Jennifer Teresia Latu arrived in Aotearoa from Tonga as a teenager more than 30 years ago. Since then she has sampled New Zealand secondary education at Auckland Girls’ Grammar School, worked in a bank, nailed a BA in education as well a law degree, spent 10 years in the States with her husband, Damon Salesa, volunteered during that time in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, been a public servant back here in New Zealand, and, last year, made it into parliament with a 13,254 majority when she stood for Labour in Manukau East. Here she recalls some of that experience in response to a few questions and observations from Dale.
Malo e lelei, Jenny. I understand that all your early years were spent in Tonga — and that you had almost completed your high school education when you arrived in Auckland with your family in the mid-'80s.
Yes. I lived in Tonga until I was 16 when we moved here. We might have come here sooner but my father was the only pharmacist in Tonga, for 36 years, and he couldn’t leave until there was a replacement.
I had been brought up in a home where my maternal grandmother, Meleseini Tu’inukuafe Manulevu, lived with us. And, for a time, so did my great grandmother, Loketi, who lived to 102. Meleseini moved with us to New Zealand so she not only helped raise me in Tonga but also here. And, in the latter part of her life, she lived with me in Māngere and I looked after her.
In the beginning, though, it was Tonga?
Yes. I was born in the beautiful Kingdom of Tonga. My paternal grandfather, ‘Alifeleti Latu Tangulu, was originally from Tefisi in Vava’u, one of the most beautiful islands in Tonga. My father, Samiu Latu, is from the villages of Lotofoa and Faleloa on the island of Ha’apai.
My maternal grandmother was from the village of Pea. My mother, Loketi, came from Nuku’alofa, the capital of Tonga, but has connections with the villages Ma’ufanga and Folaha.
With that background, I imagine your identity, your culture and your reo, have been really important to you.
Yes. Very important indeed. I’m proud of being Tongan, proud of my culture and where I come from originally. My parents and grandmother have been strong in our Tongan traditions. So I have grown up speaking the language fluently — better than I speak English. And having both languages allows me to be at home in both cultures. I’m comfortable being Tongan but also comfortable in the Pākehā world which I’ve lived in for 31 years.
How was life for you and your family when you settled in here in the 1980s?
A lot of my constituents in Manukau East are people who are walking in the shoes we wore when my family moved here. We were homeless. We moved from family to family, living in relatives’ lounges or with the family living in a bedroom. We did that for around two years because we couldn’t afford to rent a place of our own.
My father had been a pharmacist in Tonga, working for the government. We had our own house, and he was able to put food on the table and pay the bills. When we came to New Zealand, he worked as an interpreter at the court as well as in hospitals. My mum worked in Tonga as a machinist. When we moved here, she worked as a machinist in a factory in Papatoetoe during the day then, in the evenings she worked as a cleaner. I remember, in my teenage years, all of us kids going around with Mum cleaning schools. That was the way we got by as a family.
You know, the number one issue for people who come to see me in the Otara office is housing — the lack of affordable housing, living in overcrowded conditions with two or three families sharing one house. When people come to my office asking for help, it reminds me of my family’s early years in New Zealand and the struggles we had.
I suppose there were adjustments to make when, as a 16-year-old schoolgirl, you had to fit into the New Zealand system.
Yes, there were. At the time, the curriculum and exams in Tonga were the New Zealand ones. I’d passed School Certificate and University Entrance, so I was able to enrol in the seventh form at Auckland Girls’. But that only lasted a few months.
As a student back home in Tonga, you weren’t expected to have an opinion or to question your teacher. And you weren’t asked to be analytical. But, when I walked into a classroom in Auckland, I was expected to have a voice and be analytical. The culture clash was huge for me. I was performing academically, but I didn’t fit in. So, after discussing it with my parents, I dropped out of school.
What came next?
I worked in a bank for four years. But, during that time, there was always a voice reminding me that the whole family made a big sacrifice for us to move to New Zealand so that we could complete our education — and here I was letting my father and mother down by not fulfilling the dream of why we came.
I was around 20 when I decided the time was right for me to get some training. I thought maybe I’d make banking my career. But, after talking that through with my bank manager, I opted for a change of direction and decided that my father was right when he said education is the way out of poverty.
So I got the Auckland University calendar and looked for a degree that would give me a profession after I graduated. I didn’t grow up wanting to do a law degree but it looked challenging because you had to obtain an A-minus average to make it into Law Intermediate. And you had to maintain that to get into Law 1. I managed that. In fact, I did a conjoint BA/LLB and graduated in 1996. My BA major was education.
