A Policy A Day: Pasifika Advancement

In the lead-up to the election, we are examining a policy a day. We’re exploring a variety of policy areas, explaining the background and analysing some of the policy options, with a mixture of technocracy and values-based approaches. Inevitably, some opinion will make its way in and we make no apology for that – after all, we’re voters too. A list of all the articles is available hereEnjoy!

Today’s post is by Patrick Thomsen

The problems facing NZ’s Pasifika community are vast and aren’t for the fainthearted. Despite our glowing presence in NZ’s beloved All Blacks squad, we’re flailing as a community.

According to a 2015 report titled: Pacific People in New Zealand: How are we doing? by Pasifika Futures, 51% of Pacific children live in poverty; the number was 39% for Māori, 15% for Pakeha. Pacific people have the smallest proportion of its population with a degree and the highest proportion of its population without any qualifications. This is pretty significant when you consider how higher earnings are proven to be connected to the level of educational attainment.

Pasifika are more likely to be in poor health than other demographics, far more likely to be unemployed, and have the lowest percentage of any group who owned our own homes. The gender pay gap is largest for Pasifika women, on top of the ethnic wage gap, which puts Pasifika far behind everyone else including Māori. And perhaps most alarming of all, our youth are three times more likely to commit suicide than Pakeha.

The reading isn’t exactly encouraging.

Neither is the fact that aside from Labour and Mana, most parties do not have a Pacific people’s strategy clearly defined as policy.

So why should it matter? As one twitter user pointed out to me rather indignantly when I tried to ask all the major parties whether they would be releasing one, it’s probably because “We’re all just New Zealanders!” I apparently am despicable for ‘trying to divide us.’ (You’re really doing your bit for “All Lives Matter” sweetie).

I, too, once believed that if we focused on raising the tide of growth (across all socioeconomic sectors), that this rising tide would lift all boats, including the double-hulled Polynesian voyaging canoe. Granted, some of our canoes have succeeded in this environment (mine in particular), but in actuality, a lot have begun to sink under the tide of so-called economic growth that has kick started a “rockstar” economy. So I’m sorry twitter user with no profile picture, it definitely matters.

A popular line people peddle is that deprivation is the cause for poor social outcomes. So if we reduce deprivation for all, naturally it will improve the situation for Pasifika people. This does seem reasonable to me.

However, just to cherry pick a little, a recent study published by Dr Jemaima Tiatia-Seath at the University of Auckland showed that even though an increased level of deprivation leads to a higher likelihood of attempted suicide, Pasifika suicide rates overall were double those in the worst deprivation bracket.

What that means is that there are more complex factors at play. Despite all the major parties committing to reducing inequality in the middle of their election delirium, even if they succeeded in magically reducing the gap between the haves and have nots, Pasifika people are still likely to be the have nots.

The Policies
The Mana Party have had a long standing Pasifika Peoples’ strategy, and they’ve been the boldest in trying to integrate Pacific people into their day to day policy communications. Apologies to the MANA supporters, I won’t be focusing on your policy much at all because it’s by far the best that’s out there. Think amnesty for overstayers, prioritising Pacific climate refugees, and creating a Pasifika broadcasting channel. Recently, the Māori party has also come out strongly with similar policies to help ‘realise’ the aspirations of NZ’s Pacific community, committing to an amnesty for overstayers and investing in our community.

But with MANA and the Māori Party unfortunately only enjoying marginal electoral support, my gaze has shifted decidedly toward the larger political parties – firmly on the red army itself, Labour. If the Māori Party are returned to Parliament on September 23rd, Labour looks like the more sympathetic of the two aspiring government spearheads towards Pacific people’s policies.

However, after reviewing Labour’s Pacific Island Affairs policy, I had mixed feelings. The first was relief. After searching and tweeting relentlessly to what seemed like no avail, a policy magically appeared on Labour’s website a mere two days ago. The policy squawks and makes all the right noises in an election year, but at the same time I couldn’t help but feel a little underwhelmed.

To be sure, there are some highs, such as the Pacific Languages policy in particular. Giving recognition to five Pasifika languages as ‘community languages’ is definitely a policy that will help preserve the heritage of Pacific peoples and facilitate the continuity of Pacific cultures in New Zealand. This is ably supported by a commitment to researching better ways to enhance Pacific language education.

A lukewarm mid-point is their Policy Area 2: Immigration, Settlement, and Pacific Climate Change. At first glance, it looks very good. Labour recognises that the Pacific is going to bear the brunt of climate change and are committed to: “review migration policy to establish an immigration Pacific Plan that recognises Pacific Climate Change […] ensure they have real and timely options for mobility across the region.” The kicker though is that unlike the Greens, Mana and Māori Party, It’s not a commitment to take in climate refugees (although it’s better than National – at least it’s a commitment to find somewhere to put them).

