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Emma Espiner: Sit down and build a bridge

On paper, it didn't bode well. The lapsed-Catholic feminist daughter of a lesbian - and the son of a Samoan church minister who spoke against gay marriage and relished debating 'the feminists' at university.

I went to talk to Fa’anana Efeso Collins on behalf of the public health agency Hāpai Te Hauora, my sometime employer. We had the latest Auckland obesity data and wanted to know his views as Auckland Council’s Manukau ward representative. The details are here but suffice to say the news is not great for his constituents.

'Efeso' I said to the receptionist. She looked perplexed and started typing A-F-E- into her computer. I tried to mispronounce his name to see if that would help. We got there in the end, but the interaction was an interesting preface for our meeting. To me, it reflected the lopsided nature of improving representation in New Zealand. We’re gaining momentum at the front end – in leadership, media and politics but it’s taking time to filter through.

You might remember that it was Collins' family who were denied seats at his swearing-in ceremony. The ushers simply didn't believe his wife when she said they were family members of an elected councillor. They’re not used to seeing brown people in these roles, I guess. Seven percent of candidates elected in the 2016 Auckland local body elections were Māori and eight percent Pacific, compared with 85 percent European.

Efeso Collins with his family at an ANZAC Day event. Photo: Twitter

'Māori and Pacific' is such a ubiquitous pairing now that it rolls off the tongue and off policy documents with ease. There was a time when our authorities couldn’t tell the difference. My Dad was once asked for his passport by the cops when he was walking down Lambton Quay. It was during the Dawn Raids. This was when our police couldn't/didn't want to differentiate between tangata whenua and the labourers from the Pacific Islands who were good enough to work in our factories but not so good that they couldn't be harassed and intimidated out of the country when the work dried up.

Sitting across from Collins I felt like we had plenty of common ground but we were by no means the same culturally. Take public health messages, for instance. If someone wanted to reach him, a church-going Samoan father and community leader, you’d get him through the church. If someone wanted to reach me, an urban-dwelling Māori far from my ancestral land, marae and people, limited in my reo, un-versed in my whakapapa, I’d be less easy to find.

I asked him about this ubiquity of the church, and whether that could be a force for harm. I was thinking about some homophobic messages which had been reported in the media during the last election. He responded with frustration at the surface-level understanding of the role of the church in his community.

Don’t write off someone from the red team or the blue team or the green team for that reason alone. Look for the bits you do like, the views you do share. Yes, it’s more of a challenge. But we are complex creatures and we need to be comfortable with our complexity.

“It’s easy to say ‘Samoans are religious and they hate gay and trans people’ from the outside when you’re not embedded in the community. I bring that back to the binary nature of discourse in this country, where you’re left or right, black or white, good or bad and there’s very little room for exploring the shades of grey. That’s not us. We as Polynesian peoples are comfortable in our complexity.”

To illustrate his point, he talked about his father who was a church minister who allowed transgender people to sing in the worship team, about his own work with fa’afafine and trans youth while also acknowledging concerns from elderly community members about gay marriage.

This culturally-rooted acceptance of ‘complexity’ struck us both as a potential solution to the fractious and often pointless nature of political debate. All around the world right now it seems we are limited by a progressive/conservative dichotomy which doesn’t reflect how people think outside of politics or social media. In jostling for the right to be right about everything, we can miss opportunities to build bridges with people who are different from us.

I’m allergic to party politics and it’s been interesting to observe how Collins, though aligned with Labour, has veered away from the party line on several occasions. The regional fuel tax is one notable example. From the outside, his role as community advocate seems to supersede his political allegiance.

He says this is a shared reality for Māori and Pacific MPs – despite these representatives holding views which span the political spectrum. Your political opponents are your community allies or maybe even your relations. You can’t avoid them. You have to accept them with their complexities – some of which you embrace, some which you dislike.

“An indigenous discourse accepts that we have the ability to be multiple. It’s the ability to sit easily with our discomfort when we are challenged and turn round and work together.”

Much of our political discourse tries to break us into two groups. Analysts and commentators often try and determine the acceptability of a policy by asking, what would middle New Zealand think?

Emma Ng in her book Old Asian, New Asian wonders if ‘Middle New Zealand’ is code for ‘mostly Pākehā New Zealand’ and Collins agrees. “Yes, 100 percent. It’s that safe voter base that keeps everything rolling and keeping things rolling is what has delivered us to where we are today: inequality and racism.”

There are two realities here though. For one it is entrenchment, for the other denial; Collins tells me “When I’m followed by security on the train because I’m being racially profiled I just laugh, just another day. But if I go on Breakfast TV and say there’s still racism in New Zealand it explodes. Taika says it and every non-Pākehā nods along and a bunch of Pākehā get really offended because it’s counter to their deep-seated belief that NZ is egalitarian.”

How do you bridge those realities? I’m not sure but after meeting the Manukau Ward councillor I’m working on a theory, based on our discussion of an indigenous, collective approach to politics.

Don’t write off someone from the red team or the blue team or the green team for that reason alone. Look for the bits you do like, the views you do share. Yes, it’s more of a challenge. But we are complex creatures and we need to be comfortable with our complexity.

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