History and brain fade lessons for Labour in Christchurch win
By Lealaiauloto Aigaletaule’ale’a Tauafiafi
06/12/2013-When Poto Williams won the Christchurch East by-election for the Labour Party, its leader Mr David Cunliffe called it a “stonking good win”.
What he failed to acknowledge in his congratulatory speech to the media, was the significance of the occasion for the Pacific community, as well as their role in Ms Williams’ one-sided victory.
Mr Cunliffe’s omission in what can only be termed a ‘Pacific brain fade’, was not lost on the Pacific contingent that crowded Chisnallwood Intermediate School the night of 30 November.
Nor was the implication from the omission that if Labour wins the 2014 general elections, that pre-election promises of Pacific benefits could be conveniently logged as brain fades, that is, forgotten or placed on the back burner with a disclaimer that ‘Rome was not built in a day’.
Ms Tili Roebeck one of the volunteers who committed two weeks out of her business to campaign for Ms Williams said, “it hurted when he [Mr Cunliffe] didn’t acknowledge us when talking to the New Zealand media.”
Because it was broadcasted to New Zealand, it came out as if the Pacific community played no active role in support of Ms Williams. So she asked Mr Cunliffe straight about his brain fade.
“After he finished with the media I went over and asked him about it directly. That, we were not happy about the lack of acknowledgement of our people.”
And according to Ms Roebeck, “He apologized profusely and promised that he will remember this in the future.
“For us, we are happy with that because I don’t think it was intentional. But I reminded him that this is the first time that a Pacific Islander has won a parliament seat from the South Island. And also, that he should have acknowledged the hard work by the Pacific community who got involved and united behind Poto once she was selected as the Labour candidate.”
Perhaps, because the by-election was also seen as a referendum on Mr Cunliffe’s leadership, and a marker to how political parties may perform in the 2014 elections, that in winning by such a significant margin, Mr Cunliffe was so relieved that he looked too far ahead and forgot the Pacific’s contribution just rendered.
But because he hasn’t yet responded to this writer’s queries sent to one of Labour’s press secretary, we don’t know for sure why Mr Cunliffe forgot the Pacific community on such a momentous and historic occasion.
However, what we do know is that on 1 November at the annual Labour Conference in Christchurch, Mr Cunliffe met with the Pacific Sector. Labour is the only political party with a formal Pacific Sector and the group that attended this year’s conference was the largest in its history.
Sector members from around the country, senior reverend ministers from Christchurch and members of the Pacific community gathered to hear the new Labour leader’s offerings.
They weren’t disappointed
Mr Cunliffe’s opening remarks to them were: “There is no warmer heart beating in the Labour movement than the heart of the Pacific. No sector in this party that lives and breathes the values of this party stronger than the Pacific sector, and no welcome that I feel warmer than that of our Pacific.”
Later he told them why the Pacific should vote Labour and went on further to promise them what the future under a Labour government would look like.
“This is a two way street. I don’t expect the Pacific people to turn out on election day unless we give them a reason to do so. It is going to be in the interest of every Pacific family, to vote Labour this election.”
Then he promised them, “You’re going to be able to measure it in dollars in your wallet, in your bank account, in opportunities for housing, opportunities in schools and universities for our kids, and a better health system. And it will show up in the statistics of educational achievement, of health and well-being, of lower prison rates and so forth.
“We are not kidding around. We are open ears and we are open for business and we are determined to change our country for the better. But we know we can only do it with communities.”
He added, “those of you who know me personally, know that under this palagi skin I’m an honorary Pasifika.”
Yet on 30 November, not only did Mr Cunliffe forget to acknowledge the Pacific communities and people that helped Labour win Christchurch East, but he also didn’t acknowledge the massive role played by the Pacific Sector in Ms Williams’ campaign.
That its Vice President, Tuifa’asisina Meaole Keil was camped in Christchurch for about a month mobilizing Pacific dense communities such as Wainoni and Aranui to cast advance votes and reminding them to vote on election day.
