Leilani Tamu isn’t the first in her family to lead a high achieving and colourful life – and to survive some significant ups and downs. As a would-be politician, she’s likely to have more of those in store as well. Here’s Dale Husband making the acquaintance of the daughter of a former high profile character and colleague.
Thanks for joining us on e-Tangata, Leilani. Tēnā koe. Many of us with a background in rugby league or broadcasting were familiar with Bill Burgoyne, your dad, who became a colourful figure after he first made his mark on Carlaw Park. We knew him as a Marist club player, an Auckland rep and then as a Kiwi, in the 1970s, playing for New Zealand. And he wasn’t too bad on radio either. But we don’t know so much about other parts of your family, and your background.
Well, I was born Leilani Leafaitulagi Grace Burgoyne — and my mum was Ellen Oldehaver. She was born in Samoa and she also has an ancestral connection to Tonga, Germany and Scotland. I married a wonderful man, Shayne Kisuvai Tamu, who was born here in Auckland but he comes from Liku, a village in Niue. That’s on his mother’s side of the family. And Shayne and I have two kids, Kahlei and Luka.
My dad passed away when I was 17 and I miss him every day. He and my mum both had a huge influence on my upbringing and character. Growing up here in Tāmaki Makaurau — or Aukilani as most of us PIs call it — I didn’t really think of myself as different from anyone else.
I went to a small Catholic school in Mt Albert — Marist Primary — where there were only three or four of us who were Island kids. And maybe one or two Māori. So, it was a predominantly Pākehā school. But that was just how it was. I didn’t really think too much of it.
But then I got to intermediate at St Mary’s in Ponsonby, and that was a really multicultural school. Heaps of Pacific kids from East and South Auckland used to bus into St Mary’s. And I started to figure out that I was different — and that my cultural heritage was a very important part of who I’d always been. I thought about that early education at Marist Primary and, although it was a good school, we were taught through a Pākehā lens.
So my knowledge of the Pacific region and of the history of Aotearoa was very limited. And I was frustrated by my education being limited by this narrow cultural way of seeing the world.
And, of course, with your mum, Ellen, having that Pacific background, and Bill, with his Pākehā-Māori whakapapa, there would’ve been a range of influences on you as you grew up.
I’m named after my nana, Leafaitulagi. She’s still alive, at 86, and she’s the most beautiful woman in the world to me. I love her dearly. She was born in American Samoa and she married my grandfather, Eddie Oldehaver. I think that was in 1954. He was a town boy from Western Samoa.
My nana was the taupou in her village for the chief Tuitele. She’s from the To’omata family. My grandfather, through his family connection to Tonga, has important linkages there to chiefly families in Ha’apai. So I come from a proud family that holds its own. We work hard and we’re passionate.
When my mother and father divorced, my sister Chantelle and I were very young. I was two and my sister was a newborn. Dad and Mum split largely because my mum wasn’t willing to keep putting up with my dad’s gambling habit.
My grandparents were the ones who stepped in. Initially, it was just them being there because my mum used to work shifts. But they were always the ones who picked us up from school. Prepared dinner, put us to bed.
They were the ones who helped my mum get into her first home too. They actually bought a piece of land next to their property in Sandringham and helped her build that home. Now I’ve built a home next door too, so we’re all living beside each other.
With your family coming from the islands across to Aotearoa all those years ago, you’ve been part of the generation of change. A demographic change — and a good one too, Leilani. You mentioned attending St Mary’s in Ponsonby where Sister Mary Leo used to teach music. So I’m assuming you can sing?
No. Unfortunately, that was never my strength. But I do write poetry.
Okay. So we’ll assume that your love of words was fostered at St Mary’s. But I sense that you might not have been a model student.
No, I wasn’t. Our upbringing was really tough, although my grandparents provided as much stability as they could. And Mum did her best. Dad used to come on Sundays and … I love my dad. He had the biggest character. The biggest heart. But he was sick with his gambling. And on Sundays when he’d pick us up, we’d spend most of our time at the TAB or Carlaw Park.
So my early life was very much a mix of knowing that Dad would be coming on Sunday. And knowing that he might not turn up. That he might be able to afford to shout us lunch, or he might not. Then going home and having really strict expectations, from my grandparents in particular, about how we should be behaving as Samoan kids.
But never ever feeling, especially with my grandfather, never feeling like I met those expectations. And also not speaking Samoan. It was almost feeling like I don’t know how to be. I know how to be Samoan in my heart, but my grandparents and my mum were basing their expectations of us on their growing up in the islands.
Whereas for me and my sister, we were Auckland-based kids. So we were just trying to figure out what it means to grow up here. I was rebellious. I’ve always had a pretty rebellious streak. And I ran away from home when I was about 12. Those were hard years for us all.
