New Zealand might not be ready to see itself as a Pacific country, but its Pacific future has already arrived, writes Damon Salesa in this extract from his new book Island Time: New Zealand’s Pacific Futures, published by Bridget Williams Books.


The rain from Manu’a
“O le ūa na fua mai Manu’a.”
The rain came from Manu’a.

(Manu’a is the famous archipelago in the far east of Samoa: this is said about something long known, but still unprepared for.)

In most Pacific cultures, islands are thought of as people, or ancestors, or spiritual beings. Pacific peoples’ genealogies connect them with the islands themselves. These Pacific understandings point to a fundamental truth: that the islands themselves have life, and that they live and grow.

Whether in Ambae in 2017, or every year on the island of Hawai’i, volcanoes remind us of how islands continue to grow. Marine scientists have come to understand, in their own ways of thinking, what Pacific people already know: that the coral islands grow as well, through the life and concerted efforts of tiny living creatures.

I’ve argued that within New Zealand, Pacific people themselves are almost like islands and archipelagos. And, like their islands, they are in motion, growing and moving on the crest of powerful forces, some dramatic like tectonic or volcanic energy, and some working at a smaller but no less powerful scale, such as the collective effort of formidable life forms like corals. The islands heave higher and higher, occasionally through fire, but always growing and in motion. Under the water are connections and life at work too, a future that is happening but which we are yet to see.

This is what I mean: we are now living in an Island Time.

Those best positioned for this Pacific future are Pacific communities and people themselves. If the route to the future is as it disproportionately has been in the past — to turn to North America, Asia and Europe for ways of doing — then the Pacific future will look very much like the recent Pacific past: which is to say, it will too often consist of stories of unrealised potential.

This is why the kinds of dynamic, indigenous responses of Pacific communities and peoples, whether in the creative industries, in politics, in sport, or in the market, are important for all of New Zealand.

It has become apparent that many efforts to improve the lives of Pacific people have in fact had the opposite effect.

One is reminded of the New Zealand colonial government in Samoa’s efforts to control the rhinoceros beetle, which was eating the lucrative coconut crop. In a moment of supposed genius, the government put a bounty on the beetles, paying Samoans for each one they brought in.

Samoans soon learned that it was more efficient to farm these beetles than to laboriously hunt for them, so began breeding them. New Zealand officials eventually learned what was going on, and so ended the bounty; having lost their value, the beetles were let go, making the problem worse.

An unfortunately familiar story, it is often called by economists “the Cobra Effect” (after a similar development in India), but in Aotearoa and the Pacific, the Beetle Effect offers a fable of how many government efforts are not the best fit for the future.

Pacific people have crafted vibrant and dynamic communities, effectively at lower cost, with less capital, and with limited government assistance. Despite being “locked out” of large parts of Auckland, they have built places — islands and archipelagos within New Zealand — that have offered safe, energising and nurturing paths for their communities and people.

Whether in Ōtāhuhu, Ōtara, Massey, Rānui, Porirua or parts of Ōamaru, Pacific “placemaking” has redefined not just interior Pacific lives but the lives of non-Pacific people around them.

Disproportionately in lower-paying work, and earning on average a fifth less, Pacific people have retained transnational relationships, and built enduring institutions — particularly churches, and health, educational and sporting organisations.

In schools and more broadly in the economy, Pacific communities have had fewer opportunities than many others, and heavier burdens. If forced to follow in the footsteps of others “ahead”, Pacific people will start behind and often stay there.

But Pacific people have shown a capacity to find different paths to the same destination. When subject to wind and water, there is more than one seaway, and the most direct is not necessarily the fastest or safest.

Contemporary currents have left most Pacific people unable to buy homes and to plant gardens, and prevent many from keeping their children in the same schools, belonging to neighbourhoods and putting down enduring family roots.

The key Pacific investment strategy, as we’ve seen, is to invest in Pacific families and children; and while that approach may have some flaws as a purely financial investment strategy, it produces very good outcomes for Pacific people in other ways.

Pacific people prioritise investing their social, political and cultural energy, as well as their money and capital, into their families, and this raises a larger question about the national and global contexts in which they live. If an overwhelming commitment to family and children is not a successful strategy for life, as it is in the homelands of the Pacific, then we all have larger moral, ethical, political, economic and social questions to answer.

Despite myriad challenges and struggles, Pacific people are doing life pretty well. This book has charted both some of the challenges they face and some of their innovations and responses.

The New Zealand General Social Survey (conducted every two years to tell us about the wellbeing of all New Zealanders, with a sample size of about 8,000) offers yet another insight — however broad — into the challenges and responses of Pacific people.

Their struggle is real. It found that while 17.9 per cent of Europeans and nearly a third of Māori (32.8 per cent) lived in a house they considered was “always or often” colder than they would like, 42.5 per cent of Pacific people lived in such houses. Money was tight. Pacific people were most likely to have “not enough”, or “only just enough”.

Yet Pacific people found fulfilment. The survey found that Pacific people were most likely to feel safe walking in their neighbourhoods, to be comfortable around religious minorities, and never to feel lonely.

