When we learn that Kris Faafoi’s mum and dad came from Tokelau, it’s a reminder of how little New Zealanders have been taught about that part of the Pacific — although we may have heard that there’s not a vast population (only 1500 or so) on Atafu, Nukunonu and Fakaofo, the three atolls which make up the country, that Sāmoa, 500 kilometres away, is their closest neighbour, and that rising sea levels are a threat because the land is so low-lying.
The Faafoi family, like more than another 7,000 Tokelauans, now have their home in New Zealand, and they haven’t made a bad job of it. Especially Kris, who, in the last few weeks has picked up two more portfolios — broadcasting and customs — after two of his cabinet colleagues got into a bit of bother.
Here he tells Dale of his early days and his work as a minister.
Kia ora, Kris. You’ve become a very busy man lately, seeing you’ve recently picked up some extra ministerial duties with the broadcasting and customs portfolios.
But one of your portfolios is commerce, which means loan sharks are in your line of fire — and I’m sure that most New Zealanders will back any moves you make to rein them in. I live in Ōtāhuhu and there’s a proliferation of these sharks up and down the street. I see so many of our people turning to them in desperate times and then finding themselves deep in escalating debt.
Well, we’ll have some news for you in a couple of weeks about that situation.
Dealing with loan sharks has been my main political priority — we’re aiming to stop the way that debt can spiral and leave some families unable to get out of it. A $500 loan can turn into $3,500 if they default.
At some stage, most New Zealanders have to borrow. Perhaps the fridge packs up or you need new tyres. So we want to make sure that, if families get into that situation, there are safe places for them to borrow.
Already in Auckland, there’s Ngā Tangata Finance and Good Shepherd — they offer low or no interest loans for very small amounts of money. We have to ensure that the whole lending sector takes more responsibility for seeing that people are able to pay back their loans.
But certainly, we’re going to cut the amount of interest the loan sharks are charging. The likes of 800 percent interest just aren’t acceptable. We want to target that debt-spiral to make sure those loans don’t end up becoming a noose around a family’s neck. Limiting that harm is what we’re after.
That’s welcome news, Kris. We’ll look forward to the announcement. And shortly we’ll touch on several other of your concerns as a minister. But let’s go back to the beginning which, I understand, was when your parents came over to Christchurch from Tokelau.
Well, I was born in 1976, and Kris, my first name, so I’m told, was chosen at a time when Kris Kristofferson was big as a singer and songwriter.
Actually, that name was given to me by a bunch of teachers. My dad was a primary school teacher and he gave the naming rights for me to some of his colleagues. John is my middle name, and that’s from a close family friend who passed away before I was born. Mum and Dad often talked about him when I was young.
Faafoi is the first name of my grandfather. Dad and a few of his brothers took on grandad’s first name as their surname when they came to New Zealand. It’s a bit of a tradition in Tokelau to do that.
Mum (Metita) and Dad (Amosa) were born on Fakaofo, one of the three atolls in Tokelau, which I’m visiting as a minister this week, for just the second time in my life.
They came here in the 1960s. Dad was sent to New Zealand on a scholarship to do his secondary schooling as a boarder at Wairarapa College in Masterton.
And Mum came over about the same time, when she was 16, as part of a repatriation scheme for Tokelauans. They were brought here to find work because it was getting very crowded back on the island.
Dad became a teacher, as I mentioned, and then a primary school lecturer. My mum worked predominantly in a Christchurch factory, called PDL, which used to make light switches and heaters and so on.
That’s where I often had a holiday job when I was at university and polytech. And I really enjoyed it, although it was hard work.
I learned a lot from the ladies on the production line there. They had much the same backgrounds as my parents and they wanted all us students who worked there to do well at school, so that we wouldn’t have to be like them and settle for full-time factory jobs.
Thank you, Kris. You mentioned that your trip to Tokelau this month is your second. What was the nature of your first visit?
Most of our family went back in 2003. My parents hadn’t been home at all for about 40 years. But my brother Jason and I hit on the idea that it’d be cool to make a documentary about Tokelau because it’s a special place with a strong New Zealand connection — and we didn’t think many people knew much about it.
Jason was in television, too, and we were lucky enough to get some NZ On Air funding to make a documentary about Mum and Dad’s first trip home. So off we went.
And it was a journey of discovery for me and Jason and our sister Maria. A lot of pennies dropped from that visit. Just understanding how our mum and dad grew up, and how that had influenced the way our family did things.