I note that you ended up working for MFAT (the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade) and that you were posted to the Pacific for a time. So you must’ve been a decent sort of a student to get those qualifications. How come you found yourself working in that field?
I’ve always been a fighter. Whenever someone tells me something isn’t possible, I’m the first to say we can make it possible. And when I was at uni, I was never the smartest kid in the class. But I’ve been the hardest working.
Because of that, I’ve often managed to prove to people that their low expectations of me were wrong. I remember there being talk at uni about MFAT and how prestigious it was to get in there. But I just saw it as an opportunity to live and work in the Pacific. I really wanted to go there and make a contribution.
Although I didn’t have law or politics in my degree, I did have a master’s in history — and it was the history of the Pacific and Aotearoa. I figured that was pretty relevant to this work. So I put my application in, got an interview, and was one of the 25 (from about 600 applicants) who were successful that year.
There were only two of us who were PI. But that was still a surprise for some people. I will never forget meeting an international law student, a Pākehā girl, and her saying: “How did YOU get that job?” She said it with such venom. And it spoke volumes about how certain parts of our society think they’re entitled to positions of power and privilege — and how they judge others at first sight.
When I joined MFAT, I managed to get a secondment to Canberra. So I worked for the Australians for a year. That was interesting because their view of the Pacific is quite different from ours. And from there, I was cross-posted to the Kingdom of Tonga from 2010 to 2012.
I loved working there. I’d go back in a heartbeat. The funny thing is that there wasn’t a lot of competition to go to Tonga. Most staff want to go to Paris or Washington or New York for their first posting. But I wanted to go to the Pacific. I can go to those other places any time, but the opportunity to live and learn in the Pacific was at the forefront of my mind. So those were pretty special years for me.
One of the problems in our education system is that so few of our students study our very rich Pacific and Māori histories. But you bucked the trend, didn’t you?
I’ve always bucked the trend. When I started university, people said to me, over and over again: “Why are you bothering to study history? Are you just going to go and teach?”
Questions like that indicate how narrowly people think about the value of understanding our history. But it also shows a condescending view of teaching. That’s a wonderful profession — and I still might do that in the future.
But the drive for me was the feeling of injustice and the frustration with the formal education system which had taught me very, very little about the history of Aotearoa and the Pacific region. So it was a determination on my part to make sure that I understood as much as I possibly could of our wider context — and why and where we are today.
Also, the politics of history really fascinated me. For example, at school we were always taught that James Cook was this amazing seafarer and navigator. I don’t take that away from him. But he wasn’t the first to come to this country.
And when I went to university, I found out all this other stuff about him that wasn’t so nice. Like how he cut off the ears of Tahitian chiefs as punishment and retribution because he believed they had stolen things from his ship.
Then there was the fact that, when you look at him with a backdrop of Māori-Pasifika navigational history, he was just a wee baby. He was nothing compared with our seafarers who crossed this ocean. So my history studies were about rectifying and decolonising my mind.
Also, when I got to do my master’s, another element was being able to step into those privileged places where our taonga — the documents and the artefacts from our ancestors — are kept in archives that very few of us know about. And so, through my master’s research, I not only learned about how to access those taonga but I also learned about the power dynamic where only certain people are privileged and have access to them.
Some time ago, on e-Tangata, we had some challenging whakaaro from Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu not just about the neglect of Pacific history in our schools, but also about the way Pacific history has become the colonisers’ story.
In the course of the empire-building, there definitely has been that process of devaluing our Pacific knowledge. For instance, they’ve done that with their idea that we didn’t have a written language. But we did. Our tohunga — the tatau. That’s our written language.
It’s just that, when the Western framework and understanding of what constitutes a written language is applied, we don’t fit in that. In effect, they said: “You don’t have a written language, so we’re going to teach you a written language based on our system.” And then what happened? Our tatau became framed as lowly “tattoos”.
Even here in Aotearoa, there was the Tohunga Suppression Act. In other islands, we had to cover our tattoos. We were punished for showing them in public. So we were shamed for a practice we had every right to be proud of. And then we were told to stop it completely. The damage now is that there’s a whole generation of us having to do all this work to try to reclaim that information for ourselves.
We still fight because outsiders still tell us what they think. They tell us what they think our history is. It’s quite insulting. I accept that, at the University of Auckland, Damon Salesa is doing a great job. And it’s fantastic having him there as a professor in Pacific Studies. But I don’t think there’s a Pacific scholar teaching history in the history department.
Now what does that tell you? We have the skills. We have the ability. We’re often bilingual, trilingual —and yet we’re still not getting these opportunities. There’s some significant inequality still ingrained and hardwired into this society.
