In the early 1980s, Sefita Hao’uli changed direction and opted for the media as a career.
That was an industry sparsely populated by Pacific Islanders in those days. Still is.
But Sefita and other pioneers ushered in an era when New Zealand listeners and viewers became much more familiar with Pacific voices, faces and issues.
Here Sef is talking with Dale about the moves he made leading up to the major developments in Pacific Island broadcasting in Aotearoa.
Mālō e lelei, Sefita.
I understand that you’ve now spent 50 years in New Zealand. But your origins are strictly Tongan, aren’t they? What can you tell us about your early days?
I grew up on the island of Foa, about 100 miles north of Nuku’alofa. My extended family lived in the villages of Lotofoa. For me, as a little boy, those villages were the centre of the universe. Pigs and chickens running wild. Horseriding. And fishing any time you wanted. In many ways, it was quite a rich childhood.
My family had a piece of land where six extended families lived right next to one another. Many villages were made up of 20 or 30 families living close together. Our neighbours were all related, although I didn’t realise that at the time.
We lived close to the shore, so the sea was a part of our everyday life. In fact, the sea was our most reliable clock. Often it was our only one, because there weren’t many clocks in the villages in those days.
Back in the 1950s, we got some income from copra, as villagers had done for generations throughout the Pacific. It was a sort of cottage industry. And it meant collecting coconuts, chopping them open and drying their kernels in the sun. If the rain suddenly came, there’d be a panic to get to the shells and turn them upside down so the kernels wouldn’t get wet. If they got wet, that would encourage a fungal growth and spoil the quality. So if, say, 400 nuts had been cracked open, waiting to dry, a cloud burst would mean half the village racing out to turn the coconuts over. And then, when the rain was gone, they’d all race out again to turn the shells over again and expose the kernels to the sun. Then the bags of dried coconut kernel would be sold to traders and shipped off overseas to be made into coconut oil.
Your name, Sefita — where did that come from?
From the Bible. Tonga is a very Christian country and many parents choose their kids’ names from the Bible. There’s a Sefita somewhere there in the Old Testament. Judges, Chapter 11, as a matter of fact. In English, it’s Jephthah. He was a son of Gilead. And, according to the scripture, he was “a mighty man of valour”. Quite appropriate, don’t you think?
The full version of my surname is Hao’uli-ki-namo. But it was too much for the teachers to handle when I came over to New Zealand as a high school student. So it was shortened to Hao’uli.
Hao’uli-ki-namo comes from my father’s island, Mo’unga’one, which simply means “mountain of sand”. A lot of islands are like that. They start out as a reef, then the sand mounts up, creepers begin growing, coconuts floating there from other islands are snared, start growing and, over hundreds of thousands of years, some of these atolls become islands.
Hao’uli-ki-namo means “to safely surf into harbour.” That was an important skill because our island is surrounded by a reef, so it was a treacherous job making it into the harbour in your fishing boat. You had to wait for the right wave and position the boat outside the break in the reef to take advantage of a big enough wave to sweep you into the shore. That was every seventh wave. Even these days, with outboard motors, it’s a tricky and dangerous operation.
You’ve mentioned high school in New Zealand. I imagine it would’ve been a huge and probably distressing decision for your parents to send you all this way.
I think they were distressed, but they may have been overjoyed, too. Tongan parents, like parents everywhere, want the best for their children. And, in Tonga, that meant striving to get their kids to the “best” schools. That’s quite challenging when you live on a small island, miles from anywhere.
My mum and dad had high hopes for me, so when I was five they sent me to live with my aunt on the island next to ours because it had a much better primary school. Then, when I was 10, I was sent off to Tonga High School in Nuku’alofa, which was 100 miles south of our island.
Our teachers were mostly New Zealanders or Aussies, and a few Americans. We were encouraged to speak English right from day one. In fact, all our subjects were taught in English. The school was fashioned after King’s College here in Otahuhu. So we wore a grey uniform, caps and sandals and, some days, a maroon tie. The girls would wear maroon gym frocks, a panama hat, and sandals as well. The whole concept was of a private school transported across to Tonga.
In 1965, I sat the New Zealand School Certificate exams — and then some of us were sent over here to Auckland Grammar and others went to apprenticeships, such as at the naval base in Devonport. Or to the railway workshops.
I did two years at Grammar and then went on to Auckland University on a scholarship, with the idea that I’d major in geography and then go back and teach at Tonga High School. But they were pretty lax about supervising those of us on scholarships, so I elected to do political science and psychology. And I dabbled in philosophy and education as well, out of general interest.
So you arrived in Auckland in 1966. Was it hard making that adjustment, from Tonga to Auckland?
For us scholarship students, the adjustment was probably easier than for other Tongans. We’d been taught in English by Kiwi teachers so, when we arrived in Auckland, we already knew a lot about New Zealand history and geography.
Every year a group of us would come, and we’d be housed at the hostel at the Tongan royal family’s residence in St Andrews Road in Epsom. Our neighbours were some of Auckland’s wealthiest families. Like the Caugheys (of Smith and Caughey). We used to do gardening for them. Some of the boys went to the local Methodist Church in Pah Rd, too.
