North and South, May 2017

When you step into the polling booth to vote on election day you are equal to every other New Zealander.

That was the deeply sombre and pointed message from Yolande Ah Chong, the fabulously engaging and very funny female co-host at the Vodafone Pacific Music Awards last Thursday in Auckland.

That powerful statement anchored an evening where the very best Pacific music artists and their families gathered to celebrate excellence.

On one level, it was urging the big and buoyant crowd to get enrolled and vote.

“Bloody vote,” said Yolande to cheers, after raising points about Christianity, colonists and racism. All real, relevant and recurring issues for many in the house.

On another, it was a firm reminder to the parliamentary politicians present and profile-building that a reckoning is on the way and not to take the Pacific population for granted.

Among them was the Green Party co-leader James Shaw and its wahine toa Marama Davidson, as well as the Labour leader Andrew Little, Labour’s diligent Pacific MPs Carmel Sepuloni and Aupito William Sio, and National’s retiring Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga.

There was also a contingent of Auckland Council politicians, mostly Pacific Islanders, who are trying to do the best for their voters and ratepayers.

Also present was number-20-on-the-Green-Party-list, Leilani Tamu.

That’s right: number 20. Unless there’s a miracle, both she and Teanau Tuiono — who’s at 19 and the only other Pacific Islander on the Greens’ list — won’t get in.

That’s a big shame. It’s a shame because I know them both and recognise what they bring to a mostly entitled Green Party table that is well meaning but in many ways out of touch with the populations, communities and regions in which Leilani and Teanau are embedded and informed by.

When the list was announced last week, James Shaw said the party was excited by its “strongest ever candidate list”.

“In terms of age, geography, ethnicity and professional background, this list looks a lot like modern New Zealand.”

It seems the party doesn’t have a problem with a New Zealand where Pacific people are left outside the boundaries of power.

The signals about rank and status were there when someone in whatever equates to a marketing or PR team for the Green Party selected those who were to grace the cover of “The New Greens” issue of North & South magazine.

Green hands went up in horror, and posts on Facebook and other places shrieked that this was not the Green way and the cover trivialised the party’s serious messages.

Relax. It was an eco-shoot, someone was wearing a vintage-aka-recycled frock, and they weren’t real emeralds.

But that cover was also a clear illustration of who needed to be in and who didn’t quite matter.

Who matters depends on where you stand and what expectations you have.

Green delegates were given a special instruction by the party’s general secretary to ensure 22-year-old Chloe Swarbrick, who came third in Auckland’s mayoral race, secured a top place — even though she had just joined the party and wasn’t even eligible to vote on the list as a member. Chloe made the Greens top 10 and the North & South cover.

Clearly the youth vote is valuable political property this election.

“What are you going to do to get the Asians to vote for us? They don’t vote for us,” Leilani Tamu was asked by a well-meaning silver-haired white older lady when she took questions on why she should be selected as the Green Party candidate for New Lynn.

Let’s take a moment to unpack that question, which was asked without malice by a loyal party member exercising her right to interrogate the candidate.

The tone of the statement-as-question set up a them and us situation where the power was vested in the asker and the fault was located in those who “don’t vote for us”. Oh, and it was the candidate’s job to come up with a solution “to get the Asians to vote for us” because they need to make better choices.

It wasn’t an open-handed open-hearted question based on a notion of sharing and reciprocity, or a glimmer of walking in the shoes of the not-voting-for-us-population. It was a question located smack in the middle of entitlement.

And that entitlement and sense of privilege is perhaps why neither Leilani nor Teanau was on the cover of North & South, and why the Green Party members possibly favoured other candidates while Leilani and Teanau slid south on the list.

Of course, this list displacement comes as Donald Trump declared that the US will exit the Paris Climate Change Accord.

Via Twitter, the Green Party responded that “the decision to desert the Paris Climate Accord puts NZ & our Pacific neighbours at serious risk from the devastating impacts of climate change.”

And, again via Twitter: “We’re calling on the PM to invite Pacific Island ambassadors to meet with the US Secretary of State #climatechange #Paris #nzqt.”

Keep on tweeting if you must, but Leilani Tamu — a historian, Fulbright scholar, former diplomat and published poet — and Teanau Tuiono — “a noted activist and climate change expert”, as James Shaw boasted on the party website last week — are a better bet for long-term real-time engagement with the people who are really going to be affected.

This then leads to another question.

What does it take for talented brown people to be recognised by well-meaning but inherently Anglo-centric structures where decisions are made about and on behalf of other people?

Labour has apparently learned a lesson and smartly placed Carmel Sepuloni in its top 10 — and she knows as a seasoned player that politics is no holiday park.

But she’s had to fight for that position as have the other Pacific MPs in Labour. These MPs have proven their worth in parliament and in the electorates where they bring in big numbers of party votes by working and engaging with their electorates with dedication. (Teanau and Leilani are more than capable of this and have already secured support for their campaigns.)

National’s been clear about its Pacific outreach and while it’s going through a very bumpy patch, it understands what matters to people and plays a clever hearts and pockets game when it comes to luring voters from Labour.

The Greens have much to learn about engaging with the Pacific population, and the list placing of Leilani and Teanau is evidence of that.

If the Greens are to build a rapport with Pacific people and not just talk about climate change yadda-yadda-yadda, it needs to get serious about talented Pacific candidates.

The lady at the Pak’nSave checkout who takes things out of her trolley till her eftpos is accepted and the men in hi-vis vests on the North Western motorway aren’t as interested in organic bread and chicken, or electric cars and sustainable cotton. They want jobs, homes, good schools and healthcare.

They may not look like the people the Greens are used to or are even comfortable engaging with — but this is the fault line the Greens need to deal with if they are to first understand and then reach the hearts of these voters.

Pasifika voters know how to make better choices — and they will at the ballot box on election day when, as Yolande Ah Chong said, they are equal to every other New Zealander.


© e-tangata, 2017


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