Ideasroom

A history lesson in Pacific ‘leeching’

University of Auckland's Tara Leota-Seiuli, Torisse Laulu, and Dr David Tokiharu Mayeda examine the 'us and them' implications of Heather du Plessis' 'Pacific Islands leech off NZ' comments

Leeches.

That’s quite the metaphor radio host Heather du Plessis-Allan used to describe the Pacific Islands in relation to New Zealand last month: “They are nothing but leeches on us. I mean the Pacific Islands wants money from us.” That wasn’t all du Plessis-Allan said when critiquing Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s recent visit to Nauru. She went on to say the Pacific Islands “don’t matter”. 

After facing some pushback, du Plessis-Allan added a little clarity, purporting she wasn’t referring in general to Pacific peoples, but rather to Pacific leadership “leeching” off New Zealand. So confident in her assertion, du Plessis-Allan “double-downed” on her statement even when under fire.

So Pacific Nations are leeching off New Zealand. Not the people, but the governments. It’s just a one-way street where New Zealand is the singular victim in this exploitive, parasitic relationship. Is that so? 

In the wider world of New Zealand, the dust may have now settled on these inflammatory remarks, but for many, the words still sting. We think du Plessis-Allan could do with a history lesson, because, well, history matters.

To begin with, at different points in time New Zealand has exercised colonial influence over the Cook Islands, Niue, Tokelau and Samoa. Colonialism, if nothing else, fosters the control of a powerful state over another dependant nation. Forced construction of dependency is at colonialism’s core. And while New Zealand has never established immense trade relationships with Pacific nations, New Zealand no doubt has had its hands in altering the Pacific landscape.

Whether focused on governmental leaders or not, du Plessis-Allan’s words perpetuate a storyline present in New Zealand’s mainstream media that portrays Pacific peoples as freeloaders, scrounging off contemporary public policies.

Let’s not forget how New Zealand “leeched” off Fiji in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Fiji’s indigenous population was never defined as valuable for New Zealand or Australia. Fiji’s indigenous population was never respected for how they could contribute to New Zealand. Instead, Fiji’s land was objectified as a sugar producing entity, and transformed accordingly. Its ecological landscape and ethnic demographics were completely restructured by colonial enterprises. 

And more to the point, it was the Colonial Sugar Refining Company that led the way. And guess what percentage of the profits from sugar plantations went to Fiji’s indigenous peoples – zero. Today, the Colonial Sugar Refining Company still has headquarters located in Birkenhead, just under a different name.

Moving forward to mid-twentieth century, it was New Zealand who continued to define the Pacific Islands in problematic terms, classifying Pacific peoples as cheap labour, valuable only to the extent that they would serve as physical labourers in our textile, cleaning, meat packing and factory-based industries. 

Drawing on Pacific labour in this way was perfectly fine for the New Zealand government, until the jobs dried up. When the 1973 oil crisis emerged and unemployment rose, all of a sudden Pacific people were framed in the national discourse as overstayers and criminals who were “leeching” off New Zealand’s goodwill. In reality, New Zealand was perfectly fine with Pacific peoples exceeding their visas, as long as they were used on New Zealand’s terms – as cheap, compliant, unskilled labour that didn’t threaten Pākehā privilege. 

Enter the Dawn Raids, where New Zealand’s government limited the criminalisation of overstayers to Pacific peoples. Conversely, the many people of European ancestry who’d also overstayed their visas were left alone. This systemic racism not only unfairly shifted blame on New Zealand’s economic concerns to Pacific peoples. It also fractured families and further stimulated an “us” and “them” discourse across New Zealand’s wider society.

And this is why du Plessis-Allan’s comments are so irresponsibly racist. Words carry an irrevocable power that perpetuates contentious divisions, especially words delivered by those with a discernible platform. Harmful words reopen wounds from yester-year and deprive targeted victims of the enriching cultural contributions they bring to society. 

Whether focused on governmental leaders or not, du Plessis-Allan’s words perpetuate a storyline present in New Zealand’s mainstream media that portrays Pacific peoples as freeloaders, scrounging off contemporary public policies. When du Plessis-Allan says, “They are nothing but leeches on us,” she extends an ongoing racialised narrative that divides New Zealand into an “us” and “them” nation, one where Pacific peoples are not viewed as part of New Zealand’s community. “They” are viewed, once more in singular fashion, as “leeches,” when in fact, Pacific peoples are working just as a hard as anyone else to contribute positively to New Zealand society. 

Tara Leota-Seiuli is a fourth year law and sociology student, Torisse Laulu is a media & communications and sociology student and Dr David Tokiharu Mayeda is a senior lecturer in sociology and criminology.  Tara and Torisse are co-founders of the Facebook group, Plantation Conversations

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