Sam Lotu-Iiga is inclined to shrug off his unusual story as the common migration experience. Young parents arriving in New Zealand, making sacrifices for their kids – and the kids doing okay. It hasn’t been especially common, though, for Pasifika boys to match Sam’s successes: A launching pad from Auckland Grammar School, three degrees at Auckland University, another one over in England at Cambridge University, a taste of the financial, corporate and legal worlds in London, Sydney and Auckland, a stint as an Auckland City Councillor, seven years as a National Party MP (for Maungakiekie), and now several ministerial portfolios, all by the age of 44. Not that it’s been smooth sailing – as has been brought home to him over the last few weeks in his role as the Minister of Corrections. In this interview, however, he and Dale barely touch on what’s been going on in our prisons. That’s another story. Here, the focus is on the paths travelled by Peseta Samuelu Masunu Lotu-Iiga.
I understand that you were born in Apia, but that you’ve spent most of your life in New Zealand.
Yes. I grew up in a village called Faleasiu. My parents Lotu and Usuga were born in Apia and my father came here in the 1950s. Then Mum, my other siblings and I migrated in the 70s. I am the youngest of four. The oldest is my sister Lolita, followed by Brigitta and my brother Ken. We were brought up as a typical Samoan family with close family ties, lots of cousins, uncles and aunties. And we grew up with a strong Christian faith.
Mum was one of the first trained Samoan librarians who were educated overseas and she worked in the Samoan library. Dad left school at 12 and came to New Zealand to work in the freezing works – and he also drove a cab. We moved to Mangere in the mid-1970s. I attended Mangere Central Primary, Bader Intermediate and then Auckland Grammar School.
We weren’t a wealthy family materially but we were well looked after. We were a strong family unit with lots of cousins living in Mangere. Our parents taught us the value of education with a focus also on our faith and culture.
That meant, I suppose, that, early on at least, your family clung to the Samoan language?
Yes. When we first came, our parents wanted to maintain our strong Samoan language and culture at home. We weren’t allowed to speak English there. But, as we grew up, it became quite difficult for us to go to school, where we spoke English, and then come home and speak no English. So that eased over time. My siblings are at different levels in speaking Samoan. My Samoan language is reasonably strong, and I go to a lot of Samoan events where I speak Samoan.
My parents placed a lot of emphasis on Samoan values, especially on how you treat others. So we were well trained in fa'a-Samoa, the Samoan way, and in aganuu Samoa, which are the deep Samoan cultural norms and values. That helps you to understand not only your position and role within a Samoan family but also within a Samoan village and the wider Samoan community.
As a youngster growing up in Mangere, did you feel any kind of cultural stand-off between Maori and Pacific Islanders?
Yes. You did feel a little bit of separation. You felt like you were cousins, not brothers. You had similarities but also stark differences in language, culture and how you treated one another. But, over time, things have changed. We now have so much intermarriage - and that really helps. And the renaissance of Maori culture and language has been important in the relationship between Maori and Pacific peoples. The ties between us have become much stronger.
Were you a sporting guy, Sam?
Yes, I played a little sport. It was league when I was young and then union. I played for Manukau Rovers, and it’s good to see they’re doing well again. I played for Auckland Grammar, and for the Auckland under 21s – and I had a game for the New Zealand Barbarians. I also played some rugby in Hong Kong and England. I still play rugby in the Parliamentary team. We’re off to defend our world title in the UK later this year.
These days, though, I’m more interested in the relationships, partnerships and friendships that you make through sport. The game itself is just one part of it. The really big thing about rugby isn’t the winning or the losing. It’s the deep ties you make with others.
I like the Parliamentary team where you put your political differences aside and protect your mates on the field and work together. That’s what makes New Zealand what it is – a society that tolerates differences.
Maybe you should add your rugby achievements to your official CV, Sam, because that prowess shows another side of you, a little known side. By the way, what position did you play?
I’m a hooker. But I wouldn’t call it prowess. I did okay. But my siblings have been better. My sister, Brigitta, played for the Black Ferns and, in his seventh form year, my brother, Ken, got into the New Zealand Secondary Schools rugby team.
Back to Auckland Grammar for a minute. Were you an out-of-zone student? Did you have a whanau connection there?
