17 Sep 2018

Pushback against du Plessis-Allan's Pacific 'leeches' comments encouraging

1:36 pm on 17 September 2018

Opinion - It is encouraging to see and hear the pushback against Newstalk ZB host Heather du Plessis-Allan's comments last week that it wasn't worth the expense of the prime minister attending the Pacific Forum Leaders' Meeting; that Nauru is a "hell hole"; Pacific Islands "don't matter", and that Pacific people are "leeches" on New Zealand.

Dame Winnie Laban.

Luamanuvao Dame Winnie Laban Photo: RNZ/Denver Grenell

Privacy Commissioner John Edwards and actor and columnist Oscar Kightley were quick to respond. Then on Sunday morning Mediawatch did a 10-minute piece setting out the details of the media storm in the Pacific.

When I first heard Heather du Plessis-Allan's comments, I was reminded of Paul Holmes' "cheeky darkie" rant about Kofi Annan and Robert Muldoon's labelling Pacific Islanders as "over-stayers".

Outrageous comments are the stock and trade of some broadcasters and politicians. So, it is good to hear that some New Zealanders know and understand Pacific history, value New Zealand's relationship with the Pacific and Pacific peoples' contribution to New Zealand, and are prepared to speak out when ill-informed comments are aired feeding bigotry and casual racism.

Let us remember, reflect on and learn from another occasion when the Pacific Islands and Pacific Islanders "didn't matter" to New Zealand.

On November 7, 1918 the SS Talune, a New Zealand passenger and cargo ship, arrived in Apia from Auckland. Although the Talune had been quarantined in Fiji, no restrictions were imposed by New Zealand administrators when it arrived in Samoa. Passengers sick from pneumonic influenza were allowed to disembark. Over 8500 deaths from influenza resulted; 22 percent of Samoa's population.

We can easily dwell on the dark chapters in New Zealand's history in the Pacific. And when ill-informed, headline-seeking comments are made, we get angry and want to strike back.

But that would be to join a race to the bottom and the Trumpian politics of hatred and division. There are other options.

In 2002 when Helen Clark came to Samoa and apologised for the failures of the New Zealand administration during the influenza epidemic, and the shooting of independence leaders in 1929, Samoa Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi told her that an apology was not necessary because, on the day that Samoa became independent in 1962 - "whatever you did we forgave you before the sundown of that very day".

Heather du Plessis-Alllan interviewing foreign minister Winston Peters on Newstalk ZB last Thursday.

Heather du Plessis-Alllan interviewing foreign minister Winston Peters on Newstalk ZB last Thursday. Photo: screenshot / newstalkzb.co.nz

We have much to learn from the Pacific about generosity of spirit.

Like many Pacific Islanders, my parents left their homes, families and country to come to New Zealand in the 1950s and provide their children with education and opportunity. My brother Fauono Ken Laban and I were born in New Zealand. Our parents worked hard so that we could succeed. Their's was the immigrant's dream. A dream that is shared by all who have come to this land.

Looking back, there are some specific actions that my parents took, which have ensured that my brother and I have retained our Samoan identity and values, as we have become New Zealanders.

First, our parents spoke to us in Samoan at home and ensured that the language was kept alive. Second, they kept us connected with the Samoan and the wider Pacific Island community through active engagement in church, cultural, and sporting activities.

Third, we retained our connection with our village community and extended family in Samoa by returning from time to time, and remaining involved in village affairs.

Most importantly, our parents ensured that we mixed with other New Zealanders from all levels because they wanted us to be part of this nation, to participate as equals in this society.

The success of our generation of Pacific Islanders is our parents' and grandparents' legacy. We are grateful to our elders for their contribution and the sacrifices they made to make this nation and region a wonderful place for us to live.

My vision of the future of New Zealand as a Pacific nation is grounded in the belief that if one person, or one group, is diminished then we are all diminished.

Our nation needs a politics of honesty, hope and healing. A politics that brings our communities, nation and Pacific region together so we all can fully participate and live a life of dignity.

Luamanuvao Dame Winnie Laban was the Minister of Pacific Island Affairs and New Zealand's first Pacific Island woman MP

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