Barbara Edmonds’ story has echoes of so many other accounts of migrant families coming to Aotearoa a few decades ago in the hope that things would work out well for their kids. And so it has for her, even though she lost her mum when she was barely of school age. But her successes have been remarkable — and, now that she’s an MP, she gives the impression that more achievements aren’t far away.
Talofa, Barbara — and congratulations for making it into parliament as part of Jacinda’s new and enlarged Labour team. And, because of your role now as an MP, it’d be interesting to hear about the path you’ve taken into politics.
Talofa, Dale. Well, I was born Rachael Fati Poe, which were the names I was given by my parents Palepa and Selani.
Fati is short for “Fatimataaleniuoaana”, which means “Fetch the green coconuts from the district of A’ana”. It was the name of my great-grandmother who was the village midwife and nurse. And her role was really important back in the early 1900s when the Spanish influenza pandemic was spread to Sāmoa by a ship that was carrying the disease, but was allowed by the New Zealand administration to berth in Apia.
My parents came from Sāmoa in 1978, but my mother passed away in 1985 when she was only 35. She had cancer. And that meant my dad was a widower at the age of 40 with four kids. But, on the day of her burial, which was my fifth birthday, I was gifted her name, Palepa, which is Sāmoan for Barbara.
Edmonds became my surname when I married Chris Edmonds who’s Ngāpuhi. From Te Iringa on his father’s side, and Karetu on his mother’s side.
That 1918 influenza pandemic did terrible damage around the world — and, when it got into Sāmoa, it killed more than a fifth of the population. Somewhere around 8,500 deaths. And I guess that, last year when the measles epidemic hit Sāmoa, it had you reflecting on the work your great-grandmother did as a nurse 100 years ago.
Yeah. And there’ve been more reminders this year because of Covid. Reminders, too, of the tuakana-teina kind of relationship between New Zealand and Sāmoa. So, yes, that was a really unfortunate incident back in 1918. But New Zealand has apologised for it and Sāmoans, being forgiving people, have forgiven New Zealand for the mistake made by their administration.
It’s a shame, Barbara, that your mum’s not around to celebrate your recent successes and your beautiful whānau. I imagine she’d be proud too of the sacrifices that your dad made. Some of those sacrifices were to help you get to Carmel College, one of the prestigious Auckland secondary schools for girls — and that wouldn’t have been cheap.
Those sacrifices were rooted in the sacrifices Mum and Dad made as a couple, leaving Sāmoa with two young girls and coming to New Zealand more than 40 years ago. For migrants, or for Māori being part of the urban drift, it’s a matter of leaving your family, leaving your village, and leaving your safety nets, to set up a new life.
My father was from a big family. He was the eldest of 11 kids — and he had another eight half-brothers and sisters. And, of the 19, he was the only one who went past the fourth form. He was whangai’d out to an aunty, and he managed to go all the way through school and get a diploma in horticulture. Then he worked for the Ministry of Horticulture and Works back in Sāmoa. So he became quite educated, particularly for those days.
When Mum and Dad came to New Zealand, they settled in Ponsonby, where most of the Pacific tide first landed. Then they moved to South Auckland when the rent and house prices went up in Ponsonby.
And their next step was to capitalise on the family benefit and build a house on the North Shore even though that was a bit more expensive than South Auckland.
But then, one day, Mum came home feeling sick. She’d been looking after the elderly (including David Lange’s mum) at an aged care facility. And, when the pain and nausea persisted, she went to the doctors who told her she had cancer and had somewhere between six months and two years to live.
So Dad stopped work and went on the DPB to look after Mum. And, when she passed away, he got the widowers’ benefit. And even though we were on a low income for about 10 years, he sent us to the best schools in Auckland because he valued education so much.
He believed that education delivers information, and that information is power. He knew that a better education could mean a better life. So he sent us to Carmel, and he was still paying off our school fees for decades after we’d left school.
I’m sure that kind of story is shared by many parents. Making sacrifices and decisions. And, in my case, that led on to me being able to go to university and become a lawyer.
And then, when you kids became more independent, your dad decided to become a social worker — which we know isn’t a highly paid gig. What did you read into his willingness to study and then go out into the field as a social worker? What does that say about him?
Simply that he’s a caring man who believed in social justice. He believed that every child has a right to be looked after, to be cared for — and that there’s a responsibility for the community, and the state, to look after those children when the parents can’t do so.