No. My Dad (who passed away in 2013) and Mum had saved and were able to buy a home in-zone in Parnell. My parents’ generation were about providing for their kids and giving us opportunities that they didn’t have. It’s the common migration story.
You’re obviously a bright guy, because you have a Master’s degree with Honours in Commerce, and a B.Com/LLB as well from the University of Auckland. Was that because your Mum and Dad were bright? Or was it just that you knew how to buckle down and work hard?
It’s a number of things including the opportunities I got. But, in order to capitalise on those, you need a good attitude. I think that’s more important than natural talent or intelligence. And I’ve had some great support from my parents who provided for me and gave me a lot of love and attention within a stable family unit.
During the journey it’s important to surround yourself with people who want those same things as you do. So I gravitated towards kids who wanted to do really well – in sport as well as studying. There was a degree of competition but also collaboration. You don’t get there on your own.
Could you do a bit of name dropping about some who have remained in your corner throughout your career?
First and foremost it’s been my family. My faith in God has been really important too. But I don’t want to name drop because there are many people who have come in and out of my life at various times providing moral support and nuggets of advice.
There are people I look up to in education, like Sir John Graham, who was the headmaster of Auckland Grammar. He had a huge influence on my life in terms of focus. But I don’t want to name any others.
During your time as a lawyer at Russell McVeagh, there was a lot of work being done on Treaty issues and on other efforts to right the wrongs of yesteryear. Was this of any special interest to you?
Yes. Real interest. For the country to advance, there is a need to redress the wrongs that were inflicted on Maori. The Russell McVeagh partner who dealt with this was Paul Majurey and we all know the role that people like Paul play in Treaty negotiations and settlements. I think it’s very high on the agenda for our government and it should be high on the agenda for all New Zealanders because, once we get that right, we can further advance ourselves as a country. And Aotearoa New Zealand will be a better place for it.
You’re now the Minister for Corrections. Half of the prison muster is Maori. I guess that job would require you to appreciate how some of these guys get there – because they’re not all inherently bad are they? We can look at their circumstances of land loss, cultural loss, language loss and all that goes with that which might contribute to people being lost in the wilderness and therefore making poor decisions. Do you factor in some of that when you look at the prison environment?
Undoubtedly. It’s a complex set of circumstances. Two-thirds of those who enter prison are functionally illiterate, and over half of them have alcohol and drug problems. So we won’t be able to get them reintegrated into society unless we address those issues, including gang affiliations. On the issues of tikanga Maori we have programmes that address the separation of Maori from their culture.
I’ve personally seen the importance, especially for young male Maori, of linking them back to their culture and heritage. I think those things are really important and they do make a difference. So we need to make better use of the services of Maori in helping to rehabilitate offenders.
Can we turn now to look at the importance of the Church for you and Pasifika people?
It’s hugely important. Our faith and Samoan values and customs become quite intertwined and some would argue you can’t separate them. As a generalisation, the Christian faith of our Samoan people is strong. It helps us define ourselves as families and communities. It certainly helps when we find ourselves in distress or conflict.
We live in a largely secular society now, but society still respects institutions and culture. And other New Zealanders have an understanding of Samoans who hold those things close to their hearts. We saw that recently at the funeral of Jerry Collins.
We haven’t touched on your time at Cambridge. Did that experience help to make you a more rounded guy?
Working in London and studying at a renowned university was rewarding. But the biggest value was learning from the experiences and wisdom of the people I met from many cultures. You just can’t buy the relationships and experiences that come from living life to the fullest and appreciating the people that form part of the global citizenship that we live in.
Finally, can you tell us something about your good lady and how being a dad has changed the way you view the world?
Jules, my wife, is the love of my life. It’s quite funny. Jules grew up in Mangere as well. We attended the same church. Many, many years ago she was actually the first woman that I asked out. And, obviously, she’s the last woman I asked out because we’re married. It’s been a kind of a fairy tale. She’s English and Niuean. We have a little girl called Hope, who’s four, and we had an older girl, Samaria, who unfortunately passed away when she was young.
But, being a Dad is one of the best things in my life. I thoroughly enjoy it. It helps me see what I want to do in life and focus on improving the plight of other families and that’s what drives me in political life.