But this is where the rest of its policy falls flat. There’s too much air and not enough substance. Create a “New Pasifika Vision” is their Policy Area 3. They say that we need to develop a vision that explores what it means to be Pasifika in New Zealand today, (I agree) so they’re going to establish a forum to talk about it. Don’t get me wrong; I like talking, and so do a lot of other people. But my experience with these forums (Pasifika focused ones especially) is that a lot of oxygen turns into carbon dioxide and not much else.

When there’s no financial commitment or guaranteed autonomy handed back to the community, it sucks out the utility of such forums. This is a concern that Labour’s policy doesn’t alleviate because it’s so light on numbers.

They do make the right noises regarding investing in Pasifika youth. They want to get our kids into employment (Pacific youth unemployment is a real concern). They stress in the policy a need for our kids to be part of the high-value, high-skilled, high-earning workforce.  But this is no different to what they are doling out to all youth in New Zealand. This is essentially a Moana dress for the same mannequin called their new party trick. It’s just not enough in the face of systemic issues that Pasifika academics and researchers have been uncovering and screaming about for decades now.

I was surprised to see no mention, not even a nod to attempting to deal with mental health issues for Pasifika people. When the research shows that we are disproportionally represented in suicide rates, a commitment to our communities means a commitment to find a way to stem the tide of graves our people need to be digging. All of this relates to the unique positioning of Pasifika people and our historical genealogy in New Zealand.

The roots of our communities were set in labour-intensive, low-paid, dirty jobs with low levels of capital, both economic and social. Following our convenient scapegoating during the Dawn Raids era, which was followed hotly by the lethal attacks of the Rogernomics era, our people were forced to compete against generational wealth and social privilege.

As a result, our socioeconomic position has solidified at the bottom of the ladder from our very first imaginings in New Zealand. And this carries with it continued deprivation, familial stresses, underachievement, low-incomes, high rates of domestic violence and delinquency; the list goes on for at least a coconut mile. This history is conveniently forgotten by those quietly advocating integration of our community while not dealing with this historical trauma or context.

What does real advancement look like?
As a Pacific person, we are constantly being told that what’s best for the overall well-being of the nation, is best for us. But how can this be true when we were originally cast as “the help” in New Zealand’s post-war story?

What our community truly needs is systemic change. Yes, we do need our social and economic bases to grow, but that’s not enough on its own. You saw the long list of problems we have. Tinkering around the class edges isn’t going to fix these issues. What we also need is for inherent social bias against Pasifika people, much like that pitched against Māori, to be dismantled. It’s not clear if a Pacific languages policy is enough to this. Our community needs social and economic autonomy. We don’t just need more jobs; we need more Pacific businesses, political leaders, representation in our own organisations. We need social and economic autonomy.

One of the greatest challenges to centring Pasifika in any systematic form is the rising tide against so-called identity politics. This weaponised term has become a pejorative of late in NZ political circles. Its critics are quick to espouse that we provide social assistance based on need, not on race or ethnicity. But what happens when both become intertwined?

Perhaps that’s too high an expectation to be placing on a singular policy or party; to be honest, the Nats fizzle from the outset as non-starters. It’s really hard to analyse policies that don’t exist. But in all reality, no major political party seems committed to seeing this vision in their policy because we’re not willing to have the hard conversations around racial bias in New Zealand’s social, judicial, and political institutions. Moving on this may be political suicide. I know this, you know this, and politicians know this.

So where does this leave us?

In essence, it means that Pasifika identity doesn’t really mean much anymore to the political establishment besides being able to add some dancing and singing at glitzy events here and there; what we commonly view as ‘diversity’. As long as political parties continue to work toward Pasifika advancement in a piecemeal policy fashion, the gap between Pasifika well-being and mainstream New Zealand will continue to be as wide as the lack of nuance we have on understanding the complexities of intersecting racial bias and socioeconomic deprivation in this country.

Patrick Thomsen is a visiting professor at the Institute for Poverty Alleviation and International Development, Yonsei University South Korea. Born and raised in South Auckland, he is a current New Zealand Green Party member. Patrick is of Samoan descent and holds the chiefly title of Seutaafili from the village of Tauese in Samoa. He was also the first Pacific Islander to be admitted to the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies doctoral program in 2015 where he is concurrently a PhD candidate. He has spent the past few years in Seattle researching Korea, transnational subjectivity, human rights norms, gender and international development.

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