As part of our series on Māori and Pacific candidates in the election next month, Dale has been chatting with Labour’s Arena Williams who is sort of inheriting the Manurewa seat from Louisa Wall.
As a young mum of two, Arena won’t have a cruisey ride through the campaign or through the following three years. But she has a few of things going for her. One of them is that she’s not depending on blue voters to do an about turn and embrace the red team — which was her predicament when, as a 24-year-old, she ran in the Hunua electorate in 2014.
This time around, there seems little doubt that we’ll be seeing her in Wellington, in Jacinda’s team, after October 17.
Kia ora, Arena. Here you are tossing your hat into the ring as the Labour candidate for Manurewa, now that Louisa Wall has opted to become a List candidate. But, even though you’re a relative youngster in political terms, this isn’t your first tilt at becoming an MP, is it?
No. Six years ago I stood, unsuccessfully, for the Hunua seat, which was a National stronghold.
During the foreshore and seabed business, I thought Helen Clark’s Labour government was making decisions that weren’t in the interests of the Māori communities who’d been strongly supporting them over the years.
I could’ve thrown stones at her and the government from the outside of the party, but I felt that it was better to try to make changes from the inside. So that’s why I stood for Labour in 2014, and again this year — especially as my family have always been Labour supporters.
Let’s hear a bit about that family. There’s your dad, Haare Williams, who’s been a well-known broadcaster and teacher, and your mum, Jacqueline, best known as a GP. And you grew up in Papakura?
Yes. And I was named Arena Hinekura Sherburd Williams. Mum is Jacqueline Te Mākahi Sherburd Allan from Ngāi Tahu. Rena is a Ngāi Tahu name — and Sherburd comes from the Stewart Island/Rakiura, because a tipuna was Captain William Sherburd, one of the first whalers in Rakiura in the 1800s.
Captain Sherburd married my Ngāi Tahu ancestor Tarewaiti and they settled on Rakiura. We’ve kept the name in the family ever since. Hinekura is a Waikato Tainui name that was given to me by the koroua, Rua Cooper, from the Whatapaka marae, not far from Papakura.
The name was a gift to my mum and dad because Jacqueline had been a doctor in the area for many years and had looked after the families at Whatapaka, and Haare had been an advocate for Māori issues on the Papakura City Council under George Hawkins, the mayor.
Many of us know your dad well from the work he’s done in te ao Māori as a teacher as well as a broadcaster, but I’m not so familiar with your mum. How has she shaped your way of seeing the world?
She was my biggest inspiration for my entry, as a lawyer, into the corporate world, and then for getting into politics. She’s been a Labour Party member all her life and, ever since her student days in Christchurch, she’s been a campaigner for sex education for young women and for gender equality.
For instance, she worked on a landmark case in Canterbury for women’s access to public bars where women and Māori were still segregated in some establishments. She was really involved in the social issues of her day — and she was an inspiration to me because of her values.
As a GP in South Auckland, she’s always been committed to giving a high standard of health care to communities, like Māori and others on low incomes. It’s a commitment to social justice that she shared with my dad and it’s what brought them together.
They had quite different backgrounds, though, didn’t they?
Yes, their experiences were very different. Being Ngāi Tahu, Mum is from many generations who’ve married into Pākehā families. Because of the way she looked and sounded, she was often seen by Pākehā as an acceptable voice when she was leading social change for Māori. She wasn’t seen as being confronting or challenging.
By contrast, my father grew up with no English until he was nine and he has always lived in te ao Māori. So his experience of working for social change has been very different.
I’m assuming your mum looks Pākehā but is proudly Māori and has always had a love of our culture. Is she a significant reason that you grew up in te ao Māori and embraced Māori life?
Absolutely. She’s always had a deep affinity with, and love for, te ao Māori — and she’s been staunchly and proudly Ngāi Tahu. She’s raised me to have that same pride in my Ngāi Tahu whakapapa as in my Tainui side, even though I’ve grown up in Auckland, a long way from that South Island whenua.
I think it’s been her commitment to the kaupapa that’s driven me to pursue te reo Māori. Dad’s generation was one where te reo Māori wasn’t what you taught your kids. Even though he grew up speaking fluent reo, that was a time when speaking Māori wasn’t a focus in the home, whereas Mum really pushed that in my early life.
Are you a kura kid, Arena?
I’m a kōhanga kid, but I didn’t go through kura.
Are you a fluent speaker these days?
I’d say I’m a casual speaker now. I grew up speaking Māori but, towards the end of high school, I didn’t have the fluency. I made it a priority after graduating from Auckland University with my law and commerce degrees.
I practised law for a bit, and then, instead of doing a master’s degree or something like that, I did a year-long course in te reo Māori at Te Wānanga Takiura. For me, that was about priorities and making sure I had the fluency to teach my kids and bring them up in a reo-speaking household.
I’m sensing that you’re someone who was always the class captain at school.
