Luamanuvao Winnie Laban: Pacific people have reason to stand tall

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Tapu Misa suggested in a Herald column that my promotion to Minister of Pacific Island Affairs is a sign of Labour's "waning commitment" to Pacific people and that as the portfolio is not within the Cabinet it is "banished from the decision-making table".

Her image of "unrequited love" was used to suggest that the relationship between the Labour-led Government and the Pacific community is a one-sided affair. I see things differently.

I was honoured and humbled to be appointed Minister of Pacific Island Affairs. In the past week I have felt the alofa of the Pacific Island community.

Alofa is two-way love. Pacific people have a keen sense of history, they know Labour has stuck with them during the good times and the bad, and they remain loyal to Labour. Let me explain why.

Like many Pacific people, my parents left their homes in Samoa and travelled by boat to New Zealand. Theirs was the immigrants' dream. They sought education and opportunity for their family in a new land. I arrived the following year, part of the first generation of New Zealand-born children of the Pacific diaspora.

Over time my parents became community leaders and helped to establish the first Pacific Island Advisory Council. They worked with Phil Amos to set up the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs.

He was to become the first minister. Norman Kirk's Labour Government acknowledged the value that Pacific people were adding to New Zealand's economy and our social, cultural and sporting contributions. Norman Kirk saw South Pacific nations, and their people, as neighbours and kin, and New Zealand as a Pacific nation. Pacific people remember Big Norm and Phil Amos.

Later governments, of a different shade, did not share Kirk's inclusive world view. They saw Pacific people as expendable economic units that could be sent "home to the islands" when the economy slowed.

Pacific people remember Robert Muldoon's dawn raids, and the Mangere lawyer, David Lange, who stood up for their rights.

When I entered Parliament in 1999 Pacific Island unemployment was running at 16 per cent and Pacific people were at the bottom of the heap. Why? Carl Davidson identified the reasons: " ... the Pacific Islands workforce has been more damaged by economic policy changes than any other group in New Zealand.

"The sharp decline in the economic status of the Pacific Island community in recent years, through unemployment and the reduction of social welfare benefits, has had profoundly negative effects. Cultural dislocation is no longer offset by reasonably high incomes; welfare dependency has damaged their collective sense of self-worth; and there has been an overall deterioration of their standards of living and their physical and psychological health."

It has taken eight years to start to turn around the hurt and damage of the previous decade of neglect. Under Helen Clark's Labour-led Government, Pacific unemployment is down to 5.5 per cent and other social indicators are improving in parallel.

Pacific people have made huge gains since the 1990s. Labour's policies, including cheaper health care, income-related state house rents, Working for Families, and Pacific early childhood education programmes are making a real positive difference for our families.

Many of our people today are faced with an exciting new dilemma. Instead of looking for jobs and worrying about how to put food on the table, Pacific people are thinking about starting new businesses, buying a home or doing tertiary study.

Yes, there is always more we can do for our people. Yes, some of our people need assistance. But we can stand tall and be proud of how far we have come with this Labour-led Government.

When I entered Parliament in 1999 I said that strengthening Pacific Island communities was my number one priority. If by working as Minister of Pacific Island Affairs I can make a difference for Pacific people and other New Zealanders I will be happy.

I am reminded of the Samoan proverb: E le taua le tofi ae taua le fa'amaoni, which loosely translates as: "It's not the status or position that's important, what is important is your hard work and commitment to getting things done for others."

Norman Kirk, David Lange and Helen Clark have led Labour governments that have had alofa for Pacific people. The Labour Party has been a strong advocate for Pacific people and has always stood by us.

That demonstration of alofa has been appreciated and reciprocated. Tapu is right when she concluded "what's good for the Pacific community is ultimately good for New Zealand".

Pacific people remember their history - the good times and the bad. They are loyal, and have alofa for those who have stood with them.

* Luamanuvao Winnie Laban is the new Minister of Pacific Island Affairs.

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