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Efeso Collins (Image: Archi Banal)
Efeso Collins (Image: Archi Banal)

PoliticsFebruary 23, 2023

Exclusive: Efeso Collins on his return to politics, and why he chose the Green Party

Efeso Collins (Image: Archi Banal)
Efeso Collins (Image: Archi Banal)

Efeso Collins declared an end to his career in local politics when he lost the Auckland mayoralty race. But he’s not done with politics altogether, as he explains to Hayden Donnell.

At the end of a chaotic press conference on January 28, mayor Wayne Brown angrily remonstrated with reporters who’d asked about a game of tennis he’d planned to play on the day of the Auckland floods. “Well you’ve got that wrong mate,” he said, insisting he’d never got on the court. As he recounted what he’d actually been up to, a hand reached over and rested on his arm. His deputy, Desley Simpson, was trying to gently drag him out the door.

Efeso Collins, Brown’s main opponent in last year’s Auckland mayoral race, saw the press conference on TikTok. He’d been thinking about getting back into politics already, but the appearance of that hand crystalised the decision in his mind. “I just went ‘this is Mickey Mouse. The city needs somebody to rely on’,” he says. “That was one time I thought ‘let me at the mic, I’ll give it a go guys’.”

This weekend, Collins will take a step toward grabbing the mic again, putting his name forward for selection to the Green Party list, with the hope of being chosen as its candidate in his local Panmure-Ōtāhuhu electorate for the October 14 general election. If he’s successful, he hopes to run a two-tick campaign in the seat currently held by Labour’s Jenny Salesa. The move marks a departure from his political roots: Collins is a Labour stalwart. He stood under the party’s banner when he was elected councillor for Manukau in 2016 and 2019, and was endorsed by both Labour and the Greens when he lost the Auckland mayoral race to Brown on October 8 last year. 

It’s tempting to see the switch in allegiances as evidence of a fallout with his former party. Labour was slow to endorse Collins after he declared his intention to stand for the mayoralty. Collins called the delay “a little bit disappointing” in an interview with Toby Manhire, and asked the party to hold an open contest for the endorsement. People who worked on his campaign still grouse a little over Labour, saying the party was slow to devote significant resources to the election effort. Brown was able to get out of the gate earlier when it came to campaign advertising, particularly in traditional media such as the New Zealand Herald and Newstalk ZB.

Efeso Collins at his election day event. (Photo: Toby Manhire)

If those tensions are behind his decision to side with the Greens, Collins isn’t letting on. He frames the move in more personal terms. It comes in the context of a transformation he’s gone through, not only politically but ethically and theologically. The Greens are a socially liberal party. Several of its sitting MPs are queer. Tairāwhiti MP Elizabeth Kerekere is a longtime advocate for rainbow youth. That would seem to make the party an odd fit for Collins. He was brought up a pentecostal Christian. In 2012, he opposed Louisa Wall’s members bill legalising same-sex marriage, saying it “goes too far”, and that marriage is between a man and a woman.

Collins apologised for those comments during his mayoral campaign and reiterates that apology unprompted. “I acknowledge I made an error and I hurt people back in 2012. I’m offering my desire to walk alongside people, to understand their backgrounds and what drives them. And in the same way, in a respectful way, I will be asking people to be respectful of my journey as well – coming from a strict pentecostal background to the place that I occupy today. Life isn’t linear.”

His journey toward a more accepting place began in earnest in 2013, when Collins’ niece came out as transgender. Her transition was met with tension. Collins defended her, and supported her even as others in his family struggled to accept her identity. Now he works to deliver support to takatāpui and fa’afafine youth. Notably, Kerekere was one of the people encouraging him to stand for the Greens. Collins insists his shifting views aren’t a political front, or a case of him trying to occupy the ethical stance sometimes advocated for in Christian communities: love the sinner but hate the sin. “That was definitely my theology 10 or 15 years ago. It was very black and white,” he says. “But if we’re gonna go back, even when I was involved in church, a lot of pastors that I knew had affairs. If we’re going to get nit picky about certain verses, even lying is considered a sin. I just think we’ve got to take a much more holistic perspective on what the intent or the spirit of the scripture is, as opposed to nailing down words said at a particular time.”

Justine Sachs, a union worker who helped with Collins’ mayoral campaign, says she quizzed him about his social views before deciding to get on board with his election team. “As a gay person who worked on his campaign, I wouldn’t have done that mahi if I didn’t feel that his apology was genuine,” she says. She believes the Green movement needs to make space for people like Collins. “I just think if we don’t make space for people to change, it’s not going to happen. We want people with homophobic views to be able to change their minds, admit they’re wrong and be allies. If we can’t accept people who do that, I just don’t know what the point is.”

Collins’ social evolution is matched by his increasingly activist streak on economic and environmental policy. The last few weeks helping out in Auckland’s flood evacuation centres have further hardened his resolve when it comes to climate justice and poverty action. He had to hold those convictions in check during his mayoral campaign, knowing the low-turnout contest would likely be decided by ageing homeowners from the city’s northern and eastern suburbs. Some audiences would scream at him for opening his speeches with a few words in te reo Māori. In several meetings, he was mocked and laughed at for mentioning climate change. His wife Fia and two young daughters were taunted while they were out driving in his campaign van.

If he can successfully petition Green Party members to back him as a candidate and to a high list placing, he’ll be more free to speak his mind. Despite the sometimes grim campaign and demoralising loss that ended his career in local politics, the prospect has him excited. He aligns his personal philosophy with Nietzsche, who said that out of chaos comes order. “I believe I was made for chaos. I work really well in chaos,” he says. “And my wife has committed to this and perhaps that shows that she too can manage the chaos as well. I want my girls to see their parents standing up for them and for a climate that’s going to be better. For a society that’s going to do better for them. My girls are brown. And the data is clear that it’s brown women that make the least. I want them to know that we’re in this fight together.”

Collins is done with watching press conferences on TikTok. The storms are coming more often now. When the next one arrives, he wants the chance to be up on a stage. But first, he has to convince Green Party members to give him a chance. The party’s list will be announced in a few months.

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