That might be a fair assessment. I was really into sports and extra-curricular activities. That was at Diocesan School for Girls in Epsom. My one Māori friend at the school was Leilani Walker, who’s Ranginui Walker’s moko, and we pushed for a kapa haka group and got there. We even went to Polyfest. We were absolutely terrible but at least we did it.
What did your Dio people think of your feisty attitude towards establishing some sort of taha Māori within the kura?
Leilani and I had our ups and downs with that. It was a different experience from what we’d expect for our Māori kids going through any school now. But it also taught me about the value of self-directed learning and finding those Māori women who I could really trust and work with to do the things that I wanted to do in both te ao Māori and te ao Pākehā.
Once you moved on beyond Dio, I imagine that you had more contact with strong Māori women, some of them wāhine toa who you admired.
There are so many. At the moment, a guiding light for me is Nanaia Mahuta. Since I was a teenager, I’ve been inspired by her work in parliament and in her community.
Another influential Māori woman has been Te Aopare Dewes who was my boss when I was a lawyer at Chapman Tripp, one of the big law firms. I was in a corporate team and that’s one of the most cut-and-thrust working environments you could ever be in.
Te Aopare was absolutely slaying her corporate targets and was loved by her clients. She worked long, hard hours, had an incredible brain, and was a thoughtful, agile thinker. But she was also always closely grounded in her Māori identity. She made sure that she had time to reset and to remember what was important in life — and she was a big influence in the way that I now approach my work life.
When we look back on some of the decisions that Labour made, like in the early 1980s when there were massive job losses, even their diehard supporters have been hōhā with them. The Labour leaders came up with a user-pays, free-market economic approach which had a devastating impact on sections of the Māori workforce. Then there was the loss of our foreshore and seabed rights. So it wasn’t easy to maintain wholehearted support for the party.
Yeah. Well, I think it’s right for us not to forget those times in Labour’s history when they went with what was popular and perhaps lost sight of Labour values.
But they are, once again, a political party guided by their traditional values which we’re seeing being played out in the response to the Covid pandemic. They’re making decisions with people at the heart of their thinking and always with an eye to what is fairest in the long term.
We’re really back on track. But you’re right that we need to keep a focus on our working people.
My first job was at a local supermarket. I can’t say I was very good at it because I got put on rounding up the trolleys in the carpark. And from there, I’ve had a real mixed bag of jobs on the way up to where I am now, as a corporate lawyer on the brink of entering parliament.
I imagine that you have a few memories of those early jobs.
One of the most useful things that I did was volunteering with the Service and Food Workers Union during my university days. That gave me a real sense of the place and the need for union representation in the labour movement — and it has fuelled my whakaaro that we should give our workers a bigger say within the party. And we should be supporting their priorities.
Another working experience which has shaped the way I think was a stint I did as a probation officer in the Panmure office. It was when I was completing my law degree, so I had a little bit of experience about how laws are developed and how the justice system operates. But I had no first-hand experience of the weight of the justice system on the shoulders of our people.
Working in community probation, you see people being defined by the worst thing they’ve ever done when they’re in the justice system. As a community probation officer in my early 20s, as a Māori woman, I was seeing men my age, all Māori, being caught up in that system. And, by the end of that stint, I could see that our system was failing our people.
I was working there in 2013, just as the new bail laws were coming into effect. Those changes unexpectedly doubled the number of people being held in custody while awaiting trial or sentencing (otherwise known as remand) and put pressure on the entire system, including community probation services.
I saw first-hand how seemingly small policy changes to bail, parole and sentencing laws could change someone’s entire experience of the justice system and ultimately lead to longer and more punitive sentences.
The effect is that, while New Zealand’s overall crime rate continues to decline since its peak in 1992, New Zealand’s prison population has steadily increased over time and is now one of the highest in the developed world.
That wasn’t a system designed to improve people’s lot in life. And it’s made me think about how we need to make long-term changes.
Thanks for your reflection on that. It helps to paint a picture of what motivates you. As Māori, there are times when we feel great pride in our people. They can come at very tender moments. Has there been a time when you’ve felt that special pride in our people and in our ways?
That’s a great question. But there are too many. There’s one, though, that’s happened relatively recently. It’s to do with Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu moving away, over the years, from the big university scholarships and flash support for people who are already doing really well.
Although they still offer a lot of educational support, they’ve moved into smaller things that make a family connection between the more than 50,000 descendants who whakapapa to Ngāi Tahu.
I was struck by how proud I was of my southern iwi when they sent me, after the birth of my son Te Mākahi, and then again after the birth of my daughter Waioeka just nine months ago, a beautiful wahakura woven by my southern female relatives.
What a beautiful token of aroha from the older generation of women gifting something to younger generations of women that is so essential to life, that protects a baby sleeping, and that makes it possible for young mums to get the sleep they need to raise their babies.
