Carmel Sepuloni, 40, is the new Minister for Social Development. Here she talks to Dale about her early life and pathway into politics.
Carmel — Talofa, and thank you for joining us. It’s a nice place to start, names. They can be quite revealing. Can you tell us about some or all of your names?
I was supposed to be a boy — Simon — but that didn’t happen, so Mum’s friend named me Carmel. My middle name was supposed to be Jane, but I found out when I saw my birth certificate that it was Jean. And that, I think, came down to the fact that Mum’s dyslexic and got a few of her letters around the wrong way.
Sepuloni is a Tongan name. It’s the transliteration of the word Zebulon, which is one of the 12 tribes of Israel. It was my grandfather’s first name. He was Tongan — and he went to Sāmoa as a child with his brother and mother. His father was left behind in Tonga, and his mother, Losae, remarried in Sāmoa, to a Sāmoan man, and went on to have children there. And that’s where the Sāmoan-Tongan connection started.
My grandfather married my Sāmoan grandmother, Masae Pamata. And my dad, Kamisi Sepuloni, was their second child. He was born and raised in Sāmoa, in Vailele.
Mum, Beverley, is of Polish and English descent. Her English line got here in about 1872. And they settled down in Taranaki. Really strong farming family. Her maiden name was Jordan. Her grandmother’s maiden name was Salisbury and her great-grandmother, who came over from Poland, was a Drozdowski.
My father met my mother when he was working on the railways in rural Taranaki. He moved to New Zealand from Sāmoa in 1964. They had three daughters — and I’m the middle child.
It’s an interesting line, isn’t it, because we’re led to believe that Sāmoans and Tongans don’t get on. Historically, that is. But you have this intriguing mix.
Yeah. And that mix goes back hundreds, if not thousands, of years with the relationship that existed in the Pacific between the different Pacific Island countries. Keep in mind that we used to travel back and forth quite a bit — particularly Tonga, Fiji and Sāmoa.
It’s interesting when people try to say that we don’t get along because there’s been intermarriage and relationships that go back and pre-date the Pākehā coming to the Pacific. Mine was a bit more recent in history, but there’s a long history of that connection.
Does it frustrate you that we’ve been denied much of the richness, in fact, the majesty of Pasifika history as we’ve been forced to learn of others?
Yeah. And what frustrates me as well sometimes is just who we are in 2017.
Whenever I go anywhere, I always say that I’m Tongan-Sāmoan-Pālagi — whichever order. But people always want to categorise you as one of those things, and find it hard to comprehend that you could be more, or feel an affiliation to more than one ethnicity. They expect you to choose, or to privilege one over the other.
I find that frustrating at times, because I feel like this is the whole package and you can’t ignore one for the sake of the other.
You grew up in Waitara, in the midst of all that Taranaki history, with the uncomfortable truth about the land confiscations and wars to allow settler progress. What did you make of that as a young Pasifika growing up there? Because there’s been tension between Māori and Pasifika at times, hasn’t there? I’m hoping that we’re coming closer together. Do you think we are?
I grew up thinking that Māori and Pacific were almost one and the same. When you are such a minority in a small community like that, you naturally lean in one direction. For me, that was toward everything that was Māori, whether that was being in the Māori bilingual unit or doing kapa haka.
It was really only when I moved to Auckland that I got to experience a broader sense of being Pacific.
I’ve got other Pacific friends who’ve experienced this. When you grow up in the regions where there aren’t a lot of Pacific and you naturally gravitated towards Māori and all things Māori, you gain a real appreciation of what that means. Everyone I know who’s had that experience is really grateful for it.
For me, it was interesting growing up in Waitara, but then also having such a strong farming family who were out in Stratford and Inglewood. Because they came at that time following the land wars, to settle here. These were hardworking Pākehā who came here to also make a better start for their families. But the context in which they were coming was quite wrong. And so, you do feel this internal pull, this dilemma.