And that the Pacific sector’s Auckland branch President, Mrs Lydia Sosene together with Sally Ikinofo and Makalita Kolo paid their own airfares to fly to Christchurch as part of a united and muscular Pacific Sector team.
Pacific contributions to Poto Williams’ campaign were at a number of levels.
At the volunteer level was Ms Tili Roebeck, at the community level was the fraternal of Samoan church ministers headed by Rev elders Fitifiti Luatua and Tumama Vili. They spearheaded other Pacific communities to unite behind the push by Tuifa’asisina Mea’ole Keil and Labour Secretary Tim Barnett and campaign manager Jim Anderton.
For Ms Roebeck, she and her husband Leava Tavita fully immersed themselves in the campaign together with more than 200 other volunteers. She, advancing Poto Williams candidature to the electorate while Leava transported Labour officials that included Labour’s Pacific islands spokesperson, Su’a William Sio.
The campaign template laid down by organisers was first class she told the writer.
“The strategy was clear and everyone knew the method and their roles in it.
“During the campaign, we checked all families if they were registered. For those who weren’t we told them the process and then followed them up to make sure they registered.”
She added, “In terms of voting, our team door knocked in the morning. If they were not there then we go back in the afternoon to door knock to remind them. And then if our reports show that people were not there on both occasions then we ring them.”
But there were people who said they couldn’t be bothered.
“We got a number of those, so what we did then was explain to them the importance of their vote, about participating in society by exercising their democratic right. That explanation seems to hit a chord with many of them deciding to go to the polls as a result,” said Ms Roebeck.
But it was the two weeks ahead of polling day, getting people to cast advance votes that was the difference according to Tuifa’asisina Mea’ole Keil.
“There is no two ways about it. The difference is the early votes. That’s the gold and diamond in this type of election. It is no secret as that’s how Obama won the election – by mobilizing people to cast their votes early.
“You only have a 10 to 14 day window to get the votes in. So Tili and members of the team did an excellent job in getting people to cast early votes.”
Results on election night vindicated Tuifa’asisina’s point.
A total of 3,241 advance votes were casted, which the Electoral Office reported was the highest number of advance votes cast for a by-election anywhere in the country.
And even though the numbers are not yet official, “Aranui and Wainoni are the main areas where our Pacific people are concentrated and so far, preliminary indications estimate that Aranui had an 80 per cent-plus voter turnout and Wainoni 70 per cent-plus,” Tuifa’asisina said.
Overall, Poto Williams won 8,119 of the 13,318 votes counted on election night, only a thousand fewer than the 9,100 party votes Labour won in 2011 general elections. Her nearest rival, National’s Matthew Doocey tallied a distant 3,506 votes.
It showed that, while turn-out in by-elections drops compared to general elections, Labour in this instance was successful because it managed to organise most of its vote to the polls.
The win was due to superb organization and a template that has proven its worth in the past, not the least the case of Mr Obama in the United States.
A veteran of many political campaigns, Tuifa’asisina said, “Definitely this is one of the best campaigns that I have ever been involved with.
“Kudos to Jim Anderton, Hayden Munro, Tim Barnett, to all the people involved and of course the Pacific sector standing shoulder to shoulder pushing up our end.”
And with a Pacific islander winning at the end, “just makes it that much more sweeter. For me, what I saw in this campaign is the Samoans, the elder statesmen of the Pacific in New Zealand, stepped forward and supported our Cook Islander candidate. It got all of our communities to come together as one waving our Pacific flag, and the churches played a huge role in that.
“For me, I’m just so proud to rally that united voice from our one Pacific family.”
The Christchurch East result gave glimpses to the power of the Pacific vote. And an indication of the future political landscape as Pacific numbers increase and expand into other South Island centres.
Over the next five to ten years, “we will have an even bigger impact. Already, there’s a 16 per cent Pacific Island vote inside Christchurch East, and that is expanding out to the other main South Island centres,” said Tuifa’asisina.
