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List Labour MP ‘Anahila Kanongata’a-Suisuiki. (Image: Tina Tiller)
List Labour MP ‘Anahila Kanongata’a-Suisuiki. (Image: Tina Tiller)

PoliticsFebruary 9, 2022

This social media-friendly Pasifika MP is doing it for her community

List Labour MP ‘Anahila Kanongata’a-Suisuiki. (Image: Tina Tiller)
List Labour MP ‘Anahila Kanongata’a-Suisuiki. (Image: Tina Tiller)

Before she took a leading role in relief efforts for Tonga, Labour list MP ‘Anahila Kanongata’a-Suisuiki flew somewhat under the radar. But she’s been taking a stand for what she believes long before entering parliament in 2017.

‘Anahila Lose Kanongata’a-Suisuiki has been busy. These past couple of weeks, the Labour list MP has been co-leading the Aotearoa Tonga Relief Committee alongside her colleague Jenny Salesa, assisting families in New Zealand to send much-needed goods to their families in Tonga following the volcanic eruption and tsunami in January.

Every day she switches her mobile phone camera to selfie mode to do a Facebook Live of what’s happening at Auckland’s Mt Smart Stadium, where the donations are packed and shipped. One update was with Sir Michael Jones, informing her viewers of the generous donations the former All Black had made, while another showed Kanongata’a-Suisuiki standing in a queue of vehicles waiting up to four hours outside the stadium to donate goods. She’s full of energy and pride for her community – you can see it in her videos as she gives a greeting in te reo Māori before speaking in her mother tongue of Tongan and then English.

But while Kanongata’a-Suisuiki’s name and face may be better known among the wider public following the Tongan disaster, her bilingual video updates actually began during the first alert level four lockdown in 2020. “I thought of doing a demonstration on how to cough in both Tongan and English and it got a good response,” she says at the stadium when The Spinoff visits. Kanongata’a-Suisuiki’s early videos were breakdowns of the information from the prime minister’s 1pm briefings, translated into Tongan with summaries of the latest guidance. The one day she didn’t do a live video, people knew. “A friend of mine, Dr Seini Taufa, noticed and asked me if I could continue the bilingual updates as it’s helpful for the large Pasifika following I had at a time where there was a lot of misinformation,” she says.

“I’ve had young people tell me how helpful the videos are for their grandparents to understand what’s going on during the pandemic. I’ve even had Tongan adults who watch the news and say that when they hear my update, they get it.”

Then Papakura Labour candidate ‘Anahila Kanongata’a-Suisuiki supporting Jacinda Ardern campaigning at Manurewa Mall in the lead-up to the 2020 election (Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Before Facebook Lives and TikTok dance routines – something she also dabbles in – Kanongata’a-Suisuiki was a young girl in Tonga with minimal English, raised by her maternal grandfather until he passed away in 1977. “My parents never married and so having had my grandfather look after me for most of my childhood, I decided to choose my surname in honour of him, which is where Kanongata’a comes from,” she says. “Suisuiki is my ex-husband’s surname who is Samoan.”

After her grandfather’s passing, Kanongata’a-Suisuiki’s uncle helped out with raising her. He had always wanted her to be an economist, since she was very good with numbers. She moved to New Zealand to be with her late mother who got her permanent residency in 1979, when the young Kanongata’a-Suisuiki was about 10. They lived in a state house in Onehunga, where she still resides, now living in an apartment not far from where her mother is buried at Waikaraka Cemetery.

Kanongata’a-Suisuiki got married to her first husband, who is Tongan, and had two children before she turned 20. When she turned 30, she was awarded a government scholarship to study either economics or social work. “I was reading up on the values of being a social worker and working with others, respecting people and their backgrounds, and it resonated with me and the journey I’ve been through as a young parent from a minority group in a western society,” she says. “So, I chose social work and unintentionally went against the expectations of my family,” she laughs. 

‘Anahila Kanongata’a-Suisuiki takes a selfie with fellow Labour MPs Aupito William Sio and Poto Williams during the opening of parliament on November 25, 2020 (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

After graduating with a degree in social work from the University of Auckland, she worked herself up the ranks, becoming a social worker, then a supervisor, and finally becoming one of the first Tongan managers in the Ministry of Social Development. Kanongata’a-Suisuiki says managers would have access to the many messages coming through from the various political parties and it was when Helen Clark’s Labour lost the 2008 election to the John Key-led National Party that she thought, “I need to go help the Labour Party get back into parliament.”

“John Key would say that unemployment is low in New Zealand and that they’re helping people into employment, yet on the ground in my line of work that wasn’t the case. The scholarship that I got was cut under the National government and anything specific to Pacific peoples was also cut, and that was enough for me to apply to become a candidate for the Labour Party. I finally understood why my mother was a huge supporter of Labour,” she says.

Kanongata’a-Suisuiki was 38 years old when she officially joined the party in red. At the time she was living in Manukau, so she received a letter from the Labour Party saying she would be part of the Manurewa Labour electorate committee. She laughs as she remembers those early days, because the committee had thought she was a spy.

“When I got my acknowledgement letter, I immediately called up the committee and asked if I could join their next meeting. They said that before I could, I had to meet with the MP, George Hawkins.

“I met with him twice and then I met with his secretary a couple of times and throughout those meetings, I kept being asked why I would like to join the party.” At the time, the Pacific sector of Labour had a candidate they were going to stand against Hawkins, and his team thought she had been sent to spy.

“I didn’t even know that sector existed until then,” she laughs.

‘Anahila Kanongata’a-Suisuiki with Jacinda Ardern during the Labour caucus retreat in New Plymouth on January 20, 2022 (Photo: Andy Jackson/Getty Images)

In the 2017 general election, Kanongata’a-Suisuiki came into parliament on the list, and in 2020 was part of the Labour Party’s largest ever Pacific caucus after the party’s landslide victory that gave them 64 seats in parliament. She says she wasn’t nervous going into that environment, considering the many years she spent as a public servant. Once in, she was vocal about her stance on the cannabis referendum and the End of Life Choice Act. 

She was strongly opposed to both. 

When asked if she’s worried her decision could impact her position with the Labour Party, she confidently says “not at all”.

“It’s an opportunity for my colleagues to view a different perspective from the majority and the Labour Party is a broad church, so there are always going to be contrasting views. Our prime minister has been understanding of my decisions and respects them.”

As for the future, the MP based in Papakura says her big goal is for New Zealanders to have warm and dry homes, as it has direct impacts on health and wellbeing. “That’s why housing, health and jobs are my priorities given my life experiences growing up in a state home and having a family before I turned 20. I’ll be working hard to bring those issues to parliament and help promote a positive, lasting change,” she says, before pausing a moment to think.

“That, and trying to not get in trouble again with the Speaker of the House for doing a Facebook Live inside parliament,” she laughs.

This is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.

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