As more valedictory speeches were heard in Parliament’s chamber, a warning was sounded from a departing MP about race baiting and dog whistling to extremism.
Labour’s Emily Henderson, the MP for Whangārei, and Aupito William Sio the long time MP for Māngere, gave their final statements last night. Henderson in particular picked up from a theme from last week’s valedictories in which the adversarial style of politics that has become standard in Parliament was in the firing line.
Noting how the culture has changed, Dr Henderson said the space for constructive debate and the ability to tolerate opposing views outside the caucus and among the public - “especially in the toxic swamp of social media” - that space is significantly altered.
As a “tough old courtroom lawyer”, she said there was “danger when adversarial argument stops being about testing and becomes about winning alone. That's the nub of the problem in the courts. In rape cases or cases with vulnerable witnesses, lawyers who think their sole responsibility is to get a win will do virtually anything with any means necessary—even when that drowns out and distorts the evidence".
“Normally, extremism rolls right off New Zealanders, but this is a time of heightened anxiety, when many voters are undeniably on edge, struggling to come to terms with an uncertainty we haven't had to face since the 1930s. Scared people notoriously seek scapegoats, and it's the easiest and oldest trick in the book to tap into that fear and prejudice and drive a wedge into the community," she said.
“I would not suggest anyone in here is about to jump the conspiracy bandwagon, but, in an election year, there's a temptation to at least try and tap into some of that energy. It's there when politicians start using the language of "taking back our country" from minorities. It's there when politicians ignore the actual facts and, instead, go around telling people that they're unsafe and crime is out of control—and, when confronted, that the facts don't matter as much as the fears.
“Demonising the neighbours is as simple as turning a deeply boring bit of legislation about pipes into a crusade against overreaching Māori. The temptation to divide in order to rule is clearly present, and it is a danger—including in the increasing attacks on the independence of the judiciary, coming from this House. Every time someone in leadership weaponises the power of that scapegoating—against whatever people—it licenses some unbalanced person to take their frustrations out on an actual person,” she said.
“We need a new way to debate this. We need a politics that doesn't play games with peoples' emotions. We need a politics that isn't afraid to lead from the front. We need a politics that isn't afraid to admit solutions are complicated, that isn't afraid to make tough decisions and trust us to catch up. We need a politics that has more respect for the people it serves, for our intelligence, for our realities, and for our futures.
'OK to be different'
Earlier in her speech, Henderson pointed out that she is “part of the most gender-equal, Māori-, Pasifika-, rainbow-inclusive Government ever” in this country. This point was underlined by the next valedictory speaker, Aupito William Sio, who entered the chamber in traditional Samoan attire.
“I'm also in my traditional attire, because I want to give confidence to the people who look like me—tall, dark, and handsome—that they can know that they too can be standing where I'm standing and to be proud of who they are and to not be afraid to claim the right to sit at the decision-making table at all levels of Aotearoa. I stand proudly this way to make a statement for the sake of Pacific youth of Aotearoa. I am showing them that it is OK to be different, that they can be proud of their cultural heritage, even if they are just half and half or quarter like many of my nieces and nephews and my grandchildren; that it is OK to be a member of the rainbow community, too.”
Mistakes of the past
Aupito William Sio’s almost 16-year career as MP has brought breakthroughs for the Pasifika community, and one of them was ushering in a new drive for this country to face up to its past mistakes in the Pacific.
“The New Zealand colonial administrators did more harm during their colonial rule from 1914 to 1962. They forced my ancestors off their lands in Satapuala village to build an airport for the war. There are horrible stories of rape and pillage and killings that the late chief Toʻalepaialiʻi Toeolesulusulu Salesa III shared with me,” he recalled.
There was more. Aupito cited the deliberate infection of the local population in 1918 when the New Zealand military administration controlling Samoa knowingly allowed the ship Talune, which was carrying Spanish influenza, to dock at Apia.
“The results were catastrophic, wiping out over a quarter of Samoa's population and decimating entire families and villages. Colonel Logan (head of administration) refused the offer of medical help from Tutuila, American Samoa. When the local Samoan leaders protested and revived the Mau movement, they were banished from Samoa. They were taken and imprisoned, some in Mount Eden. Many were stripped of their Samoan Matai titles and moved off their land. When they were in Mount Eden, Māori visited them and gave aid.
“Then there was the horrific shooting by New Zealand Military Police on the Mau independence demonstrators in Apia, where 11 Samoans were shot to death, including the independence leader of High Chief Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III.”
Right the wrongs tangibly
Sio said he was a person who didn’t forget history, and that while former Prime Minister Helen Clark apologised in 2002 for the wrongs and harms caused during New Zealand's colonial rule in Samoa, more must be done.
“It is not for Samoa to ask for it; it is for New Zealand to right those wrongs tangibly. This is the history that I hope will now be taught in our schools as part of New Zealand's history curriculum. By teaching this history, New Zealand can become a better country. By understanding the mistakes that have been made in the past, future generations can learn not to keep repeating the folly of past Governments. Climate change still remains the single-biggest security threat in the Pacific and will remain so. More must be done. We save ourselves when we save the Pacific.”
From there, singing by Aupito’s many supporters filled the chamber, and the departing MPs were surrounded and congratulated by colleagues. As usual, Pasifika and Maori MPs led the way with dancing and clapping along.
And it has to be said, there’s not many parliaments in the world where MPs dance together, let alone pull it off.