I remember following the 1984 election with excitement. My parents had always voted Labour and were keen for a Lange-Labour win in 1984 because they’d had enough of Muldoon. Whilst I didn’t understand much of their dissatisfaction with National at the time, the one thing I knew without any doubt was that David Lange inspired my parents. He was a big man, who had a big voice, was highly intelligent and had real presence. Every time he was on the news my parents were mesmerized telling me that I should follow this man and listen carefully to everything he had to say.
As a Samoan I’ve been raised in an oral tradition. My dad was a pastor and lay preacher for many years. Watching him from the pulpit for many years gave me a real sense of how you could best communicate a message – Dad’s were powerful and persuasive (and of course I’d say that, I was his son and good Samoan kids obey their parents). In many ways I saw David Lange as possessing the skills of a powerful and dynamic communicator, similar to the many church ministers and lay preachers that I was being exposed to as a child. Lange was a lay preacher of the Methodist Church I later discovered.
Pasifika people are drawn to great communicators; communicators who are dynamic, humorous, firm and persuasive. Looking back on the 1984 election, it was these attributes that won Lange so much favour amongst our people. Over the years I’ve seen how our people have been drawn to the likes of Helen Clark, Vaovasamanaia Winston Peters and in recent times, David Cunliffe. Whilst none of them are a complete replica of Lange, each of them possesses the traits that Samoan people are looking for in a leader.
In a recent blog I talked about how dynamic and inspirational Rev Uesifili Unasa was as he spoke of his vision for Auckland, acknowledging that his humble demeanour and powerful ability to communicate are huge assets to his political pursuit to become Mayor of Auckland. Coming from an oral tradition means that the lens we look through is slightly different from what may draw others to political leaders. Of course any politician is going to need decent communication abilities to get noticed.
I was one of a number of Samoans and other Pasifika people that packed out David Cunliffe’s New Lynn office when he announced his decision to seek the leadership of the Labour Party. It’s fair to say that amongst many Pasifika people in Auckland, David Cunliffe is the person they want as Labour’s leader. Cunliffe espouses the traits that naturally lend themselves to drawing Pasifika support – he’s intelligent, personable and a very good communicator. Admittedly, Jones and Robertson have those characteristics too, but I think his support amongst Pacific people comes from us feeling that he’s had a rough deal in the last couple of years. With so many Pasifika Labour members at his announcement, I believe it is fair to say that he has the support of Pasifika within the Party. Su’a William Sio is publicly supporting his bid for the leadership and that endorsement will have weighting in the community.
Watching the election coverage in 1984 was like sitting at the movie theatre trying to anticipate what would develop next. Late in the evening, David Lange emerged from behind the curtain on stage to give his speech as Prime Minister-elect. His speech was moving and inspirational. And whilst his government’s neo-liberal agenda that followed will always be an indictment on his administration with the awful effects still being felt today, his speech and person were indicative of the leadership Pasifika people are won to. Almost 20 years on it’s a different David and a slightly different context. This David claims to have learned a number of lessons from his time on the backbench in bringing some healing to troubled relationships within the caucus. Moreover, he has the intelligence, personality, work ethic and perhaps more importantly, a groundswell of support amongst Pacific voters to lead Labour to victory in 2014. And it’s that vote located mainly in south and west Auckland that Labour needs to inspire to the booths next year. I’m convinced that under Cunliffe’s leadership Pasifika voters will both be inspired to the booth and others, back to Labour.