2 Sep 2015

New book details long Pacific involvement

From , 5:03 am on 2 September 2015

Veteran New Zealand journalist and commentator,  Tony Haas, has produced a memoir of his life and his involvement with the Pacific, called "Being Palangi - My Pacific Journey'

Tony Haas at Radio New Zealand

Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Mr Haas was the son of a German Jewish refugee whose grandfather had headed the Democratic Party during Germany's brief flirtation with democracy before the descent into the Nazi abyss.

The book, which details a long and varied life for a boy who grew up on a farm just outside of Pahiatua in the Tararua District, is being released this week.

Don Wiseman asked Mr Haas how the Pacific association began.

TONY HAAS: Well, my background had no Pacific island content.  My background gave me the commitment to seek a Pacific island relationship.  The Pacific island relationship I sought was the relationships that mattered to New Zealand, the country in which I'm born, the country to which my father came as a refugee.  Rather than letting my life be dominated by the horrors of Germany and all that entailed in the war, I chose to explore, as a young university student, the Pacific. Before the university student phase, I had been at Scot's College where I had met three Samoans, the sons of Va'ai Kolone, an early Samoan prime minister.  They gave me the first taste of the Pacific.

DON WISEMAN: I guess, the first chance you got, you got out to the islands?

A young boy climbs a coconut tree in Tonga.

A young boy climbs a coconut tree in Tonga. Photo: Supplied/Tony Haas

TH: It unfolded roughly like this.  I became a student journalist. I became a student of political science and public administration and a paper on Pacific affairs. I remember saying to the lecturer at the time, who was a friend of mine, we'll study your Pacific paper stage three Pacific Politics if you let us do a paper on Albert Henry. We go drinking with him in the pub in Wellington. He was talking about land tenure and trading vessels to the Cook Islands. Tom Smith, who had been the secretary-general of the South Pacific Commission said, no problem for me. Off we went and studied the Cook Islands. Then time came to graduate and looking around for activities, I ended up choosing the life of a freelance journalist throughout the Pacific and became the only correspondent to cover the first Cook Islands general election in 1967. That's the launching pad for what became activities in 40 Asian and Pacific economies.      

DW: That degree of coverage, let's just look at some of the highlights.

TH: The highlights? Well there was a conflict in the South Pacific Commission and the man who was going to become the first Samoan secretary-general of the South Pacific Commission saw a conflict between the French on someone discussing independence, not to mention Monsieur Nettre, and Afioga Afoafouvale Misimoa, that Samoan I mentioned, said Monsieur le president I want to tell you the story about three bulls. I saw them on the way to the Commission meeting. There was a big bull and he said to the medium sized bull and the little bull, go away, go away, I have seen a heifer I want to talk to. The little bull and the medium sized bull walked on and on and on and then the medium sized bull looked over the fence and saw another heifer and then said to the little bull, this is my territory. The little bull went on and on and on, which all goes to show, Misimoa said, a little bull goes a long way. That solved the diplomatic impasse I was witnessing. The French tried to adjust their relationship, but the Pacific told them in their Pacific way.

DW: There have been some horrific things through that long period of time that you have been looking at the Pacific.  What's the worst of those?

TH: The worst of those is to witness the Pacific under-performing in achieving the best options in its economic development. On the parallel to that is the failure of New Zealand to be an adequate development assistance partner.

DW: Whose fault is it primarily?

TH: Whose fault is it primarily?  Well, I have to say as a New Zealander that we share a big part of the responsibility but there is no doubt that there is an explanation for it in the behaviour of the Pacific islanders. I have just been reflecting on some of the successes and failures of my recent experiences in Tonga and I am critical of both sides.  Who is worse?  I don't know if that's analytically helpful than it is to be able to say, what is the problem that each side causes in the development story?

Pousima Afeaki and his wife Lisia. Friends of author of 'Being Palangi'  Tony Haas.

Pousima Afeaki and his wife Lisia. Tony Haas credits them and five generations of their family for welcoming him on his trips to Tonga. Photo: Supplied/Tony Haas

DW:  Looking at Tonga then, so what are your concerns?

TH: Well I can quote former deputy prime minister, a good friend of mine called Langi Kavaliku.  He said to me once, Tony, I've really got a problem.  Middle-management is inadequate and I'm let down in what I want to do.  Unfortunately Langi's message still lives on and the contemporary Tongans need to hear that man of their community saying to them, perform better in the middle.  Carry your responsibilities.  Be good managers.  Be good time users and get on and capitalise on some of the horticultural options you do have and you could do better with, but don't let yourself down.

DW: You call the book, 'Being Palangi', why has that been a focus?

Andrew and Sima of the Afeaki family in Tonga. Friends of Tony Haas, the author of 'Being Palangi'.

Andrew and Sima of the Afeaki family in Tonga. Tony Haas says Faka'apa'apa atu or respect is an important value in Tonga and a crucial navigational tool for Palangi. Photo: Supplied/Tony Haas

TH: My dear friend Michael King, eminent historian and a contemporary at Victoria University, had left our studies on campus to go focus on Maori.  It was his personal choice.  He wrote histories of New Zealand and he wrote about the bi-cultural contract between Maori and Pakeha. He said to me, you've explored the Pacific more fully than I have explored, why don't you write about being palangi?  Why don't you develop your programme to draw out the lessons of the multi-cultural New Zealand.  I took that guidance and ended up with a 10 year assignment or voluntary exercise, to write 'Being Palangi, My Pacific Journey'.  In it I set down some of the lessons I learnt, some of the questions I have, so that it might prove to be a navigational tool to others.

DW: From all of your experience over this time, what would be the most important navigational tool that you are leaving in this book?

TH: Faka'apa'apa atu or respect is one of the concepts that Tonga's recent education minister, a woman, Doctor 'Ana Taufe'ulungaki, put in her paper for UNESCO.  A list of values were important to Tonga and were also navigational tools Palangi can use as they seek to understand other Pacific places.  Faka'apa'apa atu or respect is one of the lessons. I could be wearing my ta'ovala. I could be the king giving my respect to the people, I could be wearing a ta'ovala. I'm a commoner, I'm giving my respect to the king, and so it goes on.