Did you grow up speaking Tokelau reo?
We didn’t have a typical Tokelau upbringing. Dad did his teacher training in Christchurch, and never left. So, as far as I know, we were one of only two Tokelauan families that made Christchurch home.
So we didn’t have much exposure to the language as kids, even though Mum and Dad spoke it. We’d pick up a lot on visits in the holidays to Porirua where the bulk of our extended family was — but it would come and go.
Not being a fluent speaker is one of my big regrets. I don’t like to blame my parents for that. I think they did what they needed to do.
But it’s certainly a barrier, and particularly for a lot of second or third generation Tokelauans who’ve been born in New Zealand, and who don’t speak the language and have that connection to their culture. That’s something I’d like to deal with so my kids and grandkids can grow up a lot more connected to their Tokelau culture.
What do you make of the reo Māori revitalisation efforts? Growing up in New Zealand, you’ve been exposed to a lot of kupu Māori, as most New Zealanders are. How does that sit with you?
I think it’s great. I had the benefit of Dad, during his teaching career, being an itinerant teacher of Māori. He’d picked up the language and ran with it. In his job, he’d travel around Christchurch to different schools because the schools didn’t have reo teachers on the staff.
As we know, we still don’t have enough reo teachers to meet the need. But because of Dad’s role, I was exposed to a whole lot of Māori things culturally — like going to see the Te Māori exhibition when it was in Christchurch — and to Māori families. So I’ve always been more proficient in te reo Māori than Tokelauan.
Let’s talk about journalism. I’m thinking of the late ‘80s when there was a dearth of Māori and PI students looking at journalism as a career. How did that happen for you?
I think my dad wanted to be a journalist at some stage. We’d often watch the news with him. He wanted us to be aware of what was going on in our community and in and around our world, and he’d give us a bit of context to those things.
I guess, in the most basic sense, he kind of raised a family of sticky beaks. We always wanted to know what was going on. The other thing is that he encouraged us to ask questions. He told us not to be shy. Not to challenge, necessarily, but to try and understand what was going on.
I went to university for a couple of years, thinking I’d become a teacher. But I didn’t really enjoy that experience. So I had a crack at getting into the journalism course at the Broadcasting School in Christchurch, and was welcomed there by Shona Geary, who was a tutor and a well-known figure in journalism in those days.
She made me realise that there needed to be more diversity in journalism. And I’ve never looked back since then.
Along the way you spent some time with the BBC, which I imagine has been a nice boost to the tool kit you need now in your various roles as a cabinet minister. But how did that come about?
I was the first one in our family to do what many New Zealanders do. That’s to head off on an OE. I didn’t have the opportunity to do that while I was working with TVNZ. So I thought I’d just go and freelance. And I landed a job at the BBC.
Being part of such a massive beast of a broadcaster as the BBC was a privilege and an absolute eye-opener. We did everything from the most mundane of duties to sitting in a control room in charge of putting out bulletins to the world.
There was a fair bit of apprehension there some days. But I guess all the skills I’d learned in newsrooms in New Zealand put me in good stead over there. I don’t know what it is about New Zealanders and Australians in the UK, but they’re pretty much running all the big newsrooms.
Back here you’ve been part of an advance guard of Māori and Pasifika journalists bringing a different style and perspective to the programmes we present. Through the years, our newsrooms have been short of journalists with that approach and expertise. And there’s no doubt that the public were getting skewed pictures and reporting about te ao Māori. How do you feel about the change that’s going on with more of our people telling our stories?
I think it’s very important. They bring a different perspective, usually because of their upbringing. And this is true as well for a lot of the Māori and Pasifika coming into the public service. We deal with many of them now that we’re in government.
And I tell them: “You deserve a place at the table. So bring your perspective to the table. Work hard and don’t be shy about having your say.”
These were all the things that were passed on to me and my siblings from my parents.
From my perspective, I see that Pacific Islanders do things a bit differently — especially because of their respect for authority or for elders. But you can have respect and still question without challenging offensively.
It can be an interesting way to operate in a dog-eat-dog world like politics, but I try to keep those values there — to treat people with respect, have fun, work hard, and try to understand why people have the perspective that they have.
You’re one of several broadcasters who’ve made it into politics. I can think of Maggie Barry, Tamati Coffey, and Willie Jackson. It seems as though broadcasting isn’t a bad apprenticeship for parliament.