When you returned home from your post in Tonga, you saw the gulf widening between the haves and have-nots here in New Zealand. But what was it that infuriated you most about this?
I left Foreign Affairs for a few reasons. One was that I didn’t want to work under a minister like Murray McCully any more. I could go on about a whole lot of things under National. Suffice to say there was some real injustice. For instance, as soon as National came to power, the Women and Children’s Crisis Centre in Tonga had their funding cut.
When I decided to leave and move back to Auckland, I managed to get a job quite quickly. But my husband Shayne, who’d been the caregiver for our baby girl for the preceding two and a half years, couldn’t get a job. Couldn’t get a job anywhere, even though he had a degree and lots of work experience.
For six months he tried and tried to get work. In the end, he had to go to Work and Income. That was a difficult and humiliating experience. But, through Work and Income, he got a job working as a bus driver.
Around that time I was hapū with baby number two, our son, and we decided that Shayne would be the breadwinner. But anyone who works as a bus driver in this country knows what a hard slog that is. My poor husband. Forget the living wage. He got paid the minimum wage. He was working split shifts. Biking miles to get to work.
Then our landlord gave us notice and we couldn’t find a place to rent. And I had this sense of: My God! Here I am. I’ve got a degree. My husband has a degree. We work hard. We work long hours. We’re trying to do the best by our children. And yet, it feels like we’re going backwards.
All around me I saw the same story. I saw struggle. All around my neighbourhood. My friends and colleagues. And everybody was saying the same thing. So I started to think: John Key has to be telling lies here. Because people are suffering and struggling. And yet he’s telling us, it’s fine. And there’s a big gap between what he’s saying and what I’m seeing.
That’s when I decided to become political and put myself out there and walk the talk. That’s why I’m going into politics.
And thrown your hat into the ring for the Greens in New Lynn. Good luck to you. And good luck particularly in dealing with your concerns about Pasifika people.
Well, I am really concerned for us as Pasifika. You can see from the statistics that we’re significantly disadvantaged along with our whanaunga, with Māori. Particularly when it comes to looking at gender and class as well as ethnicity. The picture is pretty stark. We’re at the bottom of the rung.
But our community knows a lot of the answers. It’s been talking about them for a long time. It’s just that we haven’t been listened to. Either under Labour or National.
What I bring to the table, though, is a deep knowledge of what affects us as Pasifika and a knowledge of the different way we have of seeing the world. Which actually isn’t too different.
But there are differences in something as basic as housing. It’s inter-generational housing that’s really important to us. Like the house we’ve just built, so that Shayne’s grandmother can live with us. She’s 80 years old. So we made sure that, when we designed the house, the master bedroom was wheelchair accessible and has everything that she’s going to need as she sees out the next few years of her life.
It’s funny when I tell people that. They say: “Don’t you want the master bedroom?” But I don’t come at it from the same perspective as those people. For us, it’s more important that we’re taking care of our elderly and that they’re with us rather than me needing to have the big bedroom.
Much of the talk within Housing New Zealand is around the need, in the future, for smaller houses. That concerns me, though, because a lot of the Housing New Zealand clients are Pasifika who have a high birth rate. So what are the implications of that?
And what is Housing New Zealand doing about helping lift the low home ownerships rates within the Pasifika communities? To transition their clients into secure housing? I don’t see any of those policies in place. We don’t want to be permanent renters in this country. Housing and policy are really big things for me.
Also, I’m passionate about the state being there to enable and support rather than punish. We’ve had welfare reforms where the government takes the stick approach to force people into work through benefit sanctions. Those are the kinds of harmful things that I want to stand up against when September comes.
Thank you for the opportunity to talk with you, Leilani. I’m sorry that we haven’t touched on your poetry and other writing. But let’s do so now. Perhaps modern-day youth may be overlooking the impact that writing can have, whether that’s writing blogs, magazine stories or poetry. Or even shaping submissions to present to the government. But I don’t get the impression that you take your writing lightly.
No, I believe the pen can be a powerful weapon. And so is the gift of the gab, as my father taught me. But whether it’s writing or speaking, it needs to come from the heart. That’s the best kind. That’s the kind of writing that makes a difference. If it’s not coming from the heart, you should ask yourself whether you should be writing it at all.
And there’s another message that I’d like to get out to anyone, but especially to our Pasifika and Māori kids at school. I was lucky to be encouraged by my parents to read and read — and read as widely as I could. It’s the reading that makes a good writer.
I’m not perfect with my grammar or my spelling. But I know how to apply what’s in my head and combine that with my heart — and that’s what can make your writing strong.
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