We didn’t realise that we were living in a privileged part of Auckland. It wasn’t until we were finally invited to Tongan homes that we saw that they lived in these old, rundown little villas in Grey Lynn and Ponsonby, where the houses were all stuck together. Of course, those inner-city villas are now worth millions, but most Pacific Island families moved out in the ‘70s.
If we move on to the 1970s, we’re into the era of the Dawn Raids. What was your reaction to that period?
When we came, there were very few Tongan families here. Before then, few Tongans had passports. It was regarded as a privilege, not a right.
Actually, Tongans weren’t encouraged to emigrate at all during the reign of Queen Salote, who was probably our most renowned and loved monarch. She didn’t think Tongans should venture out into the world until they were better prepared and, until she died in 1965, the numbers of Tongans moving to New Zealand remained very low.
But, in the 1970s, there was a scheme bringing workers to Auckland on work visas. For Tonga, that set in motion the largest outflow of our population in history. Tongans turned up here in their hundreds.
And, because the scheme was so poorly designed, few of them went home. That was the beginning of the immigration issues and the overstayer phenomenon. The follow-on from that, of course, was the Dawn Raids. And it became very political because National, knowing that most of the overstayers were likely to vote Labour, didn’t want them to stay. Labour, of course, did their best to make sure they stayed.
Soon you had Samoan and Tongan lawyers advocating for those who were picked up. And the way New Zealand handles its migrant communities became big news here, and internationally as well. Lawyers like Clive Edwards and Joe Fuimaono made sure that the raids were in the news — and particularly the stories about dogs being used to chase people in Ellerslie, Ponsonby, Grey Lynn and Papatoetoe, and all over Auckland. That was something we still live with today. It’s a permanent stain.
And yet, a few years later, you worked for a National prime minister, Robert Muldoon. Tell me about that. How did that come about?
Well, that all happened because I became a journalist in the early ‘80s. I’d been working for the Consumers’ Institute, but I was ready for a change — and the opportunity came up to do the six-month journalism course at what is now AUT. So that’s what I did.
Looking back, I realise now that journalism was the logical next step for me. Working on consumer complaints had opened my eyes to how New Zealand commerce operates. Some businesses were ethical but others were bordering on the criminal. And Māori and Pacific Islanders were usually the ones getting the rough end of that. A lot of our folks just didn’t know enough to protect themselves from the sharks, so they were the bulk of my work. That taught me that ignorance makes you exploitable.
While I was at Consumers, I’d started doing some work for Radio Pacific. That was through a friend, James Waerea, who was looking after the evening programmes. The programmes were in Māori, Samoan, and Tongan — and I did the Tongan.
After the journalism course, I was lucky enough to get a job at Sunday News when Judy McGregor was editor. She was probably the best editor in the country. But, even though I was barely a year into the job, she recommended me for a position in the Prime Minister’s media office. I didn’t expect to get it. For one thing, the job was open to all INL journalists, which included the Dominion and the Evening Post. And, for another, I’d been arrested during the Springbok tour protests in 1981 (while I was doing the journalism course), and ended up in court being prosecuted and fined. I thought my police record would count me out. But Judy said it wouldn’t matter, and it didn’t. I got the job.
So that was 1983, the year before the 1984 snap election which saw Muldoon out and the Lange Labour government in. Interesting times. What was it like working for someone as feared and disliked as Muldoon?
The thought of working in the PM’s office under Muldoon, was both exciting and scary. At the time, a lot of the stories that we ran were anti-Muldoon. Of course, it was a rare opportunity to get an insight into how government works. I thought: Why not? I saw it as an adventure.
The staff in the office appeared to live in fear of him. And he was getting a lot of bad press. But he had close support staff who were very protective of him. Also, there were people in the media who had a very good relationship with the PM. However, there were others who the PM had no time for, such as Richard Long of the Dominion.
My relationship with Muldoon was cordial and professional. My job was to be there at 8.30 every morning and talk to him about what was on Morning Report and in the newspapers. He might ask for us to follow up certain stories. The good thing about him was that, more often than not, he’d draft his own press releases.
Because he was PM, you had to treat him with respect, you had to keep your professional distance. And, because there were so many people around him, there was very little room for informality. I got to know him better with the trips overseas when there was a smaller group of people.
In the end, there was a human side to him which I had never appreciated until I was working with him. What I liked about him was that he worked very hard. Most of the time he was the first there, and often the last to leave.
The other thing that surprised me about Muldoon was his sense of humour. He was very funny. Quick-witted. One time, we were coming back from Gisborne. The driver had forgotten to put the New Zealand flag on the car. We were running late, and Muldoon — who was in the front seat, where he preferred to sit — said: “Driver, would you mind? We need to break the traffic rules to get us to the meeting.” So we were speeding when the driver realised he hadn’t put the flag out. He said: “Oh, I forgot to put the flag on.” We said nothing. When Muldoon didn’t respond, he said: “Prime Minister, would it be all right if I put the flag on?” Muldoon didn’t even look up: “Not while you’re doing 110 miles an hour.”
