and by the beautiful cultural mix there. Can you take us back to the merging of Pasifika and Māori when your parents settled in Wainuiomata?
My parents came over from Samoa in 1954 to explore a different way of life. But, more importantly, they saw New Zealand as having more opportunities in education and work. They got married at the Congregational Church in Newtown. And then while my mother was expecting me, Dad worked at two jobs both during the day and night to save the deposit for a house.
You could capitalise the family benefit in those days and get a loan through the State Advances Corporation. Mum and Dad were looking for a place with a quarter-acre section that was affordable — and Wainuiomata was their choice.
The house they built and shifted into around the late 1950s is the house my brother Fauono Ken and his wife live in now. It’s very much the centre for our family — for our children and mokopuna. They’re a mix of Māori, Pākehā and Samoan. A volatile and exciting mix.
That was an interesting time because there were families coming from the islands to live in Wainuiomata as well as Māori shifting from the rural areas. Many built houses there. And many of those families have grown old together along with their children and grandchildren in Wainuiomata. My parents were heavily involved with the Wainuiomata marae, which was a gathering place for Māori and Pasifika and Pākehā in Wainui.
When I left parliament, I shifted back to Wainuiomata. My husband, Dr Peter Swain, and I bought our house there before I won the seat in Mana. This is where I grew up. It holds very deep memories. I remember when many of the boys played rugby league for Wainuiomata, including Ken, and it was a fairy tale story when they came from third grade to second grade, and ended up beating Ōtāhuhu in Auckland in the New Zealand Lion Red Cup final.
I was there that day when all the Wainui fans were marching up and down Carlaw Park. It was a remarkable win — and thoroughly deserved. But what about the reputation Wainuiomata has had for being the “Badlands”?
I see the Wainui people as passionate and courageous. Wainui isn’t “Badlands”. It’s an interesting community. And it had a lot of nicknames. Like in the early days when it had so many young families. It was known as “Nappy Valley” then.
Of course, the community does carry some baggage at times. But it’s a beautiful valley. Beautiful native bush and walks. And it’s a lovely community. Like any other community it has its good and bad side, but the good absolutely dominates the bad.
How were your school days? And what did they lead on to?
I went to Wellington Girls’ College and then to Erskine College where there weren’t many Māori and Pacific girls going through those secondary schools at the time. I got a well-rounded education. They had quite a focus on getting us through School C and so on. And, for me, the experience of going to schools outside Wainuiomata was good. We got to meet people from other communities and see lifestyles we normally wouldn’t see in Wainui.
Then, later, I decided to do a degree in social work. One of my role models was Sister Pabst at Erskine. She was in her 70s when she graduated with a Master of Law, and was the first woman in New Zealand to do so. I used to look at her and think: “Here’s a nun who could be a judge and have her own legal firm, but she chose to work with girls at a Catholic school.”
My values were very much driven by my family and the traditional Samoan values of supporting other people. This whole notion of social justice was deep inside me. Valuing alofa and aroha and the potential of people.
I’ve seen you described as a family therapist. Can you elaborate on that?
Well, a lot of the Western models of counselling come out of Eurocentric or Western world contexts and therapies that focus primarily on the individual. But the way many individuals behave is because things haven’t been put right with the family. So that was one of the attractions for doing counselling and therapy with families where you could work with the family/extended family system.
I also worked for a while at the Family Centre, where we developed the whole notion of Māori, Pacific and Pākehā tikanga. We looked at pre-colonisation and pre-missionaries, to understand the elements of our culture and history that we could bring in to heal families where there’s been abuse and hurts and wrongs.
This sounds pretty much the same whakāro as the Whānau Ora approach that Tariana Turia has been pushing.
Absolutely. When I first left school, I went to work at the Department of Māori Affairs. It was really the Department of Māori and Pacific Island Affairs at that time. I worked as a community development worker.
Kara Puketapu came in to be the Secretary of Māori Affairs and brought in Tu Tangata (Standing Tall). The whole spirit of Tu Tangata was strengths-based. He used to say the Pākehā departments, like Social Welfare, can deal with the deficits.
