Leah Damm

Last week, the political establishment showed yet again how deeply disconnected it is from ordinary working-class people, writes Leah Damm.


It’s been a while now since I was at my decile-3 high school in Onehunga. But I do remember that, whenever it rained, there was a corner of the gym that always had to be sectioned off because of the puddles from the leak in the roof.

I also remember visiting Diocesan, a private girls’ school in Epsom, for sports events, and realising how much we’d been shortchanged. It was hard to fathom how a high school, just 15 minutes down the road, could have its own professional indoor sports facility, while our gym was a single indoor basketball court — the full length of which could be used only if it didn’t rain too hard.

The only thing that separated us from access to Dio’s resources was that we didn’t happen to be born into families who could afford the $20,000-plus a year in school fees.

Not much has changed in the 15 years since then. I was reminded of this last week by two news stories that, for me, summed up what’s wrong with New Zealand politics.

The first was the announcement by the Greens’ co-leader, James Shaw, that he’d approved funding of nearly $12m for the expansion of a private “green” school in Taranaki, in contravention of his own party’s policy on the public funding of private schools.

He came under heavy fire from within his own party, and later apologised to party members, explaining that he’d made a mistake. Because the money wasn’t coming from the education pot but from funds set aside for “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects, he’d somehow “missed” the fact that it was going to a private school which charges up to $24,000 a year for local students and $43,000 for overseas students. Worse, it seems the “mistake” can’t be undone. Because politics.

Never mind that our communities are constantly fundraising for our under-resourced schools, many of which, as one principal complained, are leaky, cold, and mouldy.

For me, this perfectly illustrates how deeply disconnected the political establishment is from ordinary working-class people. Not even the left can be relied on to understand the realities of the people whose votes they count on.

As if to underscore that, on the same day that James Shaw made his announcement, Aigagalefili Fepulea’i-Tapua’i, the head girl of Aorere College in Papatoetoe, was on TV1’s Breakfast news talking to John Campbell about the many students she knows who’ve had to take on the responsibilities of households which have been hit hard by Covid.

Not only are they working after school to supplement family incomes, but, as Manurewa High’s principal has also confirmed, many have been forced to leave school to take up full-time work so they can help support their families.

You couldn’t get a more stark illustration of who our political system works for.

How must politics appear to those kids who are having to leave school to help put food on the table, while an elite school in Taranaki is given $12m? What does it matter to them what the balance sheets look like, and how relatively “okay” New Zealand has done compared to the rest of the world during the Covid pandemic?

Even as we’re supposedly pulling together as one united team of five million, that hasn’t stopped the government from introducing a two-tier welfare system which gives significantly more income support to those who’ve lost their jobs because of Covid than to other unemployed welfare recipients. Apparently, some beneficiaries are more deserving than others.

It’s hard to have faith in a political system that keeps delivering these kinds of inequities.

Watching the fallout to James Shaw’s “mistake” last week, I was struck by the whiteness and privilege of New Zealand’s political discourse.

For so many people, including those who make their living from political punditry, politics is sport. They pick their teams and wear their colours and score their points on social media or talkback radio — but, in the end, most aren’t really affected. Whether or not their side wins, life goes on pretty much as it always has. It’s just a game, or an academic exercise. It’s not life or death, sickness or health.

But that’s not how it is for many in our working-class communities — and in my own family.

I was born in 1989 to young parents, one of them a migrant from the Cook Islands, and raised under Ruth Richardson’s “mother of all budgets”. We were very far from rich, and spent some years on welfare and in transient housing. But we still seemed better off than a lot of my cousins and peers.

Even so, the chronic cough I have from a damaged lung after years of childhood respiratory illnesses during an era of neoliberal austerity, is a daily reminder of the real-life human consequences of policy.

But for so many within the political establishment, politics will rarely be the monster standing between them and a life of dignity and sustenance.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that one of the few politicians who understands this is Metiria Turei, a former Green Party co-leader who’s been shunted out of politics.

In 2017, in the lead-up to the general election, Metiria made a speech admitting that, decades earlier, when she had been a young solo mother on the DPB, and long before she entered politics, she had lied to make ends meet.

She was trying to draw attention to a broken welfare system. But she was excoriated by both sides of the political spectrum. Green party members walked out of the party in protest. Conservatives felt validated by the gotcha evidence that supported the myth of beneficiaries ripping off the taxpayer.

And Jacinda, for all the credit she deserves in pulling Aotearoa through some difficult times, also cast her adrift, because she couldn’t be seen to publicly support a politician who’d “bent” the law. (Although three years later, her government was comfortable bending the law when it came to protecting us from the potential devastation of Covid-19.)

Although I’m not Māori, I saw Metiria as someone who represented me and others like me. Her lived experience and respect for those still living in the trenches made her one of us. She was reflecting the realities of our lives, showing that politics wasn’t just an elite and white-collared thing for the intelligentsia, but something personal and intertwined with the experiences of the working class.

That’s rare in politics. The overarching reality is that politics remains incredibly disconnected from some of the communities who most need structural change.

Unfortunately, the political establishment made it clear that Metiria didn’t have a place within it. And in doing so, they sent the same message to those of us who identified with her. From what I’ve observed of friends and family, and across social media, this is a message that continues to be absorbed by young Pacific people.

As another election looms, our communities will once again be asked to vote for a system that has so far only entrenched our struggles — a system which has done little to dismantle the public perception of Pacific people as “leeches”. And then they’re expected to accept their marginalisation for the next three years, because that’s just the way of the world.

Much is made of the political disengagement of our young people. But the truth is that there’s no lack of passion or care in our kids. They are constantly rallying for change and social justice, but we reward them with the message that their turn will simply have to wait.

How can we convince young Pacific people who believe that the political establishment doesn’t care about them, that they “owe” us their civic duty at the polls, when the evidence so often proves them right?


Leah Damm was born in Auckland and grew up in and around Auckland, spending most of her time in Māngere during her teens. She’s of Cook Island descent from the district of Tupapa in Matavera on the island of Rarotonga, and also has Chinese heritage through her mother. She has a daughter who is also Sāmoan, and is currently doing her master’s in sociology at Te Wānanga O Waipapa/ University of Auckland.

© E-Tangata, 2020

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