In conversation with Minister for Ethnic Communities, Peseta Sam Lotu-liga
(caption of the above picture: The Minister listening to migrant issues at the Canterbury Migrants Centre)
Are ethnic communities important to New Zealand?
Sam Lotu-liga: Definitely important. We’re a country of migrants. People have been migrating to this country for many centuries. So the contributions that various ethnic groups make to New Zealand economically, socially and culturally has played a huge part in the country we have today. It’s a multicultural country. It’s a country with a diverse background and people from diverse ethnicities. It’s a country I think that’s representative of the 200 odd ethnicities from around the world.
The message that ethnic communities are important to New Zealand, is it percolating down to the masses?
Sam Lotu-liga: Definitely. I certainly know from travelling around the country that New Zealanders appreciate the rich diversity and colour and the contributions that migrant communities make to the country. It's the same whether you're talking about the Filipino community in the South Island, or about the Pacific communities in Blenheim. The contributions of those migrant communities here in Christchurch as well as right around the South Island in New Zealand make a huge impact. Also, along with the contributions to the local economy, the cultural dimension is really important.
What challenges do ethnic communities face when they come to New Zealand?
Sam Lotu-liga: We’ve had communities migrating here over a number of years. Depending on the circumstances in which they come here - some have been resettled here through refugee status – resettlement is quite difficult. So the challenge is obviously different; a different country, different culture, different climate, and then like all migrants it’s about how you adapt, you get education, you get housing, you deal with the health needs of those various communities. They are no different today from the first migrants who came over the various centuries. Those things are very important in terms of settlement. But it’s also important for them to maintain their own culture and identity, as well as their faith.
So, what are you doing to help ethnic communities deal with those challenges?
Sam Lotu-liga: We’re a small office. We deal across the various agencies to promote ethnic communities within the policy making. We have an ethnic communities fund, through which we help fund community organisations to promote not just culture but also their identity locally. There’s a range of ways its done. So its over half a million dollars a year.
Then its about taking queries and listening to various community organisations about how we can better help them resettle. In the South Island, our office is a little bit thinner because the substantialmajorities of our ethnic communities are in Auckland, North Island. But certainly we have a presence down here and I’ve visited a number of migrant communities up and down the South Island. And it’s really important that they have a say, have a voice. They’re able to communicate some of their needs through me, often through our office. But then also into the immigration office, Ministry of Social Development where they have needs around say getting jobs.
Is the Government putting more focus in the South Island now as regards to ethnic communities? In what ways?
Sam Lotu-liga: It is about better coordinating across various government services. We are not a service delivery arm of the government. So it’s about working with the Ministry of Social Development. For example, we work with Work and Income, to see how we can better place migrants into jobs or accessing government services, accessing various benefits.
Moreover, its also about working with community organisations like the Migrants Centre.
Through such collaborations we try and service the needs of the ethnic communities. But they’re not done as a service delivery arm. It's done more through coordination of services, not just in the government but also in the non-government sector.
We just had a earthquake event in Northern Canterbury. As was the learning in the Christchurch earthquakes of 2010/11, how important it is now to translate civil defence materials into ethnic languages for better communication with ethnic communities?
Sam Lotu-liga: If the demand is there, we’ll listen to any proposition or proposal to assist in this regard. Though I must say that Office of Ethnic Communities does run the Language Line, which helps in interpreting information for people having English as their second language.
I think what’s important is that if there are some issues around translating some of these materials we’re open to hearing more queries.
But certainly the government's service delivery arms including the Ministry of Social Development, Ministry of Education, they’re certainly more open to translating of some of the materials that need to be disseminated.
As you are also the Minister of Pacific People, one of the major issues the community faces is of youth suicides. What plans do you have to tackle the issue?
Sam Lotu-liga: I’ve just come from a Pacific conference which is looking at investing in youth. People there are looking at solutions - not just coming from the youth - but also from providers and from government agencies as to how we can work better in this space.
Certainly there’s huge room for improvement. For example I met a mental health provider of services who are looking at different ways to better engage youth around this very issue of suicide. We’re also looking at measures around family violence and sexual violence. Those things are often what leads to youth suicide. There’s peer pressure and a number of other things that impact youth, and lead to very terrible consequences.
That’s why today at the conference - and I’m going back for the youth forum after this interview - it’s important that heath, education, social development, all the various agencies, come together. Church ministers are also very important as in the Pacific community the Christian church plays a very important role.
What’s particularly important for me is listening to the needs of the youth, how they perceive the problem and how some of the solutions must come from themselves.
Is this a priority for you?
Sam Lotu-liga: It’s a priority not just for me but for our government. The statistics around family violence and sexual violence in this country are not good. They’re terrible. They span across all cultures, every community in this country. That's why we’re starting a new ministry for vulnerable children. I’ve been tasked with designing the Pacific and ethnic communities component of that. I think it’s particularly important that we are sensitive to the cultural needs of these [Pacific and ethnic] communities because they are very different to the needs of the other communities in New Zealand.
As you are also the Minister for Local Government, why do you think we saw declining voting percentages in the just-concluded local government elections?
Sam Lotu-liga: The voting in Christchurch was about 43 percent, which is just above the national average. It is not good and it’s not good around the world to be honest. Even the US presidential elections, they’re not up in the 70s or 80s, they’re in 60s. I think there are a number of reasons for this.
You can’t put it down to one specific reason. Whether it is voter apathy; I’ve seen some of the evidence that suggests people don’t know the candidates; they’re not engaged with what the local government do. They don't even understand what local government services are provided in the local community. So it’s a range of different things. What we’ve got to do is get people more engaged with local government processes, understand what local government does, understand the functions of local government, and then being connected to theirs.
Will party politics in local elections help?
Sam Lotu-liga: I haven’t seen evidence to suggest that local party politics plays a role. Certainly in parts of New Zealand people don’t want national politics in the local area. They want their local politicians to represent local people on the issues that matter to the local people. I think that’s really important. Having said that it often means that decision making can be quite fragmented too.
But I am confident of the local councils and what they’re doing.
I just met Mayor Lianne Dalziel today. Talking to her, I know they’ve got a real vision for this city and the Canterbury region ,which is quite progressive and its about advancing the interest of all Canterburians.
I’ve also seen how ethnic people are being elected in local elections not just here in Christchurch but around the country. This is great and shows we have come a long way. We may see that sort of participation at and central level soon.