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There was an open embrace of emotion in parliament yesterday, after news broke that Fa’anānā Efeso Collins had passed away. (Photo: Getty)
There was an open embrace of emotion in parliament yesterday, after news broke that Fa’anānā Efeso Collins had passed away. (Photo: Getty)

PoliticsFebruary 22, 2024

‘No one suffers alone’: Inside a solemn day at parliament

There was an open embrace of emotion in parliament yesterday, after news broke that Fa’anānā Efeso Collins had passed away. (Photo: Getty)
There was an open embrace of emotion in parliament yesterday, after news broke that Fa’anānā Efeso Collins had passed away. (Photo: Getty)

For one day, parliament felt like a different world, with everyone remembering just how fleeting and vulnerable life is. 

Six days ago, Fa’anānā Efeso Collins rose from his seat in parliament to deliver his maiden speech. No one could have known it would also be his farewell. 

“There’s a saying in Samoan: E le tu fa’amauga se tagata – no one stands alone, no one succeeds alone, and, for me, no one suffers alone,” Collins said in that speech. 

Parliament is a playground of ego, power, and ambition. People get caught up in its whirlpool. The entire universe seems to be contained between the Cabinet table and the caucus room. As the news of Collins’ death spread through the corridors, it broke the facade. There was an open embrace of emotion. Everyone remembered just how fleeting and vulnerable life is. 

Most MPs were in select committees on Wednesday morning when Collins collapsed at a Childfund charity event. In the Māori Affairs committee, Maungakiekie MP Greg Fleming broke the news: “A mutual friend of mine just texted me to say Efeso’s actually died.” Adrian Rurawhe, visibly deflated in his chair, responded, “Oh, no.” In each room, texts were being shared and notes passed along until the committee chairs called for a pause. The meetings would never resume.

The press gallery tends to be loudest when breaking news happens. There was nothing but eerie silence. Throughout the entire building, the silence was jarring. There was no sign of the usual gaggles of too-smart staffers loudly one-upping each other, or the suits rushing around barking into phones, in a performative display of busyness. 

Staff literally treaded lighter than usual. Everyone suddenly became aware of how much their steps echoed on the marble and granite floors. Passing smiles became solemn nods. The phone call walk-and-talks dropped to whisper level. Even a group of intermediate-school-aged kids on a tour had quieter giggles than usual. 

One senior Labour MP walked slow laps of the halls, hands in his pockets, taking deep breaths as he composed himself. Collins had only been a member of parliament for weeks, but most people in the building had known him for years, if not decades, through his previous roles. 

Greens co-leader James Shaw has addressed the media on parliament’s black-and-white tiles hundreds of times over the course of his career. With just a couple of weeks left before he retires, his stand-up on Wednesday morning will be one of his last. It was also probably the hardest. 

Gripping a printed-out statement with both hands, he approached the media huddle tentatively, as if he was unsure of his own legs. He took two large exhales and shook his shoulders. The words didn’t want to leave his throat. “I’m just going to read out my statement from this morning,” he began, his voice croaking and tears in his eyes. The press pack dropped its typical act of yelling over each other fighting for questions, suddenly developing a deep sense of decorum. 

“It’s in moments like this where you see parliament, and parliamentarians, at their best. There’s a real scrap going on at the moment between the government and opposition over a number of issues. Everyone said this is bigger than any of us,” Shaw said. 

At Labour’s media standup an hour later, Carmel Sepuloni praised Collins’ legacy with another Samoan adage: “O le ala I le pule, o le tautua – the pathway to leadership is service.”

In Collins’ last tweet, he offered his congratulations to Barbara Edmonds for becoming Labour’s first finance spokesperson of Pacific descent. When asked for her reaction, Edmonds stepped forward to the podium, lips trembling. She clenched her eyes shut, and shook her head. There were no words. She turned away, and fell into Jenny Salesa’s arms. 

National’s media team asked journalists to forgo the traditional scrum of questions before the opening of parliament at 2pm. Instead, reporters and photographers formed a strange kind of honour guard on each side of the room while government MPs walked by with their heads bowed.

The brief session of parliament opened and closed with a minute’s silence. Christopher Luxon offered “the government’s deepest sympathies”. James Shaw, Chris Hipkins, Carmel Sepuloni and Debbie Ngarewa-Packer each offered personal stories of their relationship with Collins. 

There’s a photo from the evening after Collins gave his maiden speech, Shaw said, showing his daughter dancing in full Samoan dress. “Behind her, slightly out of focus, is her father smiling with the biggest smile on his face.” 

After two waiata, there was just one piece of parliamentary business. Leader of the House Chris Bishop rose, addressed the Speaker, and asked that the house be adjourned until Tuesday February 27. The vote in favour was unanimous. No one stood alone, no one succeeded alone, and no one suffered alone. 

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