I didn’t see or experience any bullying. But he could make things happen promptly. There was one incident where he wanted to see the Minister of Lands urgently. And he kept coming out of his office and asking: “Well, where is he?” And finally, he was told: “Sorry, Prime Minister, he’s climbing in the Southern Alps.” His response was: “Don’t we have any helicopters?” That was in the morning. By about 2pm, the Minister of Lands (Jonathan Elworthy) was sitting in his office, still wearing his climbing gear.
The most personal contact I had with him was during the campaign for the snap election of 1984. The chief press secretary, Lesley Miller, decided she was unavailable to do the campaign with him, and he came into the press office and said: “Sef, I don’t have media staff to do the campaign. Would you be available?”
What concerned me most was that you had a prime minister who, at the eleventh hour had to come and ask for help. I didn’t want to be seen as unwilling to help him, even though he was who he was. He was at the end of his career. And, by that time, I no longer hated him as I had at the beginning because of the Springbok tour and because of the way he was as a politician.
I had some compassion for him. He was almost like a caged animal. He seemed alone. I think his lawyer was his closest confidant — he didn’t seem to have close friends. His own ministers feared him. His senior members of parliament were looking to dump him. Everybody in the whole country seemed to be expecting his head to roll at any time.
I could see the human side of a powerful person losing his power. At one point in my life, I had considered politics as something I’d take an interest in, but seeing Muldoon cured me of that. If that was life at the top, I didn’t want a bar of it. To see a powerful person such as Muldoon and to see how his political life was coming to an end — it’s a miserable life being a prime minister on your way out.
On the night he announced the snap election, everyone could see that he’d had too much to drink. Nobody would take the keys off him. He refused the Public Service driver, insisted he’d see himself home. And, while he was getting ready to go, one of his private secretaries went out and let down his tyres, so he couldn’t drive.
I was with him for four weeks on the campaign trail. He was behind in the polls and the National Party was in disarray. You could sense that everywhere we went. But he had no regret because he felt he had no option. He knew before the counting started that the election was gone.
After that, you went back to INL and Sunday News. But then you moved into broadcasting, I understand. First as a news reporter and researcher at TVNZ. Then you put out a Tongan language newspaper before eventually running the Pacific Island radio station, 531pi, which I suppose was picking up on the work you’d started doing in your Radio Pacific days. How important was the radio station?
Very important. I felt that the only way to make sure that Pacific issues were clearly understood or told accurately was for us to have a piece of media that would focus entirely on Pacific Island audiences.
And radio was the ideal medium for us. We had seen the value of radio in the Pacific islands where it had become the most powerful medium. More powerful than print. And it appealed particularly in situations where we had multilingual communities. We could divvy up airtime for different languages — you can’t do that in a newspaper and hope to be marketable.
What was also clear was that we needed to own the medium. With Radio 531pi, as it was originally set up, the Pacific Island community owned it. It was ours.
It came about when the Lange Labour government sold off the radio frequencies — some of them for millions of dollars. But they held on to three frequencies: one for Māori, which is now Waatea, one for Access radio, and one for Pacific. They flicked it to the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs on their way out the door.
So MPIA came and spoke to the community. Said they needed some people to take ownership and see how we could make it into something. None of us had any experience of starting a radio station, but we decided to have a go. We formed a community trust, which I chaired.
As we know from flicking around the dial, there are all sorts of approaches to radio programming. But what was your main aim in planning a PI station?
Our idea was that it would inform our community so that life would be better and easier for them in the long run.
That’s the transformational power of media. It’s to make sure that people are better informed. When you’re better informed, you have power. That’s the need we were trying to meet for our community.
I became aware of that when I was doing complaints for Consumers and seeing the sad level of ignorance — how ignorance makes you exploitable. It was clear in my mind what the radio station role should be.
With Radio Pacific, we’d had only a few hours in the evenings and that had to be divvied up among so many communities. And you could see that, in fact, the size of the cake also matters. Now we were going to have 24 hours to ourselves as opposed to four hours a week. Or the five or six minutes Radio New Zealand gave us every day. It was a huge jump.
There have been all sorts of developments in PI broadcasting since the days, more than 25 years ago when you and your colleagues were setting things in motion. And there have been any number of issues to deal with. Like funding, ownership, governance, frequencies, networking, and programming. Then there’s probably been a conflict between the expectations of the PI community and those of the government. Have any of those elements encouraged a change of direction?
The original vision remains. But one difficulty now is that the social media has become more and more influential. And some people have been asking why we need radio when we have social media. That line of thinking is, I believe, misguided. In the end, a better-informed community means your sources have to be reliable and authoritative — and you don’t get that from social media.
Of course, there’s always the option of taking the easy way out. You can sit back and just put music on — and say you’ve got a radio station. But, if your community doesn’t know any more after listening to your programme, what use are you?
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