But, while he was doing all that, he was also caught up in our school life. He was on the PTA. And he was the Pacific parent who the principals rang if they were having trouble with Pacific kids. Dad was keen to bring Pacific families into the school system, like through the PTA or through parent groups.
He knew that the kids did best when the whole family was involved in their education and when they were confident and comfortable in the school setting. Pacific Islanders are humble people. Particularly that first generation of migrants who weren’t too sure about the New Zealand system.
But my father felt the responsibility of him having an education and then furthering his education to educate and help others. He’s amazing, my dad, and it was lovely to spend that time during this campaign when he was down here in Wellington for the election. I treasured this time with him because of his stories and reflections that I never heard when I was young.
Were there any tender moments with your old man on election night when it became clear that you’d nailed the Mana electorate?
We kind of called it when about 40 percent of the votes were in, because the majority I had was already too big to claw back then. But there was a more emotional moment at home a few days after the election. That was the morning of the induction of the new lineup of MPs.
I’ve worked in Parliament Buildings with various roles over the last four-and-a-half years. So I felt as if I was just going off to work like I normally did. And I dressed in my suit, had my ID badge, and knew where to park my car and all that. Dad and my stepmother, Rachael (who has also been an amazing part of my upbringing), were catching the bus back to Auckland that morning. So I gave my dad a kiss goodbye — and he started crying.
For me it was like: “I’m off to work now.” But for him it was like: “I’m so proud of you.” And that’s what he said as the tears flowed.
Then it dawned on me how big this was. When you go to the Beehive and parliament every day, it just becomes routine for you. It’s normal. But my dad never expected his family’s life to be better than the dreams that he and Mum had when they came over from Sāmoa.
He’d just wanted us to grow up and finish college. But for one of us to become a member of parliament — well, that was never in his wildest dreams, he said. So it wasn’t right for me to be so blasé and be treating that morning as just being a matter of me heading off to work as usual.
You mentioned working in the Beehive for four-and-a-half years. What were you doing?
For 18 months, I worked as the IRD revenue advisor, commonly known as a private secretary, to two National Party ministers, Michael Woodhouse and then Judith Collins. And then, when the Labour Government came in at the end of 2017, I switched from an apolitical role to a political role to become a ministerial advisor to Stuart Nash.
So I went from just advising on tax policy to tax policy, small business, police, serious fraud and fisheries. My core job was negotiating with New Zealand First and the Greens to ensure that my minister’s papers and policies got smoothly through to the cabinet table for agreement.
I worked on the firearms reforms after the Christchurch mosque attacks, the Tax Working Group, and the Covid small business and tax relief packages, among other things.
What it taught me is that policy skills are transferable — that a tax lawyer could help draft firearms reforms, because you’re asking the same questions. What’s the problem you’re trying to solve? What are the options to solve this problem? And what are the consequences of such changes — and who will be affected the most?
Let’s turn back to your university days when you became a mum. There was this Ngāpuhi bloke, Chris Edmonds, who caught your eye (and, no doubt, you caught his) while you were studying at varsity. It couldn’t be anything except tough to be raising little ones and carry on turning up to lectures, completing assignments, and passing exams. But you and Chris managed to organise that.
The Edmonds family are a big part of this story, particularly around my tertiary education. When I became pregnant with Acacia, I was starting my second year of law school. So Chris and I had this deep discussion, as couples do. First of all, were we going to keep our baby? The answer was yes. And, secondly, where were we going to live? We moved in with his parents.
And, through the support of Chris’s family, I was able to continue to study and Chris would carry on as a timber machinist in a factory. His mother would take care of the children through the day. Looking back now, I think that we made pretty good decisions in making our way out of poverty.
One of those good decisions came in my last year of law school in Auckland. It was to take a permanent job with the Inland Revenue Department’s national office in Wellington doing tax policy. I wasn’t a major fan of tax. But I’d learned, through one of the law papers I’d taken, that tax was a major factor in the fall of the Roman Empire. It was through over-taxation.
Chris and I had four of our eight kids at that stage, but we weighed it up, told ourselves we’d be fine and that we’d figure out something. And we took the plunge, moved down to Titahi Bay in Porirua, and I went to work for the IRD.
That put you in the Mana electorate that you now represent as an MP. And Mana is quite a diverse place, isn’t it?
