Pasifika people and the New Zealand election

Fijian people queuing to vote in their elections
By SALOTE CAMA. From Fightback’s upcoming issue on Electoral Politics. To subscribe, please visit https://fightback.zoob.net/payment.html [1]

As New Zealand prepares to go to the polls in September, the debates will often be about how the government will distribute resources, what gets prioritised in this COVID-19 world, the housing crisis, and the ongoing climate crises. I am an indigenous Fijian, living and working in New Zealand, so my experience of New Zealand politics is coloured. Obviously, there are many differences between New Zealand governance and Fijian governance. Fiji is a republic, New Zealand has an MMP system, Fiji is essentially one massive electorate, and many more to name. However, there are similarities as well. Both governments are heavily invested in maintaining their influence in the region, both countries had a failed push for a change to the Union Jack on our flags in the early 2010s, and both governments are institutions built on the foundation of controlling native land for the British colonial administration.

My understanding of politics is coloured by who I am as an indigenous Fijian person, and this is highly tuned into the politics of land. How land is understood is similar in both iTaukei (indigenous Fijian) and Māori cultures, and this is evidenced in the words used in both languages – vanua in vosa vaka Viti and whenua in te reo Māori. For iTaukei land is not just the physical entity – it is what all aspects of life and society are structured around. It informs education, relationships, status, anxieties, and powers. Fears of land alienation was the reason given for Fiji’s first coup d’état. May 14, 1987 saw Dr Timoci Bavadra removed as Fiji’s Prime Minister. The coup was led by then Lieutenant Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka (currently serving as Fiji’s Leader of the Opposition). Two (or three, or three and a half, depending on your count) more coups have since followed, all somewhat related to these same anxieties.

Land alienation is something indigenous peoples around the world have had to grapple with, and this is definitely true when it comes to New Zealand. Fiji, some consider, to be an anomaly. iTaukei, in this case, own roughly 90% of land. This coupled with the fact that, apart from tourism, the Fiji economy is held up by land-intensive industries like agriculture, timber, and sugar. This could indicate that there is a legacy of the British colonial administration, and their “benevolence”. This benevolence is a myth. iTaukei Fijians own the land, but do not control it. They own the land as part of land-owning units called mataqali – a colonial administrative creation. This control is held in an institution called the iTaukei Land Trust Board (TLTB). The TLTB is the current iteration of the administrative process that determines what is done to iTaukei land, and has done so, on behalf of the colonial government, and in turn the Fijian state, since the turn of the twentieth century.

The colonial project in Viti, in Aotearoa, and in the Pacific was – and is – a series of power plays that seek to gain position and influence for the colonial powers. It is interested only in its own protection and its own authority. Our lands were no longer extensions of who we are, but instead a means of production – a means of gaining wealth to prop up colonialism and capitalism. Our lands were also used to take advantage, to sow distrust, to disenfranchise, and to break collectives.

Land is not immediately at the forefront of the current crop of questions that voters are supposedly asking during the New Zealand election campaign. The economy, COVID-19 recovery, the housing crisis, the climate crises: these are what the hoardings dotting fences on busy streets are centred on. Peel back these questions, and you can see that essentially voters are asking what are we prioritising? The New Zealand Labour Party is going into these elections with a wave of political capital, and generally high polling numbers. Its leader, Jacinda Ardern, is the face of a globally recognised “kindness” brand of politics. Its opposition, the New Zealand National Party, is marred by recent bouts of in-fighting, scandals, low polling numbers and a controversial leader in Judith Collins. Some of the strongest Labour seats in the last election are Pasifika strongholds: there is a strong affiliation between Pasifika communities and the Labour Party. The official Labour campaign launch at Auckland’s Town Hall saw a single announcement of policy from the Labour Party – a regurgitation of National Party policy from 2012, albeit with more funding (this funding will be from the unspent wage subsidy funding). What does this mean for Fijian, and Pasifika, voters in New Zealand? Loyalty to a party, flush with political capital, who has given us just one piece of centrist policy with just over a month to the elections.

The traumas of the colonial project in the Pacific are not only being actively ignored, but are being added to. From the military-industrial complex that is demanding war games in the middle of a pandemic in Hawai’i, to Judith Collins dismissing the goals of mana whenua to protect Ihumātao as “nonsense,” to the loud silence of the New Zealand government in the face of the continued oppression of West Papua by the Indonesian government, and the current refusal to support the West Papua Decolonisation Committee at the United Nations – these traumas are painful, complex, and have ever-changing faces.

Maybe the question of what this (election) means for Fijian, and Pasifika, voters in New Zealand is not necessarily a fair, or good question. Pasifika communities in New Zealand are not just invested in the results of the New Zealand elections. We are too diverse and invested to have a solidly satisfying monolithic answer.  Perhaps I am asking too much of a system that sees whenua as just another means that can further entrench capitalism, another means to further promote colonialism. And because it cannot see the whenua as what it really is, it cannot see us as wholly who we are – because the vanua is inherently a part of our being. Our survival as a culture is predicated on the protection of whenua, of fonua, of vanua. This is not a “proper” election issue, nor is it a Labour Party specific issue, and Pasifika people will most likely remain loyal to the Labour Party through the upcoming elections. But in the immortal words of Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi “withdrawal or non-participation is an option open to idealists and cynics… we owe it to … ourselves to deal with the consequences as they are, not as we would like them to be.”


[1] Editor’s note on style: Salote uses the term Pasifika in this article to refer to the various peoples of the Pacific Islands. Elsewhere in this issue we have used the alternative spelling Pasefika (which is from the Samoan language) or simply referred to “Pacific peoples”.

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