Growing up with people in Waitara who came from generations of that fight — going back to what happened with the land wars — there’s definitely a sense that that’s still in the air.
Are you surprised that it’s taken some time for Māori politics and representation to find its way into local politics in Taranaki?
Surprised? No. Disappointed? Yes.
Growing up in Waitara, we always knew that there was prejudice there. One example of that were the consistently negative stories that came out of the Taranaki Daily News about what was happening in Waitara. It never felt like there was a lens on anything positive that was happening there.
When I first became a Labour MP, I was doing some work as a buddy MP in New Plymouth, because we didn’t have a Labour MP down there following the 2008 election. And I remember meeting with the editor of the Taranaki Daily News at the time, along with Rick Barker and Mita Ririnui, who were Labour list MPs — and talking about what was happening with the upcoming commemoration of 150 years since the land wars had started.
And being told by this editor about this wonderful spread that they had planned around farmers and the history of the farmers and what had happened over the 150 years. Without even realising it, the editor had completely dismissed the idea of including Māori in this spread.
I asked him, what were they planning with regards to including Māori and their role and their presence? And he was just like: “Oh, yeah. We’ll do something on them, too.” And that dismissive comment really made me reflect on my childhood growing up. And I thought: “We were right.”
Carmel, you went on to become an educator. I’m curious about what drew you to education, because I know that you ended up looking at alternative education, which is an area that interests me as well.
I guess what guided me towards education was just seeing, from even third form, really, the number of people — Māori, especially — who were dropping out of school from quite a young age.
I had always been quite a good student, probably until I got to fourth form. But even though I started to play up, wag a little bit of school, and get into trouble — it never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t go to school.
So, just seeing how easy it was for people to make the decision to drop out and not continue with their education was really concerning to me.
I did have a few issues later on in my secondary schooling. During the ’90s, the freezing works shut down in Waitara. There were no jobs in the area. So my father chose to move to Sydney to get work. Once he left, I decided — that’s it. I’ll show up when I feel like it.
But I had this wonderful principal at New Plymouth Girls’ High School who I had a lot to do with, mostly due to my naughty behaviour. Her name was Jain Gaudin. And despite my antics, she was always very positive and supportive. We had a good relationship.
And during the time I stopped showing up to school, she asked one of my close friends to speak to me and ask me to come in to see her. Out of respect for her, I did. At that meeting she told me that she saw potential in me and that she’d spoken to her husband and they wanted to know whether I would spend the rest of that seventh form year staying with them.
She just wanted to make sure that I’d be in a safe place and attend school. And that I’d have the best shot of getting to university that following year. It seemed like a strange proposition at the time, but after a few tears with her, I said yes.
She had a huge influence on where I got to. I missed so much school that year, and yet, fortunately, with her and her husband Nick’s help, I managed to get the university entrance grades that I needed to go on to university.
And, naturally, I ended up heading down the education route as well. She had a big influence on that.
Where did you study and what do you recall as far as mentors or inspirations during your university days?
I went to the University of Auckland and Auckland College of Education. I did the Bachelor of Education and Diploma of Primary School Teaching Programme. And we had some wonderful academics in front of us during that time. Like Linda Tuhiwai Smith. And Tania Wendt Samu.
Later on, I got to work at the University of Auckland while I was doing my postgrad and had five years where my boss was associate professor Tracey McIntosh. She was a huge inspiration and a mentor to me. I hugely admire the work that she does as a sociologist and criminologist, and just as a New Zealander who has a genuine sense of care for other New Zealanders.
Your dad’s described as a staunch unionist. Did this rub off on you?
Definitely. The whole ’90s period did, because during that time, like I said, when the freezing works shut down, you had a township that, in some ways, was decimated by the closure of this one major employer. But at the same time, you had this rhetoric from the National government, talking about people needing to get out and work, and insinuating that people who weren’t working were lazy.
And knowing that there were no jobs around was hugely frustrating, as a young person in a household that was affected by the circumstances at the time.
