Amid the post-election clamour to form a coalition government, an interesting development has passed almost unnoticed. We now have eight MPS of Pacific descent heading for parliament. Well, at least eight that we know about.
They will carry a heavy burden, not only for their electorates where deprivation is high, but also for the homes of their ancestors on islands cast across Te Moananui a Kiwa that will bear the brunt at the front end of the vicious bite of climate change.
Labour tops the table with six MPs of Pacific descent, National and New Zealand First have one each, and the Greens, the party that claims to represent the left of left, has none. It had two excellent candidates — Teanau Tuiono and Leilani Tamu — but they weren’t positioned in winnable spots, especially after the Metiria Turei disaster.
Labour’s Aupito Su’a William Sio (Mangere), Carmel Sepuloni (Kelston) and Jenny Salesa (Manukau East) have held on to their seats in Auckland, while Kris Faafoi (Mana) and Poto Williams (Christchurch East) kept theirs, too.
They’re joined by new list MP Anahila Kanongata'a-Suisuiki, a party loyalist who’s well known for her social work in South Auckland, but almost unknown outside Tongan, Labour and South Auckland circles.
National has list MP Alfred Ngaro, a former electrician and pastor. And New Zealand First has Darroch Ball, a solo father of two, ex-army officer, and former science teacher who’s been in parliament since 2014.
From a population level, this is the best result ever for Pacific Islanders if we apply an ethnic lens to parliamentary representation. More is more, especially when the more are more like you and less like them.
For the moment, though, let’s ignore the afakasi hybrid identity debate, because that will complicate things without adding much value, and, instead, let’s recognise the efforts of former Pacific MPs Anae Arthur Anae, Vui Mark Gosche, Luamanuvao Winnie Laban, and Taito Phillip Field.
Anae (National) and Luamanuvao (Labour) faced significant Anglo-centric prejudice and chose to exit after recognising the brown ceiling was too difficult to deal with and they could serve better elsewhere.
Vui made it into Labour’s cabinet but decided other matters in his world were far more important, and he put politics to the side, but not behind. And Taito Phillip Field went to jail for bribery and corruption.
It’s arguable that the ghost of Taito is still a presence, but equally the strong work by his successor Aupito and Labour’s other Pacific MPs have more than atoned for his convictions.
What is now exercising the minds of many Pacific voters is the question of what roles their MPs may play in the new government once it falls into place in the next fortnight.
Naturally, Labour’s perky new leader, Jacinda Ardern, is hawking the heck out of the idea that her party should lead the new regime because New Zealand has voted for change. And some would argue deservedly so, even though the Labour vote, so far, falls just short of 36 percent.
But with 46 percent, the Nats’ counter-argument is that the country has voted for stability and the security they say they’ve been providing.
Then there’s NZ First on 7.5 per cent and the Greens on 5.9, who both have the challenge of making a decision about who to embrace, with the hope of spawning a positive future for themselves at the next election.
At the individual level, each of the Pacific MPs are now players in this scene because they have connections, skills and pulling power that need to be rewarded with responsible roles whether Labour or National secures the treasury benches.
Kris Faafoi and Carmel Sepuloni are smart operators, and are Labour’s whip and deputy whip. And the seriously competent Jenny Salesa is the caucus secretary.
These are wins in an operational sense but, if Labour weaves together a three-stranded coalition, there may not be space at the cabinet table for more than two Pacific MPs.
Aupito, Carmel and Kris are obvious picks for portfolios like Pacific Peoples, education, broadcasting, media and telecommunications, employment, tourism, sport, children, health.
But what about Jenny Salesa with her skills in education and law, and her Tongan connections? Then there’s Poto Williams, who has Cook Island roots and a footprint in the very white and feeling neglected post-earthquakes Christchurch. Does she need a place close to power?
Is it time for Labour to really get down with the brown — and do much more than sport a lei, go to Pasifika, and expect to be at the top table at South Auckland events? And if those Pacific MPs get their political machetes out, will they be able to deftly slash Labour’s expectations for them, and plant their own ideas to the fore?
Who will be the sacrifice? And what should be done with Anahila Kanongata’a-Suisuiki? Should she be deployed in the saturated-with-MPs south, or to other parts of Auckland where the party returned lacklustre results?
These matters are set against the structural racism that dogs all the political parties, but within Labour it’s magnified because it has more MPs of Pacific descent. The stakes are high because, if it recognises and finds a way to manage the situation, it will secure the hearts of many voters for some time.
I’m told the new boss Jacinda Ardern is collaborative and communicates, and that she returns text messages and phone calls, unlike former male leaders. That’s a good sign because her apparent pop-up policy announcements — like renegotiating the Korea Trade Agreement (before Christmas-ish) or that u-turn tax or no tax or whatever tax thing — was a hot mess in the election scramble.
It gave the perception that Labour, after nine years in opposition, remains unready and needs three years with training wheels and no leadership changes to be seen as a credible political team.
Of course, that perception may have no bearing if Winston and the Greens agree to get with Labour. Your guess as to whether that’s going to be effective is as good as anybody’s, but that three-way will mean fewer seats in cabinet for Labour people after other accommodations are made.
Is the heft of the Labour vote in the South and West Auckland seats enough to secure places for Pacific MPs ahead of others who have worked hard but maybe not pulled as many party votes? Party list positions in the past have favoured people who were white but persistently failed to pull party votes. Not a lot has changed. Especially in Auckland.
Then there’s National and its sole Pacific member Alfred Ngaro. He’s closing in on Labour’s Phil Twyford in Te Atatu and, if he works hard and monitors his rhetoric, he may do better next time. He has three years to kiss babies, go to a raft of community events, and ditch that big ute he drives around, with his face plastered across the doors.
Given Pacific nations will suffer greatly from climate change, it’s time he switched to an electric vehicle or something that says smart, especially as he could be seen to be hauling around an ego rather than tools for his daily work. It’s clear he’s very talented on some levels, and National must reward that with a top 10 place. Position matters.
He also needs to focus on luring more Pacific people to National and Bill English should back him. It’s the lack of Pacific diversity in National which is boring, not the leader.
Conversations indicate there’s a tranche of Pacific people more than happy to step into the blue game.
Look at Agnes Loheni, a chemical engineer and the owner of MENA, a successful fashion business. She was a good get for National, but her low list number (49) was a failure of advocacy and National is the worse for it, as are Pacific voters. That needs to change and Alfred Ngaro needs to lead it.
Then there’s Darroch Ball, the Pacific outlier in NZ First. He is of Tongan and Kiribati descent and, possibly like many who are navigating a hybrid identity, he’s taking his time to manage that. That’s okay. He’s there. But he does need to get his picture on the wall alongside the other Pacific MPs in their room in parliament. Position matters, if not for Darroch, then for those who might see him as an exemplar for them or their kids.
Next are the Greens, the principled left of Labour-Greens. It’s time for them to focus on their principles and their leverage.
There’s talk about whether they should, or could, get together with National, and although that suggestion has prompted some Greens to declare they’d rather drink hemlock, it’s a union worth pondering. And pondering fast.
Perhaps their leader, James Shaw, should drive a hard bargain — go for deputy PM plus three INSIDE cabinet and help National secure a deal before the special votes are counted.
But whatever form the next government takes, it’s clear that Pacific voters are after change. And that’s not just about what parties hold power. It also pivots on who has power inside the power — and where New Zealand is going.