With a prayer and a “CHEEHOO” bellowed from the reverend beneath the spotlight, the debate got under way on a dreary, drizzly Manukau morning.
Watch the full debate here:
For the next hour, four candidates from across South Auckland debated some of the issues most affecting the Pacific community, one of New Zealand’s largest and most diverse, at the inaugural RNZ-Pacific Media Network Pacific candidates’ debate.
The fallout from Covid-19 and progress towards addressing persistent inequalities were just some of the topics fiercely – yet respectfully – debated by the three parties and one independent in a community which has historically been one of Labour’s staunchest supporters at the ballot box.
In Māngere in 2017, Labour won 70 percent of the party vote and its candidate, Auptio William Sio, won 69 percent, making it one of the safest seats in the country. It was a similar story in neighbouring Manurewa and Manukau East.
Still, Aupito was forced to defend whether the government had rewarded Pasifika for that loyalty by host Indira Stewart, who asked what progress had been achieved in the Ardern government’s first three years.
“This is the first time you’ve had five Pacific MPs who are ministers and are actually able to do something,” Aupito said, insisting the party was still ambitious for transformational change for Pasifika.
“But we also realise that the evidence shows that you’re not gonna be able to bring about these changes overnight. So we’re not only looking at three years, we’re looking 30 years.”
Aupito said unprecedented money had already been poured into the community for a whole range of programmes – housing, health, economic and cultural – which he insisted was a foundation for something bigger, without being drawn on further detail.
Basic inequities remain – National candidate
But the National Party’s candidate for Mangere, Fonoti Agnes Loheni, said the community had not been rewarded for their support, and little had changed.
The fundamental inequities for New Zealand’s Pacific communities run deep, vividly illustrated by the second Covid-19 outbreak in Auckland, where more than two thirds of those infected were Pasifika.
They were also shown in last year’s Auckland measles outbreak, which again disproportionately affected Pacific people. A recent review by the health ministry found authorities were slow to respond and community providers were sidelined.
“If it had happened in Epsom would the response have been more effective?” asked Stewart.
“There are some community organisations and some of our marae that are making a huge difference,” said Luella Linaker, an independent candidate running in Manurewa.
“It’s those organisations that we know the families are telling us are making a difference in their lives that we need to fund better.”
The pandemic also showed that Māori and Pasifika made up many of the essential workers through the pandemic, but often were the first to lose their jobs. They also have some of the lowest incomes in the country.
Aupito said incomes for Pacific peoples had grown 23 percent in the past three years, albeit still far behind Pākeha.
Fonoti – one of two Pasifika on the National Party list – said that while incomes had grown, so had expenses. National is touting temporary income tax cuts as a way to stimulate the economy, but low income earners would only get a modest amount.
While she conceded they would be small, other party policies like removing the Auckland fuel tax would also help, she said.
“Our families know, we actually understand that price difference is gonna have to be a trade off for something else, something in the lunch box, replacing holey shoes or replacing holey socks,” she said.
“So everything helps and every little bit helps.”
Teenagers dropping out, Green candidate says
The recession and Covid-19 job losses had seen many Pacific teenagers drop out of school, forced to choose between an education or helping their families.
Lourdes Vano, who at 18 is the Greens’ youngest candidate, described it as heartbreaking. The Manurewa candidate knew of several people her age forced into that decision.
“We need to acknowledge that there are families who don’t have choice, they have to move out of education so that they can support each other and live well,” she said, adding that the party’s poverty plan would provide a basic income so the decision could be avoided in the first place.
But both Vano and Linaker said the entire system was holding Pasifika people down.
“I think despite some people doing well people see that as, ‘oh, Pacific can succeed,” said Linaker. “But when the system’s set up in a way that Māori and Pacific can’t succeed to the best of their ability, I think we need to fundamentally look at that.”
But that’s just a sample of the topics covered. Among the others were Pacific success, travel bubbles, housing and the looming referendums.
“I see people getting teary about this question because it’s obviously very significant to our community,” said Stewart, after asking candidates to name an historic Pacific MP who blazed a trail for Pasifika.
Who were those trailblazers? You’ll have to watch.