Those of us who’ve worked in the media are probably all used to a fair degree of pressure which comes with newsrooms and deadlines. You’ve often had to churn through a lot of complicated information quickly to try and make sense of it. You’ve had to be a good communicator, too. And those are skills that certainly are useful in politics.
Any particular personalities who’ve had an influence on the way you operate now that you’re in the political arena?
Some people may be surprised, but Steve Price, the Aussie who used to captain the Warriors in the NRL, has been an influence, even an inspiration for me.
I remember him saying that he wasn’t the most talented player in the team, but that he had a little bit of talent and he worked hard. And, sometimes, I feel like that too.
He had teammates who were a lot more talented than he was. But he knuckled down — and he delivered for years and years. He got there through sheer grit, determination and hard work.
So what he said really resonated with me. You need to have a range of skills in politics. And after seven years in opposition, I knew there were areas that I needed to work on — like policy, which isn’t my strength. I’m in a caucus where there are certainly more talented people than me in policy.
Sometimes, I feel I’m good enough to be here. Sometimes, I don’t. And the only remedy to that is to knuckle down and do the work so you can compete and operate at that level. It was a lightbulb moment for me.
Before you became an MP in 2010, you were Phil Goff’s press secretary. Phil, of course, is a really experienced politician. He spent 30 years in the big house before coming up to Tāmaki for the mayoralty. What did you learn from being so closely associated with him?
A little bit of the same. It’s work ethic. Phil is a workaholic. Much of his success as a minister came from his intellect and understanding of New Zealand, but even more from his hard work and his values. Jacinda has that combination too — and that connection to New Zealanders.
Your press sec job with Phil was pretty much a behind-the-scenes role. But, when Winnie Laban stepped down and you stepped up as Labour’s candidate for the Mana electorate, suddenly you were all over the billboards. How did your Pasifika shyness and reservation cope with that?
It was difficult at the outset. And so was moving from one side of the camera to the other. But what I’ve noticed is that, in an electorate, the people want to see you and they want to see you engaging. And, as an MP, you need to be able to judge when you should be quietly listening and observing and when you should be taking control and leading.
Your ministerial responsibilities are interesting, especially civil defence because we’ve been having our share of emergencies. And one aspect of dealing with emergencies is the significant part that marae have been playing.
Yes, they play a big role. We’ve just finished a large piece of work. The previous government did a review of civil defence responses after the Christchurch earthquake, the Kaikoura earthquake, and the Port Hills fires.
What became clear was that, in response to a lot of emergencies, marae step up and offer welfare not just to the local marae community, but often to the rest of the wider community. And, as we saw with Kaikōura, to a good many visitors to New Zealand as well.
One of the recommendations that came out of that review was that we should include iwi in the planning for dealing with emergencies, so that they’re part of the system.
One of the big problems in and around Kaikōura was at Takahanga marae where a number of British tourists found refuge when they were cut off and were unable to get out. But the marae missed out on the resources they deserved because they didn’t have any official part in the response to the disaster.
We need to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
We know that marae — especially in the remote areas — already act as welfare centres in emergencies. So we need to make sure that they’re kitted out, and can respond. Make sure they have the ability to have power, communications, and a supply of food and water when people seek refuge there.
Because of the way that the aroha is offered by marae in emergencies, it’s important that we back that up with the support they need.
Let’s turn now to your broadcasting portfolio and what you see as the key aspects.
I think the most important element in the Māori media is te reo — making sure that Māori and non-Māori have exposure to it and have an understanding of Māori culture and tikanga as well.
My own experience, where Dad was a speaker of Tokelauan and Māori but us kids weren’t, has given me an insight into the need for us to treasure and protect our reo, and see that our people have access to it.
New Zealand has plenty of stories to tell — whether it’s mainstream or Māori. Stories to tell ourselves and also the rest of the world. But the unique story is around our indigenous Māori culture.
The way in which we can best deliver it is uncertain at the moment, but I’m excited by the challenge especially in reaching our young people.
We need to make sure, when they’ve got a whole lot of things like Netflix and YouTube available to them, that they can get the stuff that makes them proud to be a Kiwi, proud to be Māori, and can readily see te reo and their culture on their screens.
That’s really important. We need to keep pumping it. Availability is one thing but we’ve got to make sure it’s getting in front of them and people are watching it.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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