Those were heady times back then when you were at university. There was a lot of activity about Treaty issues and injustices. Were you aware of these and the increased focus on Māori education?
I was very aware of both Māori education and of the Treaty obligations we have. I’d taken te reo Māori as a stage one paper — and I did the optional Māori land law stage two paper. I tried to learn as much as I could about the Treaty and about justice for Māori. I don’t believe justice has been served.
I’m often asked for my views on the Treaty. The way I explain it, particularly to Tongans, is like this: “So you’re Tongan and living in Tonga. Can you imagine if a colonising power, regardless of which country, comes through and takes over? They write laws and make it legal to take your land. You’re still living there, but just as a minority. How would you, or your grandkids or great-grandkids feel? Do you think that, after 100 years, your great-great-grandchildren would feel those actions were justified, especially if you haven’t been given adequate redress?”
It’s hard to explain the purpose of the Treaty and why indigenous people still want justice but, if you make it personal, it is often clearer. Some people think the iwi have been given this great amount of money so things are settled. But, when you look at how much it is, it’s nowhere near the worth of the land they’ve lost. The Treaty is a partnership, a relationship. Not a one-off payment.
Do you get the feeling that Māori and Pasifika are merging more as peoples? There are certainly lots of hula-haka kids these days. I’ve got Tongan mokopuna and I get the feeling that we see each other more as whanaunga than we used to. What do you think?
Yes, there are a lot of Māori and Pacific people who, over the years, have gotten married and had kids and mokopuna. But the role of tangata whenua will remain even while whakapapa bind Māori and Pacific people together again.
Māori and Pasifika have similar issues: employment, housing, education, and health to name a few. We share those poor statistics. But Māori are tangata whenua. And this will always be their tūrangawaewae, their homeland.
You have a political life now. And we all know that there are countless difficulties that get in the way of an MP’s aspirations. But at least you’re in a position to see more clearly where the problems are. What do you see?
I’d been a public servant for just over 20 years before I was strongly encouraged to put my name forward. My husband and I had spent 10 years overseas and, when we came back, we were hopeful that Polynesians — Māori and Pacific — would be better represented in all sectors of the economy, that our employment rate would be better, and that owning a house would be easier.
But, in terms of housing for Māori and for Pasifika, things are getting worse, not better. Only 18 percent of Pasifika families own houses now — and that percentage continues to go down. One of the things I’d like to do is to help turn those statistics around, particularly so that our children and young people are able to reach their potential. And education has an important role in achieving that.
What principals and teachers tell me is that, when kids start school at five, many of our children are already one or two years behind other five-year-olds in New Zealand. For some it’s even worse and often that gap widens during their schooling. Unfortunately, too many of our Māori and Pacific kids just hang on in school until it’s legal for them to leave, and then drop out. The unemployment rate for 15 to19-year-olds in Manukau East is 45 percent.
Seeing that Labour is in opposition rather than calling the shots in parliament, inevitably you’re limited in what you can manage. But I imagine there are a number of moves you’re making.
One of the things I do is visit schools in our area. The common answer to my question about the entry level of five-year-olds is that around 30 percent of them start school with limited language ability. And, rather than speaking English, or Samoan, or Hindi or Tongan, they come without enough fluency in any one language for the school to build on. Many of them can’t identify the letters of the alphabet. Or they don’t know their primary colours and can’t tell the front of a book from the back.
This needs to change. I know it’s complex and hard to do and I’m not naïve enough to think one person can change that. But I can do my bit. So I go to schools and read to the students and I offer to speak to the parents and encourage them to read to their children because the change needs to start before five. In our family, reading was encouraged because each of us had to lead the family prayers in Tongan and English.
In my electorate office, I’ve implemented something I picked up in the States. When my two daughters (Mahalia and Esmae) went for their well-child check, the doctor would give them a book each. We had a house full of books but those from the doctor were always special to them. So I give a book to my constituents with children under five when they come to my office. That’s a Jenny-hopeful, yet practical way, of encouraging reading.
When you look at the stats in Manukau East, it’s not very pretty. So we have a long way to go. We need a good education system, well-paid jobs and healthy, stable homes. And the government has to lead. But our people have so much talent and ability — and there’s so much potential in our businesses and communities that success is within reach.