How did you prepare for a life in politics, bearing in mind that expectation of humility and being quite reserved that Māori and Pasifika people tend to be exposed to?
Interestingly, growing up — and friends still remind me of this — I used to say that this is what I would do. That I would be a politician. And they found it so funny at the time.
But, at some point along the way, I lost track of that and headed down a different pathway. It was only through meeting people who were involved in politics that I really began to engage.
I think in many ways Māori and Pacific are naturally quite political. We’ve got a lot of challenges that we face, and many of us are only too aware of what those challenges are. That causes frustration for us.
We can see the unfairness unfolding around us, whether it be health statistics or educational outcomes. Pay inequality. All of those things that we see in our own lives, our families’ lives, and in our communities. So, I think it’s really difficult not to feel political in some way.
The point of difference for me was that I met some people who became very close friends, who were politically involved and were in the Labour Party, who then persuaded me to get involved.
Timing is everything. I joined the Labour Party and became active not long before the 2008 election when the party was looking to have better representation. Looking for younger representation and looking to rejuvenate more generally. I just happened to be one of the ones that came along — who at the time seemed to tick all the boxes for the Labour Party.
So, it was just timing and perhaps being the right person in the right place.
On top of that, I do, like many other people who are involved, have a strong sense of social justice and fairness and equity. All of those things are really important for me.
So it wasn’t through student politics which is often a precursor for those involved in a political life.
No. I got pregnant in my second year at university, so I didn’t have time for student politics. I wasn’t involved at all.
How has being a mother to two lads improved you as a politician, do you think?
Kids just give you a real insight into what’s happening out there in the world. I’ve got a 19-year-old (Bailey) and a four-year-old (Isaiah), so being the mother of a teenager, being the mother of a young kid, I guess it just helps you with understanding that experience.
But also, it’s just that lovely place to go. We all have jobs, many of us enjoy our jobs, some of us love our jobs. But the job I love the most is being a parent. It’s so important for me to have that place to go back to, just being mum.
I’m interested in alternative education because, for a lot of our people, our mainstream system is not the vehicle for them. So, I’m interested in other models that could be complementary to our mainstream system, or alternatives to it.
When I was teaching youth, they were predominantly Māori and Pacific — mostly Pacific. And they had been kicked out of school, or had decided to leave school for whatever reason. The thing that I found frustrating at the time was that many of them should have been successful in the mainstream schooling system. But the model of education wasn’t necessarily suitable for them.
So, for me, it’s not necessarily about creating alternative educational institutes or setups. It’s about re-evaluating what we currently have and recognising that Māori and Pacific are the mainstream of this country.
Schools should be set up to attend to Māori and Pacific needs. We shouldn’t have to go outside of the compulsory state school sector to create alternatives.
I do think we’ve got to re-evaluate what our mainstream schooling system looks like. And if it doesn’t provide for Māori and Pacific students adequately, then we’ve got to remember it’s the schooling system that’s failing them — not our Māori and Pacific kids failing the schooling system. So, changes have to be made.
Have you any ideas of what might be successful? I know charter schools aren’t universally popular, but what do you make of charter schools, alternative schools? Is there room for other models?
We’ve got to think about what happens when you take a handful of students out and you put them into an alternative setting. If elements of that work for them, then why aren’t we applying those principles to what our mainstream schooling provides? Why would we just say, okay, we’re going to set up an alternative for a handful of students, when, actually, we want all students to do well?
I’m not saying that there hasn’t been some success. But if there are things that are working, then we can take them back into the state schooling system.
But that’s something for our education minister to be contemplating when we are properly settled in government.
And good luck in that period. You came into parliament in 2008, a young woman, and of course there was a battle on with you and Paula Bennett in the 2011 election. It got down to a handful of votes. Bearing in mind that you won by 11 but then lost by 9 in the recount, what do you say to people who say their vote doesn’t count?