In the aftermath of Ms Williams’ win, a critical assessment of Mr Cunliffe’s Pacific brain fade shows-up two important lessons for the Labour Party.
One, there is a historical reason why Pacific people default their vote to Labour. It dates back to 1935 and the Labour government of Sir Michael Savage who was the first to recognize Samoa’s ‘Mau’ movement, a non-violent movement to gain independence from the New Zealand administration at the time.
“From the days of the ‘Mau’ and Sir Michael Savage, our grandchildren today do not have that history. It means Labour needs to stand up, reaffirm and resell that history as it is the past that determines our way into the future,” said Tuifa’asisina.
“Our leader David Cunliffe has already said, there is no other sector in the Labour party that lives and breathes Labour’s values stronger than the Pacific sector. So failure to acknowledge that history will have dire consequences for this relationship as our Samoan and Pacific children of the future, what will their values be? If they are not told about where they came from and the roles played by Labour and their forefathers for instance, then they are likely to become replicas of something else.”
According to history, Sir Michael Savage is perhaps New Zealand’s most loved Prime Minister. He implemented a number of significant reforms that included the social welfare system and creation of the state housing scheme.
It also appears that he shares a similar trait to current Labour leader Mr Cunliffe, that they both bring an almost religious fervour to their politics.
The second lesson for Labour is the Pacific vote is becoming powerful in numbers and it should no longer take it for granted.
This was confirmed by Su’a William Sio earlier this week.
“Labour can’t take the Pacific vote for granted as it has become powerful in numbers, and almost all the political parties are chasing [it].
“This is a very powerful position for the Pacific community as political parties (including Labour) must compete for that vote through efforts to really understand Pacific and policy that are specifically geared towards Pacific, similar to policies that are geared towards Maori aspirations.
“It means political parties need to understand that Pacific peoples are not just a bunch of colours in the fabric of New Zealand society but, are a vital thread that help hold Aotearoa together.
“We make a huge contribution to the workforce, often doing jobs that no one else will do. We promote New Zealand at the highest levels of the sports, academic, entertainment and arts arena. We keep the faith and remain loyal when all others have given up.”
On the ground, Tuifa’asisina agreed with Su’a. And added, that Labour need to go up another level.
Most importantly, that it stays “honour-bound to deliver on promises made to the Pacific community”.
Said Tuifa’asisina, “It is all well for me as the Vice President for Labour’s Pacific Sector to go to our communities and say ‘please support us’. Because now, people are asking me, ‘if we vote for you, what is it that you will deliver for us? Will it be living wage, the ability to buy homes, will we have secured permanent jobs so we can go to the bank and apply for mortgages, these are the strong messages coming through.
“So the Labour Party has to deliver not statements, but the real deal otherwise the next time we turn up, people won’t go to the poll.”
So far, promises by Labour’s leader have been made.
On 1 November, Mr Cunliffe told the Pacific Sector meeting: “Labour has always stood for the principle that everybody is equal. That everybody has the same worth and everybody deserves the same chance to succeed. And yet we also recognize differences and we know that for people to achieve they have to have pathways that are appropriate to where they start.
“All the goodwill is here to make change occur which will be good for our people.”
Then he asked for the Pacific commitment followed by the promises.
“I don’t expect the Pacific people to turn out on election day unless we give them a reason to do so.
“It’s going to be in the interest of every Pacific family, to vote Labour this election. You’re going to be able to measure it in dollars in your wallet, in your bank account, in opportunities for housing, opportunities in schools and universities for our kids, and a better health system.
“And it will show up in the statistics of educational achievement, of health and well-being, of lower prison rates and so forth.”
According to one Samoan voter, “If Labour wins the October 2014 elections, we expect them to honour and fulfill their promises to our Pacific community starting from November 2014.”
Now that, would be a “stonking good win”.