In her debut candidate diary for the Spinoff, Labour hopeful Kiri Allan explains why she decided to return to the East Coast and stand for parliament, and the devastating impact of flooding on Edgecumbe and the region.
Ko Mauao te maunga
Ko Tauranga te moana
Ko Ngāti Ranginui, ko Ngāi Te Rangi ko Tūwharetoa ngā iwi
Ko Kiri Lyndsay Allan tōku ingoa
I looked around the room and wondered how I got here. It was just after 7.30pm on a random Tuesday night and I was sitting in a circle of 20 or so other women and we had all just shared our high and low-light for the week. I had been invited to attend the meeting by a lady I had met at a local market the Sunday prior. I wasn’t quite sure what I had signed up to but when I turned up I found it was a church support group that “empowers women to overcome personal battles”. The low-lights that some of these women shared were confronting. I heard about families with four kids whose husbands had been laid off from work and were worried about where their next meal was going to come from.
I came away from this meeting feeling inspired by the good work that is being done in our communities to help support people in need but also uncomfortable. My uncomfortableness was because I was yet again reminded that these types of stories of hardship and poverty are not anomalies but have become all too familiar in the community in which I live.
A few years ago I married a girl from Teteko and we returned to live in my home electorate, the East Coast, after a long university and work stint in Wellington, multiple sojourns overseas and a brief working period in Hawke’s Bay. The East Coast is the largest general electorate in the North Island. It extends from the outskirts of Te Puke in the west, Whakatāne in the north, incorporating the entire East Cape down to Gisborne and Manutuke in the East. Inland it is comprised of Kawerau, Murupara, Opotiki, Taneatua and almost all of Te Urewera.
I was raised in Paengaroa, a small town on the western edge of the East Coast electorate with a population of 800. I am one of 10 kids but at an early age my aunty and uncle adopted me and became my mum and dad. From then, I lived my life in multiple worlds, with my pākeha father from Gore, and my mother (my biological aunty) from Te Puna. Despite being cash poor my parents raised me well. As a child of the 80s, my memories of home were of flannel shorts, kung fu shoes and a really tight knit community. I learnt the importance of hard manual labour and looking after your next-door neighbour. Despite the lay-offs that were occurring around us, our community provided refuge from a tumultuous economy. If you ran out of milk, it was a common practice to go next door with cup in hand to “borrow” some for your coffee.
When I returned home a few years ago, however, I have found that while some things stay the same, other things had definitely changed for the worse. The days of popping next door to snag a glass of milk seem to be almost a thing of the past. When milk is up to $5 a litre, and if you’re a solo mum that ends up with $20 discretionary spending at the end of the week, you know before you knock on the door, that milk comes at a lofty cost and so you tend to hesitate before you ask. I have found my own family are struggling. My sisters, all strong, articulate, incredible solo mums spend their days trying to chuck gas in the car, get food on the table and get kids off to sport, amidst humiliation and hopelessness because they are struggling to make ends meet. My brothers, all strong, young men were engaged by the criminal justice system in some form before the age of 16.
I have put my hand up to be Labour’s candidate in the East Coast because life is really hard for many people these days. I think regions like ours need someone that understands the hustle and bustle of central government and that will be committed to making gains for our towns. Since I’ve been on the campaign trail, and have been invited into the homes of strangers, the town halls of small communities and the meeting rooms in churches, I’ve felt extremely honoured to have been welcomed, but incredibly uncomfortable with the state of New Zealand as it stands.
Kids are starving and are going to school without lunches and shoes, our elderly are being made to wait for much needed healthcare and just the other day I attended a farewell for a group of young guys that had all been laid off from one of the mills. Jobs are becoming a luxury, as opposed to an ordinary commodity. In this day and age and for a country with a “rock star” economy, I just don’t think it’s right that so many New Zealander’s will not be able to ever achieve the basics of having somewhere to live, and somewhere to work let alone something to hope for.
For those of you that have been watching the news, you will have seen that cyclone Debbie hit the East Coast electorate with tragic force and consequence. Edgecumbe, a 10-minute drive from my house, has been completely wiped out with the recent floods. The banks of the Rangitaiki river burst and flowed through people’s homes, businesses farms and orchards. Ruatoki, Murupara, Ruatahuna, Minganui and Poroporo, all small largely Maori populated areas, have also been severely impacted by the rainfall and were either flooded or completely cut off.
This flood is hitting people hard. On Saturday night, I along with about 800 people, attended a public meeting called by the Whakatane District Council to provide an update on what is happening. Emotions were running high as it was day three, and many residents were realising that their homes, their possessions and for some, their livelihoods had been washed away. The meeting started out as a bit of a disaster: one hour late and no sound system so people couldn’t hear a lot of what was being said. So I started live tweeting the meeting to get as much information out to people as possible. Residents were wanting answers and help. People were visibly upset, many looked sleep deprived, kids were crying out to go home and I saw elderly people there that looked like they were in complete shock.
From here, once the urgent responses and needs have been met, the spotlight will turn on where responsibility should lie for this disaster. The public meeting highlighted three key areas of inquiry: first, the residents had been raising alarms about the quality of the flood banks dating back to 2004 but nothing had been done; second, on the day of the flood, not one siren went off to warn the residents; and third, since the evacuation, Edgecumbe residents have felt that communications to them have been poor.
We are still in an official “state of emergency” with another cyclone on the way and the reality of the loss starting to sink in. Many people will never be able to return home. Some will not have insurance. In the kiwifruit industry, we are three weeks into the picking season. Owners are waiting to see if the crops are destroyed and our workers are waiting to hear if they will have work for the next few months.
In spite of the hard times facing our community at the moment, it is also times like this when I’m really proud to be from the East Coast. The “look after your neighbour when times are tough” spirit has not disappeared. People have taken in their whanau members, marae have opened their doors, people have given clothes and food and Facebook pages have been set up to offer help. Te Teko township has said anyone is welcome and Ruatoki residents have been facilitating the passage of food and clothes to those trapped in Ruatāhuna. Hundreds of people have dropped tools from their jobs and redirected their time, energy and resources to helping out those that need help most. Ki a koutou, ngā kaimahi e tū ana ki te tautoko ngā whānau o te rōhe, ngā mihi maioha ki a koutou.
I love our people, I love my homeland, I love the East Coast. I’m proud of our towns, and this week solidified that. We have some issues that need addressing but we pull together and help each other out when we need too.
I’ll be posting here on Spinoff my first-time candidate story as we plod on through the campaign trail. For those of you that are interested, I’m also doing “Kiri’s Coastie Chats”, a Facebook livestream at Kiri Allan – For East Coast, 8.30pm every Thursday evening. I’ll be breaking down politics into bite size pieces because I’ve realised 99.9% of New Zealanders don’t understand our political system (and how could they really, we don’t have civics education in schools … but I’ll save that rant for another week).
Until the next blog, hei kōnei rā.
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