Politics

Parenting more important than politics: Lotu-Iiga

Parenting is more important than Politics: Sam Lotu-Iiga

Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga was the country’s most prominent Pacific Island politician but he eschewed politics for parenting and as Mark Jennings reports he now wants to set up a mentoring programme for young parents.

When Labour negotiated its way into government there was an immediate dividend for its Pacific Island support base.

Two of Pasifika’s brightest political stars, Carmel Sepuloni, MP for Kelston and Jenny Salesa, MP for Manukau East were made cabinet ministers.

Two others, Kris Faafoi, MP for Mana and Aupito Su'a William Sio MP for Mangere, got ministerial roles outside of Cabinet.

At the same time, the man who had been National’s only Pacific Island MP to hold an electorate seat slipped quietly out of Wellington.

Two days after the election he was sitting behind a desk at the Manukau Institute of Technology.

Former cabinet minister Peseta Sam Lotu-liga, was starting a new career as deputy chief executive Pasifika, at the Manukau Institute of Technology.

Lotu-liga didn’t lose his seat, he announced his intention to go well before the election but the reasons for his departure never seemed to be fully explained.

Born in Samoa and raised in Mangere, Lotu-liga had been a big part of National’s plan under John Key to grow the Pacific Island vote, especially with its middle class but socially conservative voters.

The former Auckland Grammar boy had impeccable credentials.

Academically gifted, Lotu-liga holds degrees in commerce and law.

While working in London, as a financial analyst for Bankers Trust, he earned an MBA from Cambridge.

When he returned to New Zealand, after a stint with an Australian investment bank, he cut his political teeth as an Auckland City Councillor.

In 2008, Lotu-Iiga won the seat of Maungakiekie off Labour in one of the biggest swings of the election. He was returned in 2011 with an increased his majority.

Promoted to cabinet by Key in January 2014, Lotu-liga was given the serious job of corrections when National won a third term, later that year.

It was then that Lotu-liga’s stellar run came to an end.

National, by this point, may already have concluded that Lotu-liga wasn’t bringing in as much of the Pacific Island vote as it had hoped and decided (as the 2017 election demonstrated) to put its efforts into capturing more support from Chinese voters.

But it was his inability to handle himself on television that ultimately sent Lotu-liga on a downward path.

Lotu-Iiga had a “rabbit in the headlights” moment when he appeared to freeze in front of the cameras while answering questions on Serco’s mismanagement of Mt Eden prison.

It was not the sort of performance National’s power brokers at the time – Key, English and Joyce easily forgave.

Near then end of 2015 Key gave the corrections portfolio to Judith Collins and Lotu-liga the easier task of local government.

With his unease on TV there was also a view among commentators that Lotu-liga struggled with the Machiavellian nature of politics - that he was simply too nice to be a politician.

Lotu-Iiga says there is some truth to the claims his handling of corrections and the nature of politics were factors in his decision to quit, but that wasn’t the main reason he decided to leave Parliament.

“Corrections was tough. I’m not going to deny that. One of my mates on the other side of the house said at the time I wouldn’t get through it. It did get through it, and I got Serco out of Mount Eden. I survived it.”

The brutal nature of politics is something that all politicians accept, he says.

“Parliament isn’t the friendliest of places, and you do sometimes feel compromised. There is a lot of posturing and people get thrown under buses.

“I tried not to lie and I tried not to throw anyone under a bus.”

The idea of collective responsibility means many politicians are restrained from speaking out when they don’t agree with a policy.

Lotu-Iiga says he always adhered to that convention.

“You might not like something but you keep quiet. I understood that and went in with my eyes open.”

But while the bruising nature of politics played a part, Lotu-liga says the primary reason he quit was so he could be a better parent.

“Every Sunday night I left for Wellington with my little daughter crying and I thought 'do I really want another 3 years of this'?

“I was spending 170 days a year away from home and even the days I was at home, I wasn’t at home. I was at a Chinese New Year event or some other community function.”

The former MP says his experience as a politician has made him think deeply about parenting.

“It is the most important job in the world.”

It is said that every politician has one big post politics idea. Lotu-liga’s is to build a mentoring service for parents.

“There are a lot of parenting issues in a lot of families.”

His idea is to harness the capabilities of successful parents to help those who are struggling.

“A lot of older New Zealanders have the time, energy and knowledge to help new parents.

“We often talk about how kids need mentoring but I think that parents need mentoring too. I don’t think there are any mentoring programmes for them out there.”

Lotu-Iiga says his parents were wonderful role-models who sacrificed a lot for their kids.

“I knew my parents were all in for me and that helped me get through my education.

“My dad showed this through his work ethic driving taxis for 12 to 13 hours a day. When he worked for Pacific airlines he delivered tickets to people in his own time.

“They sacrificed a lot for us to study. When it came exam time we didn’t have to do any chores or dishes and our favourite meal would be cooked for us. “

Lotu-Iiga’s new role puts him in a pivotal position to push the education needs of Pacific students. There are 5,000 Pasifika students at MIT.

“Pacific parents need more information about careers. They tend to think that their kids should be lawyers, doctors or pastors. But, of course, there are many other good careers they should be encouraging the kids to get into. I see this as a big part of my role now.”

Newsroom asked Lotu-Iiga if he felt he had let the Pasifika community down by not fulfilling his potential as a politician.

His answer was carefully crafted, no doubt reflecting lessons learned during his political career.

“When I was in Parliament it was about public service and improving the outcomes for people. I am still serving the public and my people, but now I am doing it in a different way.”

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