Election 2020: Teuila Fuatai – After a disappointing 3 years, it’s delivery time

OPINION:

The new class of MPs is described as the most inclusive we’ve seen yet.

An impressive array of backgrounds, LGBT members and a historically high number of women, it’s hard not to feel chuffed about the progress it represents. Even the Labour Party’s Monday roll call for its newcomers was something to smile about. Among the responses to “Ms Allan” were calls of Morena; Malo lava; Kia orana; Talofa.

Tick, tick, tick.

The breakdown of new members is particularly noteworthy for Pasifika. Teanau Tuiono (Cook Island descent) is the Green Party’s first Pacific MP. Labour’s six-strong Pacific caucus is being boosted significantly. Electorate MPs Dr Anae Neru Leavasa (Sāmoan), Barbara Edmonds (Sāmoan), Terisa Ngobi (Sāmoan, Scottish) and Tangi Utikere (Cook Island) are in. List candidate Lemauga Lydia Sosene (Sāmoan) may also make it pending special votes.

For Labour, this is its biggest ever Pacific caucus. Progress indeed. But how hopeful can we really be about the critical mass assembling inside the Beehive? Will Pacific communities – largely long-serving Labour voters – gain more through increased representation?

Notably, as things have gone well on the left, National’s lost its two Pacific MPs Alfred Ngaro (Cook Island) and Agnes Loheni (Sāmoan). In fact, much has been made of the main opposition party’s overall lack of diversity. Commentator Neale Jones pointed out on RNZ the National caucus now had more members named “Chris” than Māori. Ouch.

I mention the wider make-up because representation is important on both sides of the house. Pasifika are not a homogenous group, and pressure to move on issues salient to us comes in different forms. Being without a presence in the conservative parties results in less representation, even if the other side seems well-stacked. And unlike the previous term, Labour’s Pacific MPs are now operating within a party which can go it alone.

So far, political commentators have focused on the impacts of that swing from blue to red throughout New Zealand. To summarise: Labour will need to hold close to the status quo in order keep its new voters and retain its majority for the next term. That in turn will likely limit the amount of “transformational” change we will see.

I’d like to think it’s a bit more complex, and that when the time comes, a few campaign promises will be bent/broken to fix items they only just dipped their toes in during the coalition Government. Insert here: Every “use your star power” cliche you can think of.

For Pasifika, Labour’s willingness to embrace bold change in the next three years is particularly critical. A recent survey of Pasifika communities showed the top three areas participants wanted prioritised were warm and affordable housing; fair wages and working conditions; and access to affordable and quality healthcare. The survey was undertaken by youth-led activist group Pacific Climate Warriors and involved 500 participants.

Pacific Climate Warriors co-ordinator and survey report writer Mary Moeono-Kolio summed up the need for policy makers to properly address low wage rates, housing affordability and standards and workers’ rights.

“It’s still disheartening to see that the issues that Pacific communities are most concerned about are basic human rights and necessities,” Moeono-Kolio told TVNZ.

“While there’s been progress obviously, every year, every election, our communities are still concerned about just living in a warm and affordable house, being able to access quality healthcare. That’s even more important now considering how predisposed a lot of our communities are to health issues.”

Covid-19 and the economic uncertainty of the next few years adds another layer to those ongoing inequalities. It’s what makes the actions of this parliament’s Pacific MPs and their leaders even more important than previous years.

Honestly, it’s been a pretty disappointing three years. Things like benefit rates are still too low and substantive tax reform has been shafted repeatedly. The cost of living in many parts of the country remains unaffordable and housing standards are pretty haphazard (and the list goes on).

Pasifika, like Māori and other marginalised communities, are disproportionately impacted by policies that keep this status-quo going. So, while excitement levels remain relatively subdued, I’m looking forward to seeing what the new Government and its 11+ Pacific MPs have planned.

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