Yes. And you see pockets of everything in Titahi Bay, too. Towards the valley side, you have a lot of state housing. And up the hills, towards the beach, you’ve got some million-dollar homes. But about a quarter of the Mana electorate isn’t at all well off. It’s decile-two territory. But then three-quarters of it are decile seven and above. And you don’t have a very clear middle.
I suspect that you may not have had a lot of Pasifika company when you showed up at the IRD.
I was the first Pacific tax policy analyst that the IRD’s ever had, and I think I’m still the only one they’ve had. It’s not an area where Pacific people have tended to gravitate to.
But there have been some Pacific gravitating to politics though, hasn’t there? And that includes you. What prompted to you to throw your hat into the political ring?
Well, Chris and I have helped with a number of community events through the years. And that’s meant getting to know some impressive characters. Especially Willie Taurima, one of the founders of Creekfest. He organised some of the basketball in the area, too. He also did the mission lunches on Christmas Day. And he and I were on the Mana College board of trustees as well.
Then there was Randall Hippolite who was hugely instrumental in helping with family group conferences, as well as basketball. He was a strong Ngāti Toa man.
But both these Porirua stalwarts passed away. And to me it was a signal that life’s too short and that we don’t necessarily have decades to bring about changes in the community. So those two men inspired me to put my hand up to stand for Labour, even though it’s not an easy thing to be an MP, particularly when you’re a mother of eight.
There’s a richness, as well as complications, in you and Chris bringing up a family with an understanding of both their Māori and Sāmoan lineages. How do you think that arms them to move forward in life?
I think it arms them with a strong sense of belonging. I know that my husband and I are both yearning to spend more time in our cultures. It’s been particularly hard for me because I’m a firstborn Sāmoan Kiwi girl. And for me, although my first language was Sāmoan, I had to stop speaking the language.
My dad had wanted us to speak Sāmoan. But then, when some of our cousins came over from the islands, they got into trouble at school because they didn’t understand the teachers and were giving other kids hidings. So Dad told us that we weren’t to speak to them in Sāmoan — we had to use English.
That meant I lost the ability to speak Sāmoan fluently, although I understand it fully. And now me and Chris have a lot of work to do to help our children understand the cultural side of being both Sāmoan and Māori.
I remember a point made by Khylee Quince, who was one of my lecturers at law school. She said: “You’re not half Māori. Or half Pākehā. Or half Sāmoan. Or half whatever. You are Māori and you are Sāmoan.” Because it doesn’t matter what percentage it is, it’s you. And you have the benefit of your different cultures.
Of course, our kids are realistic in the sense that in New Zealand we’re in a Pākehā system. But they’ll find their way. In my experience, many kids who are bicultural will lean one way or the other. Our kids aren’t showing that. For instance, we have a son who plays Māori rugby league during the season. Then, when we hit the Pacific Cup, he decided to play for Sāmoa.
A few minutes ago, you mentioned the special role of you stepmother, Rachael. Can you tell us something more about her?
Oh yes. When my mum was on her deathbed, she told my father: “I want you to marry someone who’s from my family, because she will love our children as if they’re her own.” And Rachael was sent from Sāmoa to help look after us children. We were still young. The oldest of us was 11.
And she and my dad fell in love and they got married. I call her Mum — and my kids are blessed to call her Nanny. She’s been a huge part of my upbringing. And that’s where a lot of the kindness in our family comes from.
No regrets I’m sure from you and Chris about having such a large family.
I love it. I love having a big family. Yes, it’s tough. It’s been tough financially. But it was a self-inflicted decision. It’s one that Chris and I treasure. Our kids keep us grounded. For me, as a politician, they absolutely keep me grounded. Because when I come home, I’m not Barbara Edmonds, MP for Mana. I’m just Mum who’s expected to cook tea or “sign my consent form for the school trip”.
You’re now in what could be a history-making government, with a young prime minister just a couple of years older than you. A whole bunch of eager MPs around your own age too. So it’s exciting. But what goals have you set yourself for the three years ahead?
Three things stand out for me. One is that it’s a privilege. Another is that it’s humbling. And a third is that it’s a major responsibility. That huge mandate from the voters means that they want us to deliver on what we’ve been delivering or working on for the last three years.
Our government is now a reflection of our New Zealand communities. So we need to make sure that their voices are heard and that we advocate strongly for them. That means housing. Especially home ownership. And access to a good education.
Those two things are especially important to me because they meant I didn’t fall through the cracks as a child. And they can provide the same help for each new generation of families and their kids.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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