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to all pacific cultures with one voice:
Tackling Pacific Island problems from within the parliament
Taito Phillip Field, interviewed here by Anthony Haas, has a long commitment to conveying the Pacific’s important issues to the New Zealand Government.
Strategic thinking about particip-ation of Pacific migrants increased with the development of accountable Pacific Islands Advisory Councils in New Zealand, says Taito Phillip Field, the first Pacific person who served in such a council to get ministerial responsibility for domestic Pacific affairs.
Field was elected the first member of the New Zealand Parliament of Pacific Island descent at 42 and, in 2003, aged 51, became Minister of State and Associate Minister of Pacific Island Affairs, Associate Minister for Social Development and Employment and Associate Minister of Justice in the second Clark Labour Government.
Samoan, Cook Islands, Jewish American, German and perhaps English
Taito Phillip Field was born in Apia in 1952 of Samoan, Cook Islands, Jewish American, German and perhaps English descent.
Christian religion is strong with Taito Phillip Field, as it was both on his fathers’ and mothers’ side. It gave him “good grounding in the sense of fairness, morality and the sense of Christian values”.
His Jewish grandfather David Field came to Samoa as a Judge, two or three generations back, in the 1800s. The Cook Islands connection is to the Apai Framheim family – and to the Apai family which has Tahitian connections.
His German great grandfather
was Emil Hans Helfritz, the grandmother who brought him up for his first
seven and ½ years was Viola Helfritz Timoteo.
Strict grandmother Viola had been married to a London Missionary Society (LMS) church minister, Timoteo. They had been missionaries to Tokelau in the earlier years before grandfather died. Taito’s father’s father was also a church minister of LMS and served as a missionary in Wallis, and Vanuatu.
Christianity was important to him in preparation once “I was plucked out of that village and put on quite a large ship, and carted off to New Zealand”.
“ Migration to New Zealand from Samoa was absolutely appalling for me, because I was suddenly taken away from the only parent I knew, from someone I deeply loved. And from thereon in, not knowing anyone I came in contact with.”
He thinks his parents, who had been serving in the NZ Army in Malaya and settling in Wellington for much of his first seven and ½ years, wanted him in New Zealand for education. At seven and ½ , at the English speaking school in Linden, Wellington, and with three English speaking brothers he had a difficult time because he “could not speak a word of English”. His mother was in favour of not speaking Samoan – English had to be promoted to be better at school.
In 1959 there were not many Samoans in New Zealand, there was no other Samoan family in the street, let alone at school, with whom he could communicate.
“ Fa’a Samoa, the Samoan way, was really lost,” he recalled shortly after his appointment as Associate Minister for Pacific Affairs.
He recalls his aggressive reaction to other children who were cruel to him. He had interpreted other children as cheeky to him because of broken communication. He reacted physically in frustration.
“ It was total frustration in a foreign environment, when I could not get my views across”.
This problem made him determined to be as good as other children, in language and schoolwork.
He is thankful to one lady who took him under her wing to teach him English. She was a good teacher by giving concentrated effort – on the alphabet and how to speak English. That was a key. Slowly things improved. He feels he had caught up with English and other studies by secondary school.
I first met Phillip Field,
then in the Wellington Samoan Advisory Council, in 1973. At that time,
I was working with Phil Amos, Minister of Education and Island Affairs,
in the 1972-5 Kirk Labour Government to establish channels of communication
between Pacific migrants and the New Zealand host society.
Field recalled in 2003 that pre-1972 he was gravitating towards the Wellington Samoan Advisory Council because, at that time in his life “I had totally lost the ability to speak fluent Samoan”.
Field attended one of the Advisory Council meetings because of his drive to learn the Samoan language, and seeking to familiarise himself with the Pacific community.
“ We saw it as a great opportunity for Pacific peoples and particularly Samoans because they had the larger numbers, as a vehicle for conveying to government important issues for the Pacific community at that time,” he recalled.
It is always important, from the Samoan and Pacific perspective, that the people who were accepted as leaders and spokespeople were genuinely representative and accepted by the community, he says, explaining the desire at that time to have accountable representatives in the Advisory Councils.
“ Too often there is cynicism about how so-called Pacific leaders were determined. So the question of credible leaders being elected was important to the Pacific Islands community at that time.”
Needing a voice
One of the key issues concerning these early advisory councils was for government to establish a Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs.
“ There was also a move towards acknowledging there was a growth in unemployment and in hardships amongst the Pacific community. They felt there needed to be a voice. I think the community appreciated the initiative taken by Amos and the community, by and large, really supported the initiative of advisory councils,” he says.
“ They wanted a voice,” he said.
“ There was a feeling we needed a voice inside where it counted. What came home to me was that there was no representation in the halls of power at that time. So there was a drive for representation in central and local government at that time.”
He says now the advisory
councils were a step in the right direction.
“ What was good for the Samoans was not necessarily good for all Pacific Islanders.”
Field says of the Advisory Council: “Among the Samoans it is a very strong concept. It is still perceived and accepted as the umbrella organisation for the Samoan communities.”
The advisory councils “achieved
significant bringing together of the community and, more importantly,
leaders. It was the beginning of strategic thinking. You have to give
credit now that it has survived," he says.
PHOTOGRAPH: Sandy Scheltema and the Fred Hollows Foundation.