What happened in 2011 became the best case study to try and illustrate to people that every vote does count. I bring it up every opportunity I get, to remind people of the importance of their vote and how every vote does count. Because, clearly, in that case, it would’ve only taken a couple of Pacific households to get out and vote, and we would’ve won it.
A couple of years ago, your mum found herself in a bit of bother. The media seized upon that and, in some ways, discredited you. Do you think that’s fair?
It’s something that happened and I guess that’s the risk for us when we get into this job. We all know that that’s the case. It’s not just us that will be put under that public scrutiny, but it’s also our families.
To be honest, I had a number of MPs from across the House, not just from the Labour Party, coming up to me at that time and expressing their empathy for what I was going through. And I heard so many stories about other people’s siblings, parents, cousins.
Everyone has family members, and no family is perfect. There’s a level of dysfunction in everyone’s families. It was nice to have people from across the House acknowledging that they also have situations that they wouldn’t want the public to know about either.
You’ve been a good advocate for youth. In your maiden speech, you challenged everyone to look at the strengths that our young people carry, rather than some of the negative stereotypes that we allow ourselves to be influenced by. Is that a veiled comment about growing up in Waitara?
Yes, definitely. Growing up in Waitara, and also moving up to Auckland. Seeing the stigma that’s attached to my Pacific cousins up here, working with young people, and just seeing the negative assumptions that are made about them.
It’s interesting now, because we’ve seen the outgoing government’s social investment approach, which was all about the stigmatisation of people. Whether or not people were potential liabilities down the track and what were the risk factors for them. All of those negative, stigmatising aspects that I was really trying to speak out against in that one statement in my maiden speech.
Rather than see people through that deficit lens — at the potential for them to stuff up or be a liability in the system — we should be looking for the potential in every New Zealander. And asking how we can invest in them to help them realise that potential.
So, we have a completely different take on what social investment might be like, compared to the National government.
You’re described as the first MP of Tongan descent. How much pride does that give you?
It gives me a huge amount of pride. It’s wonderful that we’ve now got two other Tongan women in the Labour Party caucus. And also, there’s the New Zealand First MP Darroch Ball, who has some Tongan heritage as well. Turns out our Tongan community is doing quite well politically here in New Zealand.
You sit in the house and you watch how people work, how they carry themselves, the relationships they’ve formed. Who has been influential to the type of politician you are, or hope to become?
Obviously, people like Helen Clark and Annette King. Seasoned politicians who know how this place works and how to build relationships and influence so that they can make the legislative changes they want. They’re inspiring.
But there are other MPs who have gone through this place who aren’t as high profile, who have been incredibly helpful to me on my journey. People like Lynne Pillay who was the Waitakere MP before Paula. She resigned back in 2011, but she’s been a consistent support to me behind the scenes, helping locally and with campaigns. She has a real understanding of how politics works.
And I admire MPs across the House. I had a really good relationship with Chester Burrows. He’s got a wonderful way of conducting himself. A great sense of humour and respected across the House by many.
And I love the way that Tracey Martin and Jan Logie advocate for issues that matter to them. They’re strong advocates and they’re strong women, and they’re great to watch when they’re on their feet. And people like Marama Davidson, and so many others.
In my first term, I assumed that we were very territorial and we just stuck to our own. But the second time I got back, in 2014, I really enjoyed watching and getting to know some of the other MPs in the other parties. How they operate, how they conduct themselves, and just how they think.
Maybe that’s being a little bit older and understanding that we don’t have to be combative all the time. That, actually, there are points that we do agree on, and that it’s okay to respect and admire other members of parliament who aren’t from your own political party.
What else do you do besides politics, Carmel Sepuloni?
Outside politics, it’s just really the kids. The best way to spend my time is hanging out with the four-year-old, Isaiah, just going on our little adventures when we have time to do that, and just being a mum. The 19-year-old doesn’t want to hang out much these days!
There’s not much room for anything else. I’m terrible in the garden, and I’m getting too old to play sport. So being a mum is the hobby outside of this place.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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