by Jan Logie
Last week I attended the launch of the Salvation Army report ‘More than Churches, Rugby and Festivals’.
The author is clearly nervous not to feed into an impression that things are worse for Pasifika people or that their needs should have priority. The report attempts to avoid the deficit thinking that presents Pasifika people as having problems. It’s a tough line to walk, and the underlying tension is twofold – whether the disadvantage experienced by any group is their fault and also whether it is possible to make change at a structural level.
I value the report for highlighting a specific historical structural discrimination experienced by Pasifika people.
At the launch on Tuesday there was a thought provoking panel and some debate over whether Pasifika need to do better, take more responsibility or whether structural issues are at play.
While the evidence supports the value of a structural approach of course it’s not either or. It is and and.
I get a sense that some people are resistant to talking about the structural issues because they feel as if it takes away their control. It’s a bit like being in a violent relationship; you’re being told by the person you love that if you just did things a bit better or didn’t do those annoying things then everything would be ok. Claiming the problem as your own also gives you a, temporary, sense of power. It’s much easier to handle an awful situation if you think you can make it better. But while you put all your efforts into fixing yourself you are still living with the violence.
Pasifika communities have shown remarkable resilience in the face of significant discrimination and disadvantage. The wonderful acts of community that I see almost daily in the place I live, and the rate of participation in higher education is more evidence, as are the number of articulate Pacific leaders in many fields of endeavour.
When challenged on Pasifika unemployment rates in Parliament this year the Government responded by talking about efforts in improve Pasifika higher educational outcomes. This is a classic argument (similar to what we’ve been hearing on pay equity for years). The flaw with the analysis though is Pasifika are attending university at about the same rates as other New Zealanders.
I think this is a clear indication of a structural problem.
The National Party MP said at the launch, in a very similar vein to Bill English the week before, that the Bible tells us that “the poor will always be with us.” This thinking is blind to the Maori, Pasifika, women, and people with disabilities who account for most of the poor. Nor does it explain why 40% of Pasifika are in poverty and only 3% of older New Zealanders. Those realities tell us policy can make a difference for good and bad.
We need to acknowledge as a country that Pasifika inequality is a result of historical and structural injustice. As just one example of this New Zealand’s farming economy was built up on the exploitation of cadmium from Nauru. This has basically destroyed the environment in Nauru. New Zealand is continuing to extract resources from the Pacific and make money off the export of products like high fat content mutton flaps and tobacco, that contribute to the growing epidemic of non-communicable diseases such as obesity and lung cancer.
The government seems to think if we acknowledge the uneven playing field and seek to address it then suddenly we’ll have massive social unrest and marginalised people will be paralysed by the support.
I think it is ridiculous to suggest that if, as a country, we help people get work, or help them care for family members or have warm healthy houses then they’ll suddenly lose all motivation to help themselves. The evidence does not support this.
Of course this isn’t black and white. Individual effort can in exceptional circumstances break through, and New Zealand has contributed some positives to the Pacific nations. But we need to start addressing the behaviour of the one with the most power to make a difference for the most in this equation and that is the Government.