24 Nov 2020

NZ's Cook Island minister represents firsts

5:41 pm on 24 November 2020

Munokoa Poto Williams represents a lot of firsts in New Zealand politics.

One of the first Cook Islands woman in parliament, Williams is also the first Pasifika MP to be elected from the South Island.

She held onto the Christchurch East seat at last month's general election winning by over 14,000 votes against her nearest rival.


.. Photo: Supplied/Office of Poto Williams

Born in 1962, Williams has been an MP since 2013.

But her big break came via Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's reshuffle last year when she was made Community and Voluntary Sector Minister and Associate Minister for Christchurch regeneration.

This month she climbed even higher, handed the tough job of Minister of Police - the first person of Pacific descent to hold the position.

She's also in charge of Building and Construction and is Associate Minister for Housing (Public) and Children.

Williams is number 10 in the Cabinet rankings and is one of three Pacific MPs in Cabinet. The others are Carmel Sepuloni and Kris Faafoi.

The highest-ranked Pacific MP in Cabinet, Sepuloni has been given the portfolios of social development and employment, Accident CC, arts and disability issues.

Faafoi got the immigration and justice roles.

'Most diverse' Cabinet

Ardern said her Cabinet was appointed on merit rather than on box-ticking.

Williams said it's the most diverse Cabinet ever.

There are eight women of the 20 Cabinet ministers, up from six in the last Cabinet.

Māori make up five of the ministers, three Pacific and one is South Asian.

Three of the Cabinet ministers are gay or lesbian.

Williams said the diversification of the latest lineup was because "people have come before us and I'm just a step in that journey".

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Poto Williams Minister for Police, Building and Construction and Associate Minister for Children and Public Housing; and Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Poto Williams Minister for Police, Building and Construction and Associate Minister for Children and Public Housing; and Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy. Photo: Supplied/Office of Poto Williams

The MP with links to Manihiki, said it was important she brought a cultural element from her upbringing to her work.

She said her experience in working with families and sexual violence issues would be instrumental in her decision-making at national level.

"Having worked so long in the family violence arena, I understand the dynamics of how to help families be safe.

"And how to ensure that children are part of the wider discussion when we're having those conversations.

"All of that plays into what might happen around the Cabinet table."

But most importantly, I'm here to serve not only Pasifika but the whole of Aotearoa, she said.

Williams said as one of two Pacific women in Cabinet, she looks forward to forging a good working relationship with other ethnic communities in the country.

"Carmel Sepuloni and I are colleagues and friends but we're also from the Pacific," she said.

"We are about Pacific Aotearoa - the Pacific people in Aotearoa.

"But we are also about Aotearoa. That is who we are here to represent."

The 58-year-old grandmother said she would continue to support vulnerable communities and those who may not have a voice.

She said to be part of Cabinet and "talking the big issues for our communities as well as the whole of New Zealand is a huge honour and privilege.

"I not only bring my Cook Island community but also the work that I have done with people who have found themselves in some quite difficult and desperate situations particularly around violence and mental unwellness.

"All those things together have brought me to this place which is very humbling and a huge responsibility but one that I'm keen to do a good job for."


.. Photo: Supplied/Office of Poto Williams

The work begins

Williams said one of the key issues for her is ensuring there's sufficient housing for those who need it the most.

Since coming into power in 2017, the government had encouraged people experiencing housing problems to come forward and ask for help.

Williams said the government acknowledges that there continues to be a steep increase in demand for public housing.

She said this was why the government had embarked on the largest public housing build programme in generations.

The government is on track to deliver 18,000 additional housing places by 2024, she said.

In the period from November 2017 to August 2020, the government was able to house 19,263 people who were on the register.

"The aim is to work to see the register start to reduce," she said.

"Consistent public housing policy, irrespective of what political party is in government, needs to be at the heart of what is going to be a long-term challenge to turn around decades of neglect."

The woman in charge of New Zealand's Police Ministry said she would bring her experience working to tackle domestic and sexual violence to her new role.

Williams said it was also her job to ensure legal firearms were not repurposed in criminal settings.

She said she would continue the work started by the last government which had one over-riding objective - "to stop firearms falling into the wrong hands".

Last week, the Police Association called on the government to hurry up its firearms register in order to stem the flow of guns to criminal groups.

Legislation passed in June paves the way for a gun register, but Williams said while work was under way on "firearms licensing and administration", there was no fixed date for any decision or implementation.

Without a registry, the police union said guns were flowing into gang hands without a trace.

Williams said her predecessor had signalled some work which were yet to return to Cabinet.

"These relate to reforms to the system of firearms licensing and administration, and a response to the public discussion document on Firearms Prohibition Orders."

Proud Pasifika

Earlier this month, the new ministers were sworn in at Government House.

They made two oaths or affirmations: The first was an oath or affirmation to the Queen, the second to their specific role as a minister.

The oaths were sworn in either English or te reo Māori, but two ministers chose to say their oath in an additional language.

Williams read an additional oath in Cook Island Māori and Minister for Pacific Peoples Aupito William Sio also read an additional oath in Samoan.

The Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy officiated at the ceremony.

Williams said she was proud to take her oath in Cook Island Māori.

"I was happy I was able to do it in my heritage language and I hope for those who were listening that I didn't do too bad a job.

"There were quite a lot of words, but I know I fluffed one or two of them.

"But I was enormously proud to stand in front of the prime minister and the governor-general and deliver my oath in my own language.

"And I looked to my colleague Aupito because he has been encouraging us in these significant moments to do just that."

It's the first time the Cook Island language has been read at a government swearing-in ceremony, she said.

Another first of a long list of milestone achievements for Munokoa Poto Williams.