If you’re thinking of becoming an MP, there are some things that are ideal in helping you prepare, including experience in the public sector or local government. But once you're in Parliament, the best way to become a better MP is to take time to learn how the system works, ideally from the opposition benches.
These are insights from Aupito William Sio, the Labour MP for Māngere, who is soon to leave Parliament at the end of the term. After almost sixteen years in this place, he knows how the system works as well as anyone, and sat down with The House to reflect on a career in Parliament which has been concurrent with breakthroughs for Pasifika.
Aupito’s time in Parliament encompasses a long stint in opposition, which he describes as invaluable to an MP’s development, bookended by two spells in government. The Samoa-born MP entered Parliament at the tail end of the Helen Clark-led Labour Government in 2008.
“I spent about six or seven months as a backbencher, observing what they were doing in government. And as they exited, I then spent nine years in opposition - probably the best time of learning, although at times you feel like ‘what am I doing here?’. And then having spent five years as a minister, as the Minister for Pacific Peoples, and then honing in on what I wanted to be able to do for Pacific communities across a number of portfolios, I just think that was the absolute privilege.”
Learning the ropes
Before Sio entered Parliament, there had only ever been a few Pasifika to be MPs in this country. But now there are over a dozen in the same Parliament. He has taken on a mentor role for younger Pasifika MPs coming through, reaching out across party lines to be supportive in this way.
“It was always important to be able to show the others the ropes, if you like. Local government did help me. Others also took that path. When people are asking me how do you prepare yourself to be a member of Parliament, well I say serve your community but [working in] local government does help. Understanding the politics, and understanding what's really important,” he explains.
“I think for any person coming through, they should cherish the opportunity of being in opposition, and cherish the opportunity of just taking their time and learning how the system works. It helps if you understand the public sector. I’ve always said to those who have asked me where can they get the experience before coming here that they can work for an MP, or they can spend some time in local government.”
“There's a lot that the public don't know about, and even though I had the experience of being in local government, it's still a strange beast. It’s a fiefdom of its own and absolutely you do have to learn quite a lot when you come in here. It's not a place that is receptive or inviting of other cultures.”
Aupito recalled how in 2008 he asked the Speaker of Parliament at the time, Margaret Wilson, if he could use the Samoan language as he was being sworn in, which she duly accommodated. But he said that later, when the National Party came to power, he had an ongoing struggle with the Speaker and whips at that time to be able to use Samoan in addition to English at times in the chamber. They told him if everybody wanted to use two languages it would take too long.
But Aupito persisted, and since then the legislature has become far more diverse with MPs often using multiple tongues other than English, as well as Sign Language.
As Minister for Pacific People’s, Aupito William Sio has achieved numerous breakthroughs, including significant government investment into Pacific communities, which he said would not have happened without the commitment of the Labour government. Working with Treasury, Sio oversaw the compilation in 2018 of the New Zealand Pacific Economy report which basically found that Pacific peoples contributed $8-billion to the country’s economy despite the inequities and barriers they routinely faced.
“So my challenge to the Minister of Finance and our government was: imagine if we could address those inequities, remove those barriers, what kind of contribution Pacific people could then make? As a consequence we set out deliberately on the path to achieve Pacific well-being by setting goals around languages and culture, economic prosperity, healthy resilient Pacific families, and of course the focus on young Pacific peoples.”
On his achievements, he also identifies the Pacific Language Strategy under which nine Pacific languages are being supported across government and has flow-on impact in education and media, because the link between language and retaining their culture through language is important to young Pacific people. The Dawn Raids Apology is another one. Then there’s also the increased investment into creating opportunities for young Pacific people in education in the fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and arts.
“Because you've got a growing Pacific population that this country is going to rely on for its future workforce and future business. So education is the key to unlocking that huge potential. That's already happening,” he says.
Aupito is mindful that the three-year Parliament term goes very quickly, and for any MP let alone a minister that can be restrictive on what they can achieve.
“I think the only reason why I believe I was able to do quite a lot for the Pacific communities in that time frame was you worked hard with the officials, and asked the officials to find ways of speeding up processes without undermining the quality of the work.
“My benefit was I spent nine years in opposition, developing policy - Pacific language policy was one; even climate change policy, looking at creating a new vision, working with Pacific communities across the region.”
Sio says he’s really enjoyed his time in Parliament and is exiting on a high, satisfied that he has made a contribution. He’s only 63, and in terms of what’s next for him, it’s still open. There has been talk of him being a kind of conduit for relationships between the Pacific Islands and people in New Zealand and Australia.
“A lot of people have asked me ‘can I do this, can I do that’, and I’ve said yes to everybody,” he laughs, “but I haven’t seen anything firmed up; so I guess I’m going to be unemployed come October."
In the view of Aupito William Sio, "the highest calling for anybody is to serve your community".
“Being a politician gives you that opportunity to serve your community. The greatest opportunity is also to help those in need. At the end of the day, all politics is local politics, and they’ve got to stay grounded and stay connected to the community. Otherwise it’s quite easy to lose sight of that when you just confine yourself to the bubble here in Wellington."