We focused on the positives and good Māori and Pasifika role models. And there was the Puao-te-ata-tu report and programme, which John Rangihau led. It was based on the idea that the potential and the solutions lie within our communities and families. We just need to wrap around the support to encourage the healing and the taking of responsibility.
It’s also liberating to encourage the potential. My understanding of Whānau Ora is that it’s a programme that Māori and Pasifika led and that encourages us to look after our own and to be in charge of our own destinies as well as our elders and children.
You were the first Pacific Island woman MP. Quite a milestone, wasn’t it? How do you feel about that when you look back?
I’ve always believed that leadership manifests itself in serving and looking after the wellbeing of our families, our whānau, our hapū, our iwi, our aiga, in our community. I went into parliament when I was 44. I’d been asked to go in when I was 34, but I didn’t agree at all with what Richard Prebble and Roger Douglas were doing. I don’t know how the Labour Party allowed themselves to be hijacked by such extreme right-wing thinking.
What really got me putting my hand up for selection as an MP was that many in the Pacific community wanted a Pacific woman because there were three men in there at the time: Taito Philip Field, Arthur Anae and Mark Gosche.
Secondly, I was very upset by seeing the impact of the Employment Contracts Act on communities like Wainui. It impacted on Māori, Pacific Island and Pākehā working class people — they had no protection as workers. And what really got me going was the closure of a factory in Wainuiomata — seeing people deeply distressed because they were out of paid work and still with families to support and with the need to put food on the table. That was when I said to myself it was time to go in.
Getting into parliament is one step. But, even when you’re inside, it’s not easy to effect change, is it? And even more difficult, I imagine, for Pasifika women politicians.
Well, we’re a minority in the parliamentary framework. And, of course, there’s this tension and this question about whether you should go into a bigger party where you can have more clout — or whether you should join one of the minority parties?
The way I saw it was that by being in government you do have more power. And I really set some targets. One of them was to repeal the Employment Contracts Act. Which we did — first term when I got into parliament. And, as MP for Mana, there was the challenge of getting Porirua College rebuilt. Getting after-hours health services in place as well. Also installing the barriers on Centennial Highway and McKay’s Crossing. They were tangible things which I worked really hard for.
But you also become a voice for the Pacific community, and their aspirations. The problem, though, is that there are so many demands on budgets and resources that some of those desires just slip down the list. But you chip away, you understand the limits and the realities — and you celebrate the gains you make.
While you were in parliament, you worked with some very talented and skilful politicians — none more so than Helen Clark. What did you learn from her?
Parliament is a competitive place. Helen ran a very tight ship — you’ve got to work to keep a team united. There were mistakes made on our side. And a lot of people would still point to the Foreshore and Seabed Act as one of those. But we also achieved a lot in Māori and Pacific education and in housing renewal programmes. So you count up the positives and you think: “We did some things well and we could’ve done other things much better.”
Before this, your own people had acknowledged your long service with a chiefly title of matai — the lovely name Luamanuvao. How did you feel when this honour was bestowed on you?
The biggest honour you can ever receive in one’s lifetime is from your own culture and families and villages and district. I was born and grew up in Aotearoa. But we go to Samoa a lot, and we do a lot of cultural things, with funerals and weddings and community events. My father was a matai. My brother Ken also. It’s basically the highest honour you could ever be given.
For me, it was the consolidation of who I am. I’m Aotearoa-born, part of the Moana Nui a Kiwa whānau with Māori. And I see the matai title as a call to serve not only our people here in Aotearoa but also back in Samoa and the Pacific.
You were in politics for 10 years, then stepped aside to take up a position as assistant vice-chancellor at Victoria University. These days we have more brown students in tertiary institutions than ever before. How do you feel about that when you look out at the campus?
It’s exciting to see Māori and Pacific enrolments going up. But there’s much more to be done. For instance, I’d like to see more of our students studying in all the disciplines and across mainstream. It’s also good seeing many of our students doing well in the Humanities and Social Sciences. For example the arts and Maori and Pacific studies.