Given such assessments as this, it is less surprising that in overall life satisfaction, Pacific people were the most satisfied, with nearly half of Pacific people rating their life satisfaction at 9 or 10 out of 10. Fully a quarter of Pacific people rated themselves at the highest level of life satisfaction. No other ethnic group came close.

Life is tough, but for Pacific people life is also good.

Pacific communities are transnational, creative, cultural, connected, and dynamic. In the chapters about Pacific politics and New Zealand, one of the key takeaway points is that Pacific policy didn’t just improve politics for Pacific people but actually improved the functioning of New Zealand democracy.

Innovations in Pacific healthcare and education suggest that many of the innovations fostered within Pacific communities have positive effects on other communities when they are applied more broadly.

We should not find this surprising, as many of the innovations developed in Pacific communities in New Zealand are explicitly tasked with reaching and engaging people who have been difficult to engage through present means. The process has not been perfect, and has had some unsuccessful outcomes, but it also found success, and in areas where success has been difficult to achieve. Pacific change can make improvements for us all.

The strengths of Pacific communities are apparent to others already. The Islands can now be seen from a way off. Just as some innovations by Māori have attracted international attention, Pacific work in New Zealand has begun to have an impact elsewhere, including in Australia, where Pacific and indigenous leadership from New Zealand has shaped, at least in part, some recent developments.

One visible example of this leadership is the way Australia has begun using the term “Pasifika”, in line with the New Zealand example. (However, a key difference is that in Australia, this category often includes Māori.)

Seen this way, Australia already has a Pacific population nearly the same size as New Zealand’s: in 2011, Australia had more than 279,000 Pacific people, with around 100,000 each in Queensland and New South Wales. Of these, around 130,000 were Māori.

The business guru Peter Drucker imagined two different approaches to the future, but they were complementary. One approach, which I have reiterated throughout this book, is to recognise that there is a time lag between when a major change appears and when it reaches its full impact. This time lag gives us an opportunity to anticipate “a future that has already happened”.

But the second approach works alongside this anticipation, and calls people in from the sidelines. The task is not to be bystanders, but to impose on the unborn future new ideas and approaches — to give the future direction and shape: Drucker called it “making the future happen”. The same sentiment is captured in the Samoan proverb which opens this chapter.

With the future that has already happened, the Pacific will, for most New Zealanders, not be at the margins but will instead be one of a number of centres in a multi-centred New Zealand. In populous areas, it is already difficult to avoid New Zealand’s Pacific people and communities. In the future, it will become nearly impossible, unless one stays in very small orbits. (The same will be true of New Zealand’s Asian communities.)

That Māori, Pacific and Asian peoples will form an increasing proportion of the population, especially in New Zealand’s largest cities, is obvious; but, having known this for two decades, it is less obvious what we have done to make our future happen. Knowing the future will be profoundly different has not led to our working differently.

In New Zealand, Pacific people and communities are now defining, rather than secondary. In education, for instance, we face the simple truth that if you can’t teach Pacific students, you can no longer effectively teach in half of Auckland, Tokoroa, and large parts of Wellington, Christchurch and Ōamaru.

In health, if you cannot care effectively for Pacific people, you are of limited use in three of New Zealand’s four largest district health boards. This is happening now, and the centrality of Pacific competency will only grow.

As New Zealand looks out across the Pacific it also sees into its future. But New Zealand has yet to fully come to terms with its place in the Pacific, and to acknowledge the critical work its Pacific people and communities can do to make it finally at home in the Pacific.

Pacific people have transformed who and what New Zealand is, and the last transformation will be changing how New Zealand sees and acts in the world, especially in the Pacific.

Just as it has been observed that foreign policy is the last frontier of government in which the Treaty of Waitangi has yet to underpin fundamental change, foreign policy is a frontier where the kind of cultural, transnational relationship and connective work of Pacific people will be, well, oceanic.

This will require more than just the inclusion of a few Pacific people; it will require a new vision of nationhood and regional and international relationships. In this decolonising process, Pacific people, communities and cultures will — if they are empowered — be one of the great resources.

In this Island Time, we shouldn’t miss the islands rising before us, and we would do well to anticipate them before they break the water’s surface. Because the rain is coming from Manu’a.


Island Time: New Zealand’s Pacific Futures is a BWB Text, published by Bridget Williams Books. It’s available to purchase online as well as in all good bookstores.

Toeolesulusulu Damon Ieremia Salesa was born and raised in Glen Innes, Auckland.

He's a graduate of the University of Auckland and Oxford, and taught for several years at the University of Michigan before returning to Auckland.

A scholar of Pacific politics, history, technology, culture and society, Damon is now at the University of Auckland where he's Director of Pacific Strategy and Engagement, and associate professor of Pacific Studies. He's also completing a Marsden Research Project on technological, social and cultural change in Samoa.

Damon's work includes the prizewinning book Racial Crossingsa number of academic chapters and articles, and Tangata o le Moana (as co-editor).


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