It’s such a tender and gentle and kind gesture and it was one that the iwi could have lost because of the disconnection that we’ve all come to deal with on a daily basis, because of colonisation and the move to cities and away from close whānau links.
The iwi has brought that back on a grand scale for so many Ngāi Tahu people who now live all around the country. Sending something like that creates a sense of whānau connection that I think we all crave as Māori.
What about books and films that have influenced you?
One text which made a big impression on me during my university days was Encircled Lands by Judith Binney. It documents the story of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki who was an influential figure in the Ringatū faith — who’s also one of my tīpuna from the East Coast.
That’s a story of building a movement of resistance, grounded in te ao Māori and borrowing the best and worst tactics of Pākehā at the time. But it’s also the story of a movement that became one of peace and passive resistance.
It’s a timeless and important lesson for anyone interested in politics at local and national levels. It tells of how resistance and activism can be influenced by peaceful ideas and by the silence and thoughtfulness that comes with a reverence for the natural world and a reverence for God. It really did influence the way that I thought.
As you mentioned early in this chat, this isn’t your first shot at politics. Two elections ago, you had a go at Hunua which was too National to be winnable. But it gave you a taste of campaigning. What did you learn from the experience?
Hunua is one of the bluest seats in the country, but it was still a chance for me to cut my teeth. I was never going to win it but I was lucky to have an opponent (Andrew Bayly) who was interested in debating the issues. And I enjoyed the public debates — talking about the issues and fielding questions from the floor. I learned not to be at all afraid of that format.
The great thing about standing in a blue seat was that I couldn’t really say anything that would turn people off because most of them weren’t voting for me anyway. There were some hard questions, though, because I came up against thinly-veiled racism and sexism and a number of questions about how young I was at the time. I was 24.
This time round there’s none of that. It’s such a different audience. The people of Manurewa have been generous and warm in accepting me and my team.
But the biggest difference is in the willingness of supporters to give up their time for their candidate. You’d expect people in a more affluent area to be more willing to give up their time because they’re probably not working long hours or holding down two jobs as the breadwinners for their household.
So when you recruit volunteers you may think that, in the more affluent areas, you’d get a better crop of volunteers. But that’s not what we’re finding in Manurewa. In a household with two busy breadwinners, kids, maybe an older person to look after, these people are more likely to come out with us. We’re building the kind of volunteer base we could only have dreamed of in Hunua. There are now 65 volunteers door-knocking for us.
Parliament, as we know, sis, can be pretty brutal. Life there is a sacrifice as well as an honour. What were the considerations you had to make before you put your hand up for the gig?
My husband Max and the kids are giving up quite a bit for me to be able to do this. Our kids are little and they won’t have a stay-at-home mum like some of their friends have now. They won’t have a mum who comes along to every sports day and sees all their concerts.
I am grieving for that at the moment. Maybe, in a year’s time, on a Sunday afternoon, I’ll regret that I don’t know what their favourite t-shirt is and what snacks they like the best.
I’ve seen a picture of your tāne, Max, with a Labour Party rosette. Did you force him to put it on?
No. Not at all. We met in our student politics days when he was the president of the National Students’ Union and I was the Auckland president. We were both elected on Labour values and we’re both Labour people.
He’s supportive and excited to take a bigger role in supporting the Labour Party. Since I was a teenager and he was a university student, we’ve always given our time and money to support the labour movement. This is the next step for us in our commitment to the changes we want to see.
It’s hard for a lot of New Zealanders not to be impressed by Jacinda. She had a background in student national politics as well. And, over the last three years, she’s handled herself pretty well in her big gig as the PM. What have you drawn from her style and her success.
When I first got into student politics, she was one of the Labour people working in international student politics. She was someone I admired then. And she went on to have a number of cool, interesting jobs around the world. As a political buff, I thought her career, even before parliament, was stellar.
When she was a List MP in Auckland Central, I had the pleasure of working with her as a local student politician. She stood out then as someone who was very considered and thoughtful in her electorate work — and especially open to speaking with her constituents. So that’s a lesson I’ve taken from her.
I’ve been heartened as well, to see that she explicitly talks about kindness. I don’t think that, in New Zealand politics, we’ve ever been brave enough to talk about the need for kindness in policy making. We haven’t used terms like that for fear of being seen as “feminine” or “soft’.
But she has shifted the goalposts and we can now expect more of our politicians to talk about being kind, being human, and having the welfare of people at the heart of political decisions.
If you had some spare time, what else would you do?
As a mum of two bubs, I’ve had to trade in any hobbies. But, on my maternity leave, I renovated a lot of furniture and got really interested in recycling. In my community, people offer things on the Facebook page for free.
So, picking up things that people didn’t want any more, fixing them up and giving them a paint, made me feel like that was something that was good for the planet and my whānau.
It was something I could do with my dad who loves to get out the sander and work on a DIY project for me, even though he’s in his late 80s. It can be pretty special for Dad and me to work together, for example, on a chair, and have it finished and ready to last another 20 years.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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