But I’d really like to see many more of our kids going into STEM. That’s science, technology, engineering and maths. We’ve got increasing numbers in business and commerce. And law. So, what I’d love to see is a better spread.
I’m excited, though, that we’ve got this younger, brown, Māori and Pacific group here. Now one of the challenges is ensuring that they stay. The other challenge is that they continue to pass and pass well. And then be encouraged to go on to post-grad if they want. What I’m seeing is giving us every reason to be proud. But we can do more.
Sadly, when we look at social indicators like our health stats, crime stats, educational achievement or under-achievement, there are still significant challenges for Māori and Pasifika. And sadly, one in four of our under-25s are unemployed. What issues as indigenous peoples do we need to confront over the next 10 years?
One of our problems is that we only start to collect data from pre-school or kōhanga. But we need a joined up system starting from birth. It’s important to get support very early. So we should be saying to our people: "You’ve got schools, churches, marae, libraries and swimming pools." And we should be working with and encouraging families to participate, to be confident and to be visible.
The system, in all its forms, needs to have a good look at itself and see what we’re doing about our growing youth demographic who are now Māori, Pacific and Asia. The Asians are doing fine in the education system and we need more retention and success with Māori and Pasifika at university.
New Zealand’s going to be in severe trouble if we don’t accelerate some joined-up interventions and programmes that could really work at the grassroots to ensure a healthy pathway to education and success so that our Māori and Pasifika kids don’t end up wasting their lives on P or in prison.
Whanaungatanga ties us together through Te Moana Nui a Kiwa. And as Māori keep challenging the government to honour the Treaty it signed in 1840, some of them are looking for support from the Pacific Island communities. Should they be? Should they expect support?
We all came from Tangaroa. And many of us, in my younger days, were part of the movement to support Māori challenging the Crown to honour the Treaty. But now I think it’s time for a very strategic conversation between Māori and Pacific around how we should join together. How we should honour our cultures. And what and where are the areas where we can build alliances?
In the last census, for the first time there were more Asian than Pacific New Zealanders. That whanaungatanga goes back way before the Treaty. But we haven’t had the necessary kōrero or talanoa about our historical and sacred connection. Many of our children are of that mix. And I think we need to encourage the talk. The fight isn’t between Māori and Pacific. The fight is with the wider system that perpetuates injustice.
Westminster-system Western democracies have been dominated by white, middle-class men in suits. That’s changing gradually. You’re part of a global network of indigenous women. Do you think more women taking prominent roles in their nations’ affairs will help resolve some of our challenges?
We need good people, men and women, who have the integrity and values and commitment, to build a society where everyone is valued. Our families are an incredible mix of cultures (the surname Laban for instance, and also your surname). Our names acknowledge our place in the Palagi space too. So, I think it’s a matter of having a leadership that can see the whole range of issues and can promote this inclusion. There are bigger issues like climate change and helping our children’s succeed at school and make it to university.
Now that you have a senior role at Victoria University, is there a special target that you have in mind?
For many years, I’ve been unhappy with how education system keeps failing a lot of our people. So I’ve come to Victoria University with a vengeance and a passion to absolutely make a difference and hold all people to account. Rawinia Higgins is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Māori) here, and we’re deeply committed to seeing our students flying high and achieving in all disciplines. Having them gain the top qualifications means they get better paid jobs, have a strong and informed voice for our peoples and can help build a better world for everyone.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve developed a good bullshit detector. And the courage to speak up. It’s important that more of our voices speak up and tell the truth — whether that’s within our whānau, iwi and our own extended family and communities. We have to have the courage to stand up and be counted.
We have seen the impact made by our kōhanga and kura. Our broadcasting has come on in the last 30 or 40 years as well. So we’ve made some significant headway as first nations or indigenous peoples. But what brings the broadest smile to your face about our country?
I can’t help smiling when graduation is on and I see those beautiful brown young people walking across the stage in their stilettos and their pounamu and their puletasi and super smiles on their families. We have much to celebrate.
But I reckon we always have to keep vigilant and to keep questioning, not just bathe in our success. You’ve got to think: "Who else is missing out?" We have so much mahi still to do.